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The War that Never Ended!

By Naseer H. Aruri


The latest U.S. missile attack against Iraq signaled that the Gulf War of 1991 is far from being over. The strategic imperatives which impelled George Bush to deal Iraq a crippling blow in January 1991 were still operable in the Clinton White House in September 1996. The verbal strategies of the supposedly two different presidents were almost indistinguishable: Clinton's rationale began with the inevitable emphasis on human rights, evolved towards the national interest (expressed more explicitly in terms of jobs and standards of living by Bush and Baker), and steadily edged towards the fulfillment of the super power obligation to not let certain acts go unpunished, but somehow ending with a need to accomplish a long-term strategic advantage at the regional and global levels. By September 3, Defense Secretary William Perry was ready to admit that the issue had indeed global and regional dimensions, and it went beyond the Kurds: "The issue is not simply the Iraqi attack on Irbil ... It is the clear and present danger that Saddam Hussein poses to his neighbors, the security and stability of the region and the flow of oil to the world." How the involvment of the Iraqi Army in the north between two rival Kurdish groups related to this colossal threat remained unsaid.

Despite the almost daily change of rationale for the missile attack, there was hardly a debate in the U.S. public arena, as the main issues were being suppressed or camouflaged by presidential idealistic rhetoric, congressional muscle flexing and hawkish pronouncements by a reserve army of defense experts summoned by the media to provide the needed analysis. There was hardly any challenge to the disinformation, which appeared so well coordinated and so much in sync, as to make one wonder about the real meaning of open society and free press.

The Kurdish Issue

First, it was the Kurds and a U.N. Security Council resolution which calls on the Iraqi Government to respect their human rights. Hardly convincing when we take U.S. machinations and exploitation of the Kurdish nationalist struggle in the context of the east-west conflict during the Cold War and that of shifting alignments relating to the U.S., Iran and Iraq during the past four decades. Didn't the U.S. and the Shah of Iran abandon their Kurdish allies in 1975? And didn't George Bush acquiesce in Hussein's suppression of the Kurdish and Shia revolts after his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War? Human rights has never been a major issue in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East (or elsewhere, for that matter) except when the need arises to suppress any form of dissidence, violent or non-violent, in order to shore up U.S. clients and allies.

The most blatant support by the Clinton Administration of what amounted to ethnic cleansing in recent times was the green light given to Shimon Peres' dual campaign, for votes and against Southern Lebanon, less than six months ago. The U.S.-sanctioned aerial bombardment, which lasted for two weeks, resulted in the devastation of Southern Lebanon and the dislocation of more than 15 percent of its entire population. Hardly convincing when the Clinton Administration tried unsuccessfully to suppress a U.N. report blaming Israel for the massacre of more than a hundred Lebanese refugees taking shelter in a U.N. building at Qana. How could one believe Clinton's affirmation of the sanctity of U. N. resolutions when he punishes the U.N. Secretary-General for insisting on doing his job and refusing to act as an accomplice in the crimes of Qana? Didn't Clinton's U.N. ambassador, Madeleine Albright, also abrogate all U.N. resolutions on Palestine unilaterally with a single stroke of the pen in September 1994? And didn't the U.S. supply the money, the tanks, armored vehicles and intelligence (ironically gathered in the Kurdish safe haven in the northern no-fly zone) which Turkey uses to brutalize the Kurdish Workers Party (PPK)?

In fact, the human rights of the Kurds in the so-called northern safe-haven was such a non-issue that Hussein might have received the wrong message from Washington, just as he did six years ago via Bush's ambassador, April Glaspie. Now, Secretary of Defense William Perry made it crystal clear that U.S. national interests were tied to the security of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait but not to the Kurds. He said: "our national interests are not tied to which [ Kurdish] party prevails." Secretary of State Warren Christopher was even more explicitly dismissive of the human rights of Hussein's victims when he said: "We are not trying to monitor whether every single person" who entered Northern Iraq under Hussein, i.e. the Mukhabarat, gets out, adding: " We expect some of his [Hussein's] assets will remain there. It's probably not possible to recreate the full status-quo." No wonder there was so much disappointment among the Iraqi opposition movement, which has been practically dismantled in the north. Whatever gains have been made by the opposition and by the Kurds along the road of autonomy, this whole episode has seriously eroded these gains and left those "protected" people wondering about the true meaning of a "safe haven".

