Bush at the UN on Iraq

By Robert Jensen

with Rahul Mahajan

Published in Counterpunch · September, 2002

In the age of American empire, this is what diplomacy looks like:

After months of open expressions of contempt for international law and disregard for the opinions of other nations (allies and enemies alike), the U.S. president deigned to appear before the United Nations on September 12. In the hectoring tones of an annoyed parent scolding a fussy child, George Bush explained that he would be happy to go to war with the endorsement of the Security Council but that he does not consider such endorsement necessary. The United Nations can have a role, the president conceded, but if it makes the wrong decision it will be “irrelevant.”

For this cynical maneuver, the emperor was applauded, at home and abroad. For this abandonment of any real commitment to multilateralism, all praised Bush the New Multilateralist.

The implications of this are frightening, long term and short, but at least now it’s all out in the open. The approval of the U.N. Security Council and Congress will be easier to secure after Bush’s pious posturing.

World leaders, apparently desperate to save some scrap of dignity in the face of the president’s condescension, suggested that this blatant rejection of any role for the United Nations beyond the cosmetic was a “positive” step (Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik) that showed how Bush had recognized the “central role” of the United Nations (French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin).

Meanwhile, back in the homeland, politicians rushed to the microphones to pronounce the speech “brilliant” (Sen. Joe Biden, a Democrat) and “a powerful and convincing indictment of Saddam Hussein and the grave threat he poses” (Sen. Joseph Lieberman, another Democrat). The fact that Bush offered no new evidence or arguments in the course of “making his case” seemed to matter little to Lieberman, or anyone else.

Perhaps the most telling moment in the speech came when Bush said he wanted the United Nations to be “effective, and respectful, and successful.” A text posted by the Associated Press almost immediately after Bush delivered the speech (from an advance copy provided by the White House, one assumes) used the word “respected” instead of “respectful.” Did Bush intend to say that he hoped the U.N. would be respected? Or did he want to tell the U.N. that its effectiveness and success depended on being respectful (to Bush and the United States, one assumes)? Was it a Freudian slip, or a conscious choice?

Perhaps it does not matter, for the rest of the speech was unambiguous: The empire has served notice that the world’s governing body can either act in accord with the empire’s wishes, or step back and watch the empire do its work.

The work, of course, is the bloody work of war against Iraq.

In the coming days, U.S. diplomats will hammer out a Security Council resolution that gives Iraq some specified amount of time (probably no more than a few weeks) to open up to unlimited weapons inspection of unprecedented intrusiveness or face military action. If Iraq refuses, the war will come sooner. If it accepts inspections, the war will be later, after the United States finds a new pretext. But Bush — along with Cheney and others in the administration — has made it clear the war will come, inspections or not.

Bush’s case against Saddam Hussein is based on the Iraqi leader’s disregard for U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Iraq to disarm and respect human rights. It certainly is true that the Iraqi regime has long denied basic political and human rights to its citizens (including when Hussein was a valued U.S. ally in the 1980s). And while there is no clear evidence about the current state of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, it is plausible that Iraq has attempted to reconstitute some of those programs.

Although much of the administration’s rhetoric is overwrought — sometimes bordering on the hysterical in claims that Saddam is on his way to a nuclear strike against the United States — there is no doubt the Iraqi regime is a menace, to its own people today and possibly to the region in the future.

Bush pointed out that Hussein has used chemical weapons in the war against Iran and on Kurdish citizens in Halabja, but failed to point out that at that time he was a U.S. ally; Hussein has been bold enough to use such weapons only when he had the United States to protect him from serious international sanction, as U.S. officials at the time did.

Hussein’s Iraq has refused to fully comply with Security Council resolutions, but it is hardly alone in this. It is not a secret that Israel stands in violation of Security Council resolutions, among them SCR 242 calling for withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. Thirty-five years later, the United States’ response to that violation remains massive economic and military aid that allows Israel to remain defiant.

As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United States has the right to veto resolutions it doesn’t like. Though the United States’ illegal invasion of Panama in 1989 drew condemnations around the world, no Security Council resolution would be passed calling on the United States to withdraw, hence no need for the United States to violate such a resolution.

