U.S. Policy on Iraq: Might Makes Right

By Robert Jensen

Published in The Drummer · November, 1998

[This article was published in The Drummer (Ames, Iowa), November 1998, p. 10.]

by Robert Jensen

In 1991 as many as 200,000 Iraqis were killed to shore up U.S. power in the Middle East during the sanctioned massacre that we commonly call the Gulf War.

Since then, more than 1.5 million Iraqis have died as a direct result of the economic sanctions demanded by the United States.

And once again the Clinton administration is rattling its missiles and threatening air strikes over disputes about weapons inspections in Iraq.

The Clinton administration’s idea of diplomacy and leadership appears to be bombardment on top of forced starvation and disease to punish the Iraqi people. But these are the tactics of thugs not leaders, and it is up to the American people to make it clear that such immoral, illegal and ineffective tactics are unacceptable.

The immorality of the sanctions is obvious; innocent people are being sacrificed at the rate of 250 a day, according to 1998 UNICEF figures. The U.S. Catholic bishops have written to Clinton that the sanctions “are not only in violation of the teaching of the Catholic Church, but they violate the human rights of Iraqi people, because they deprive innocent people from food and medicine, basic elements for normal life.”

The suffering is so great that Dennis Halliday, the UN official who was administering the oil-for-food program in Iraq, resigned in protest this fall and denounced the continued imposition of the sanctions as “a human tragedy” that is immoral and contrary to the principles of the United Nations.

The U.S. policy also violates a number of basic tenets of international law, such as the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition of the use of starvation. And under U.S. law, actions constitute international terrorism if they are intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” and “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” Will Clinton turn himself into the nearest FBI agent as a war criminal and terrorist?

Finally, the U.S. policy is ineffective, if the United States is truly interested in democratic change in Iraq. Right now, whatever popularity Hussein has is based in his resistance to what Iraqis, and many other Arabs, rightly see as U.S. arrogance and cruelty. A change in governments in Iraq is not likely to happen, especially not peacefully, if the United States continues to exclude Iraq from the family of nations.

If the United States decides to bomb, the ongoing horror of the sanctions will only be intensified, as will the violations of international law. No matter what the obfuscations of administration officials, the United States has NO authority under existing UN Security Council resolutions to unilaterally strike Iraq. If U.S. military violence is unleashed, it will be a direct violation of the UN charter and the basic principles of international law.

Under what law or logic, then, will U.S. officials claim the right to bomb? They will invoke the same law and logic that every bully who has ever preyed on the weak invokes: the rule of force. Forget about Sunday school lessons that “might does not make right” or international law–from the U.S. perspective, force rules.

The drumbeat of U.S. government propaganda about the threat posed to the Middle East and the world by Saddam Hussein ignores several facts. One is that the vast majority of Iraq’s weapons capability has been destroyed, and the UN Special Commission is well aware of that. Talk of totally eliminating Iraq’s capacity to make chemical or biological weapons is nonsensical; no amount of monitoring and inspections can guarantee a weapons-free country.

More importantly, Iraq has good reason to be skeptical about the United States claim that it will lift the sanctions when Iraq is in compliance on weapons inspections. Officials in the Bush and Clinton administrations have stated publicly that they can’t imagine lifting the sanctions as long as Hussein is in power, which is not exactly a great motivation for the regime to comply.

No one disputes that Saddam Hussein is a dictator and a thug. But is this inhumane U.S. policy the way to ensure peace in that region? The Clinton administration and the Pentagon planners want to frame the options as either “a quick clean strike” or “a longer bombing campaign.” But there are other options, including meaningful international and regional diplomacy through the UN and the Arab League.

That would mean the United States would have to give up its role as the bully of the world. It is unlikely our leaders will do that without a clear message from the American people that we care about real justice and a stable peace in the Middle East and around the world.