While many Americans have never even heard of the Kurds, even more Americans seem to care less about a U.S. "responsibility" for the welfare of the Kurds, as they ponder the true meaning and real substance of America's own welfare policies for its own people. The Kurdish issue has provided an initial temporary rationale for Clinton's show of force. It enabled him to extend the no-fly zone from the 32nd latitude north to the 33rd latitude, but soon after, it was abandoned and rendered a non- issue.

The Punishment Issues

Since human rights was not the issue, was punishment then as important for Clinton as it had been for Bush? Clinton and top administrative officials as well as Senators and Congressmen kept on repeating the phrase "pay a price," an equivalent of Bush's threat that the Kuwait invasion "will not stand." Clinton vowed that "we must make clear that reckless acts have consequences," as had Bush sent a "powerful message" to the "butcher" of Baghdad.

Bush's famous phrase asserting U.S. pre-eminence: "what we say goes," was matched with an equal assertion of predominance plus a healthy dose of manifest destiny by Clinton. Justifying the unilateral nature of U.S. military action and the lack of support by the Gulf War coalition, he said: "I think it is important to move now ... We have historically taken the lead in matters like this ... This was our responsibility at this time." There was no need, at the present time, therefore, to multilaterize U.S. intervention, in keeping with the post-Cold War patterns. Under Clinton, the U.S. does not feel the need to go through the motions to legitimize its military actions in the Gulf.

Perhaps, it is a commentary on the dangerous extent of militarization of American culture that unilateral military action is not only accepted, but that dissent by countries like France, Russia and China has been attributed to sinister motives. Such militancy and xenophobia are regularly expressed by otherwise mainstream legislators and public commentators. Former Senator Bob Dole, who would like to have Clinton's job, supported the missile strikes and paid the usual political homage to U.S. troops, but he hinted that Clinton may have appeased Hussein prior to taking action. Senator Richard Lugar expressed dissatisfaction with the use of Cruise missiles, calling instead for "visible signs of disproportionate response," including the "need to go to Baghadad." Other strange bed fellows including the usually more reserved Congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Senator Joseph Leiberman (D-Conn.), Senator Warner (R-W. Va.), Senator William Cohen (R-Vt.), Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), among others, were rather unanimous in support of unilateral military action to "punish" Hussein.

Likewise the labels liberal and conservative meant very little, if not nothing whatsoever, as media commentators closed ranks behind Clinton, with the opposition expressed by the barely existing left, and for different reason by the super-right and Zionist commentators, who called for a more extensive bombardment of Iraq.

More ominous is that such militarization and display of chauvinism were not only visible at the level of public opinion leaders but were also ingrained in public opinion itself. An ABC News telephone survey, conducted after the first wave of bombardment, revealed that 79 percent of the U.S. public approved (though 39 percent said it was too weak), while only 16 percent disapproved, and 5 percent had no opinion. All of this without even a semblance of a public debate of the U.S. Iraq policy. Punishment seemed to be a good enough reason for most Americans. As long as the projection of military power abroad carries no cost in terms of U.S. human lives, such high tech gains directed against easy targets seem to be perfectly appropriate if not fascinating for large sectors of a society growing more militant.

Most Americans could not have possibly detected a long-term strategic imperative for Clinton's action as nothing of that sort was ever discussed in the public arena. Widespread public support, therefore, was related largely to the punishment syndrome. Hussein has been demonized so much since 1990 in the U.S., that the principles of accountability, public scrutiny of government policy or public guidance of foreign policy as they apply to Iraq are almost totally absent. The six year old crippling embargo, the occasional dispatch of cruise and tomahawk missiles or the devastation of Iraq's infrastructure in 1991, would likely be seen by Americans as a necessary punishment of Hussein, rather than an infliction of war crimes against 18 million Iraqis.

