Lingering Question: Is Dick Cheney Guilty Of War Crimes Against Iraqis?

By Robert Jensen

Published in Fort Worth Star-Telegram · September, 2000

[This article appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, September 5, 2000, p. 11B.]

There has been much criticism lately of Republican vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney’s business record — the propriety of his stock options, his role in getting government contracts, and whether or not he earned the millions he was paid. Earlier this summer we also heard much about some of Cheney’s less compassionate conservative votes in Congress — against gun control, Head Start and Nelson Mandela.

All those issues are relevant and worthy of discussion. But what is striking is that no one is anyone talking about another aspect of the Cheney record — his admission of war crimes in the Gulf War.

Go back to the summer of 1991, after the Gulf War. The results of the 43-day bombing campaign — the most devastating concentrated bombing attack in history — were painfully clear. A Harvard study team had reported that the attack on Iraqi electrical, water, and sewage treatment systems had begun to kill thousands of civilians, especially the most vulnerable — children, the elderly, the sick.

Though international law specifically prohibits civilian targets, Pentagon planners and U.S. politicians knew perfectly well that the civilians would die as a result of those bombs. As a Washington Post reporter put it after extensive interviews with military officials that summer, some Iraqi infrastructure was bombed primarily to create “postwar leverage.” The “damage to civilian structures and interests, invariably described by briefers during the war as ‘collateral’ and unintended, was sometimes neither,” the reporter concluded.

After 10 years of the most comprehensive multilateral economic sanctions in modern times, at least 1 million Iraqis have died as a result, according to U.N. studies.

So, what did Cheney have to say about these choices of targets after the war, when there was no way to deny the deadly effects on civilians?

Every Iraqi target was “perfectly legitimate,” Cheney told the Post reporter, adding “if I had to do it over again, I would do exactly the same thing.”

Cheney has never repudiated this comment, never expressed contrition for the deaths of innocents that he had to have known would result from policies he helped shape and implement. But instead of being challenged for defending the targeting of civilians, Cheney is being heralded as a politician with “principles” willing to stand by his “convictions.”

What are these principles and convictions? The principle that civilians can be sacrificed without concern because the United States wanted a military solution to the Iraq/Kuwait crisis? The conviction to never reflect on one’s complicity in war crimes?

Why are Democrats — eager to challenge Bush’s “compassionate conservative” label — not going after Cheney’s war record? Why would opponents sink their teeth into every questionable business deal or nasty vote but steer clear of his Pentagon record?

Perhaps because the Gulf War remains popular with much of the U.S. public, but also because on these matters, there is little difference between Republicans and Democrats.

It appears that the discussion of Iraq in the upcoming campaign will not be about the moral imperative of lifting the sanctions and dealing with the widespread malnutrition, water-borne diseases and social disintegration in Iraq. Instead, the only question is whether the Clinton administration has been tough enough on Saddam Hussein. George W. Bush hints that if elected, he’ll take more serious steps to oust Hussein. Clinton administration officials defend their starve-and-bomb strategy (in addition to the sanctions, the United States continues the regular, and quite illegal, bombing of Iraq in the so-called “no-fly zones”).

Neither party wants to face the ugly reality that the 1991 war and the policies that have followed — in Republican and Democratic administrations — have killed innocents by the hundreds of thousands. They have not promoted democracy in Iraq, improved the lot of the Iraqi people, nor made the region any safer.

Those policies have failed the people who live in the region, but they been effective — at least in the short term — in helping impose U.S. dominance in the Middle East. That is the principle underlying the Gulf War and the ongoing sanctions, and the conviction that keeps the sanctions in place.

Iraqis live under a brutal regime that protects its own interests ahead of its people, a regime with no conscience. When both major U.S. political parties agree that the suffering of innocents must continue, we must ask, “Where is the conscience of our nation?”

Clearly, not in Cheney, nor in any of the other candidates. The question is, can the consciences of ordinary Americans be stirred in time to help ordinary Iraqis?