Iraq Adds Its Weight to a Sad Day of Remembrance

By Robert Jensen

Published in San Francisco Chronicle · August, 2000

August 6 marks two anniversaries of death and destruction. One is permanently etched into our collective memory — the flash of light and mushroom cloud over Hiroshima 55 years ago that left as many as 140,000 Japanese dead. To forget the tragedy of the world’s first atomic bombing would be a painful moral failure.

The other anniversary concerns death today, death that continues because of an equally painful moral failure. This attack is ongoing, and it has killed far more — at least 1 million innocent people, half of them children under the age of 5, according to U.N. studies.

For them, death comes not in a flash, but with the slow agony of malnutrition and wasting diseases. The weapon is the ancient tactic of siege, an attack against all living things in a society.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the attack on Iraq through siege, the imposition of the most comprehensive economic sanctions in modern times. Though administered through the United Nations, the sanctions are the result of U.S. policy and power, of this nation’s rejection of the international consensus to lift the siege. The Clinton administration’s policy — or what U.S. Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., has called “infanticide masquerading as policy” — is that sanctions must remain until there is definitive proof that Saddam Hussein’s regime is not rebuilding weapons of mass destruction.

Or is the policy that sanctions must remain until Hussein is overthrown? It’s hard to tell, because U.S. officials have made both statements, giving Hussein little reason to think he can satisfy the United States.

Whatever the policy, the United States has made it clear it cares little about the suffering of innocent Iraqis, who live — and die — with inadequate diets, unclean water that spreads disease and barely functioning medical facilities.

Former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter — hardly an ally of the Iraqis — has called for lifting the sanctions, saying that Iraq is qualitatively disarmed (meaning that the capability to produce or use weapons of mass destruction has been eliminated). But U.S. insistence on quantitative disarmament (accounting for every last weapon or related material) ensures there will be no constructive change.

The sanctions also have done nothing to advance democracy in Iraq. Living on the edge of survival, the Iraqi people have few resources for pressing political change. As Denis Halliday, the former U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, notes, “Sanctions will not change governance to democracy. Sanctions encourage isolation, alienation and possibly fanaticism.”

But from the point of view of maintaining and extending U.S. power, the policy has worked. What U.S. officials want in Iraq is a government that accepts the iron law of U.S. policy: The resources of the Middle East must remain, as much as possible, under the effective control of the United States. The old colonial model of direct control is gone; now we rely on the cooperation of compliant local governments (authoritarian or democratic; we don’t much care) that take their cut and ship most of the remaining profits to the West.

Recalcitrant regimes must be broken so that the flow of oil profits to U.S. and British banks and corporations is not threatened. Iraq, an ally throughout the 1980s until it challenged the U.S. system, is so devastated that it will be decades before it can rebuild.

To oppose the sanctions is not to support the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, but to reject genocide. That is the term that Halliday has used, describing the sanctions as an “intentional program to destroy a culture, a people, a country.” Rather than stage-manage a genocide, Halliday resigned in protest in 1998. In the past year, his successor, Hans von Sponeck, did the same, as has the director of the World Food Program in Iraq, Jutta Burghardt.

U.S. officials don’t feel the same tug of conscience. When interviewed on “60 Minutes” in 1996, Secretary of State Madeline Albright — then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — was asked if the deaths of a half-million children in Iraq were acceptable. Her answer: “I think this is a very hard choice. But the price, we think the price is worth it.”

I do not know by what moral gymnastics Albright reaches such a conclusion.

I do not know how high the death toll in Iraq will climb before U.S. policy changes.

And 55 years from now, I don’t know which anniversary of death will weigh most on the consciences of Americans.