The question has never been whether Saddam is a nice guy, but rather how to deal with his regime. The U.S. strategy to date — under Bush I, Clinton and Bush II — has been to offer disincentives rather than incentives.

Beginning under the first President Bush and continuing in the Clinton years, U.S. demanded Iraqi compliance with weapons inspections but also said that even if inspections certified that Iraq to be clean of weapons of mass destruction, the economic sanctions might well stay in place “in perpetuity.” In other words, the message to Hussein was: Comply with the rules, but your punishment will never end.

Finally, after manipulating the inspections process to provoke a confrontation by demanding the right to inspect sensitive sites, inspectors were pulled out on U.S. orders — not evicted by Iraq — in December 1998 right before the United States launched cruise missile strikes on Iraq. Not surprisingly, Iraq has not been eager to allow inspectors to return, especially after it was revealed that what Iraq had long contended was true — the United States had used inspectors to spy on the Iraqi regime.

Bush I and Clinton had always talked “regime change,” but after 9/11/01 Bush II upped the ante by stating openly that such change likely would come through a U.S. war. The United States continued to demand inspections while at the same time saying that even a completely clean inspections report would not deter the United States from direct intervention to topple Hussein. In other words: Comply with the rules, but we will bomb you anyway.

Saddam Hussein is a thug, but even a thug can see the obvious. It is clear that Hussein is most concerned with his own survival, and to date the United States has given him every reason to continue on a path of defiance. If you are told the most powerful nation in the world will wage war on you no matter what you do, what incentive is there for anything less than defiance and preparation for war?

At this point, perhaps the only thing that Bush and Hussein have in common — besides a shared contempt for the United Nations — is a desire for war. One can assume Hussein sees no other path open for himself at this point.

The reason that Bush — and with him a certain stratum of elites in the United States — might want war is equally clear: Iraq has the second largest proven oil reserves in the world, just behind Saudi Arabia. After putting up with Hussein for more than a decade after the Gulf War, the time seems ripe to American hawks to go further than mere “containment.” Bringing down Hussein and replacing him with a compliant leader along the lines of Hamid Karzai (the United States’ hand-picked puppet in Afghanistan) will allow indefinite military occupation and further solidify U.S. control well into the future.

Shoehorning such a war on Iraq into the rubric of the “war on terrorism” makes such a war easier to sell to a U.S. public frightened by the reality of terrorism and the rhetoric of the Bush administration. The rest of the world (perhaps with the exception of Tony Blair) is not taken in by such rhetoric, but to the Washington crowd the rest of the world is not of great concern. Old ideas about building coalitions are unattractive when the officials of the empire believe they can go it alone; as Donald Rumsfeld has put it, “The mission must determine the coalition. The coalition must not determine the mission.” Other nations may express concerns, but in the end, force carries the day.

Bush said that the United States “has no quarrel with the Iraqi people, who have suffered for too long.” The problem is that he has no quarrel with them and also no concern for their fate. Assuming that Hussein is not going to simply pack up and leave quietly when U.S. forces arrive, it is sensible to assume there will be a war of some duration and that the U.S. military will use its preferred tactics — high-altitude bombing to “soften up” areas before ground troops go in, which guarantees high levels of civilian casualties; the use of indiscriminate weapons such as cluster bombs; and the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure such as electrical-power generation and water facilities. Whether the military will discover Iraqi underground bunkers that can only be reached with “bunker buster” tactical nuclear warheads is unknown.

An attack on Iraq will have nothing to do with stopping terrorism. It will have nothing to do with the liberation of the Iraqi people. And it will be only marginally concerned with weapons of mass destruction.

Instead, this will be a war to extend and deepen U.S. control over the energy-rich Middle East, the single most important source of strategic power in an industrial world that runs on oil.

Bush and others in his administration have made it clear for some time that they desperately want this war. Many in the antiwar movement have felt desperately alone in the quest to stop the war.

After Bush’s U.N. appearance, it is clear that, in some sense, we are alone. Other nations have signaled they will not take risks to derail the empire. U.S. politicians have shown they will not take the lead to challenge an imperial president.

The burden of stopping this war of empire rests where it always has, on the shoulders of the citizens of the empire who are willing to organize against it.