The Long-Term Strategic Advantage

As the Kurds became a non-issue and punishment is hardly a foreign policy, let alone a foreign policy befitting the lone military superpower, the inevitable question is whether there is a geo-political dimension to U.S. policy. The Middle East conflicts, like those in other regions, are no longer extensions of the Cold War. The Gulf War of 1991 was a defining event, signaling the start of a north-south conflict over resources. Ambitious and potentially independent regional powers must therefore, be cut to size, especially in the Gulf region where oil reserves are plentiful and cheap.

Saddam Hussein is an easy target due to his atrocious human rights record and exceedingly low I.Q. in international politics. He thus succeeded in having unwittingly over-simplified the tasks of George Bush and Bill Clinton. Iraq was a fairly well-developed third world nation with sophisticated civilian and military infrastructures. Any leader at the helm in Baghdad, other than Hussein, would have eventually incurred the wrath of the United States, alas, not with such a great deal of ease.

In order to sustain U.S. pre-eminence over all would-be market-based competitors, countries like Iraq must be reduced to manageable proportions. This axiom of U.S. policy, which had guided Bush, Baker and Powell, has not been altered by the Clinton Administration. Not only did the latest U.S. military action ensure that Iraq's military capabilities are further constrained by a drastic reduction of the size of airspace available to Iraqi pilots, but also by the demonstration that Iraq's sovereignty is practically meaningless. The latest extension of the southern "no-fly" zone effectively stretches it from the Kuwait border to the vicinity of Baghdad. U.S. and British pilots will be able to fly with virtual impunity right up to the outskirts of the capital.

Such reassertion of greater U.S. hegemony represents an advanced stage in the pursuit of "dual containment," a policy that has been pushed along by Israel and its Washington lobby on the Bush and Clinton administrations. Thus keeping Iraq under constant pressure would place the U.S. in a strategic position to contain and intimidate Iran, a country which is viewed by Israel as representing a long-term strategic threat. With dual containment, thus in operation, the U.S. hopes to further isolate Syria and exert pressure on Hafez Al-Assad to accept Israel's terms, not to say anything about also trying to influence the domestic balance inside Turkey in favor of the the pro-Israel, pro-West Turkish military over the Islamist Prime Minister.

In sum, the U.S. aims to intimidate all opposition movements in the region, which it refers to cavalierly as terrorist, irrespective of whether they are based in civil society or associated with government policy. Iran, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan and Islamic groups are lumped together as the last bastion against U.S.-Israeli designs in the region. The U.S. arsenal has included a variety of weapons including terrorist lists and U.N. embargoes, but in the case of Iraq there are also cruise missiles, tomahawks, B-52s and other weapons capable of keeping the country in a perpetual state of submission.

As long as Saddam Hussein remains in power, the United States can justify its huge military presence in the area and the virtual recolonization of the Gulf region. Thus Washington's nemesis provides justification for a post-Cold War policy of containment-plus designed to enhance U.S. global ambitions and simultaneously enable U.S. regional allies and surrogates to dominate their opposition. The designated beneficiaries of this strategy are first and foremost Israel, with the Turkish military in second place and King Hussein a distant third.

Whether recolonization will succeed in the 21st century will depend on the tenacity and cohesion of the various Arab sectors who value independence, who insist on a single standard of human rights, who would aim to utilize Arab resources for Arab development, and who would opt for peace and normalization with Israel only on the basis of parity, reciprocity and international legitimacy. Adherence to these principles and determination to translate them into Arab policy would be necessary to save the Arab world from an inevitable decline, subjugation and further fragmentation into new sheikhdoms, Bantustans, "security zones," maquiladoras, and military bases for other powers.


Naseer H. Aruri, a Palestinian-American, is professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts / Dartmouth. September 1996

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