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Interview: speaks with Scott Ritter on the Iraqi Sanctions

Published Wednesday February 02, 2000

By Ali Asadullah

Scott Ritter is indeed a controversial figure. A former U.S. Marine Captain who fought in the Gulf War, Ritter led the UNSCOM disarmament team in Iraq for seven years. During that time Iraq accused him of spying for the United States and Israel. He resigned his post in August of 1998, citing the U.N. Security Council's inability to enforce its own resolutions on Iraq.

Since that time, Ritter has spoken out against the economic sanctions that have crippled Iraq and ravaged its population. With more conservative political leanings, Ritter is sometimes at odds with more liberal elements of the anti-sanctions movement. He is no less opposed to the sanctions program; but has a uniquely conservative view on the methodology to resolve the crisis in Iraq.

Ritter spoke with on Jan 31 with reference to his willingness to dialogue with presidential candidates on the issue of the sanctions. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

The problem of the left

Ritter: One of the problems is that the issue of economic sanctions in Iraq has been embraced by, I would say, the fringe left of the United States. It's not a mainstream issue, unfortunately. It should be. When I speak out, almost everywhere I speak to mainstream audiences, when you confront them with the fact that 5 to 6 thousand kids are dying every month as a result of economic sanctions they're shocked. This is a reality that the mainstream American public chooses to ignore.

Because the issue has been embraced by the left -- including radical elements of the left -- it's lost a little bit of its political credibility. For the most part, when you talk about economic sanctions, and you're confronted by Voices in the Wilderness - I forget some of the other ones I've talked with - these are well-meaning people but it's very easy for mainstream politicians to brush them off because these people have no constituency, and for the most part because of their radical beliefs. All of what they say is wrong, factually; or heavily slanted with a political ideology that most of Americans don't find attractive.

The problem of politics

Ritter: We're dealing with a situation now where politicians do not want to take on this issue -- because the facts are irreconcilable. What America's doing with Iraq today is criminal. It's a violation of international law; it's about as anti-American as I can think of anything that we're doing. And yet Saddam Hussein has been demonized by the American media, by American politicians. And it's political suicide right now for a politician to do anything other than stand on a podium and give an anti-Saddam speech. And it's very difficult; they don't want to be wasting their limited airtime with the American public trying to discuss the intricacies of Iraq, the Middle East policy, etc. They want to simplify the situation; and the best way to simplify it right now for a politician is to go with the old adage that Saddam Hussein is evil and that we will continue to oppose him. And right now one of the main vehicles for opposing Saddam is the continuation of containment through economic sanctions.

And that's why no one will listen. I can't get the New York Times to publish an op-ed piece that talks about this in the context of the presidential elections because they say it doesn't matter if what you're saying is right. What matters is that no one else believes it should be a presidential issue.

?If any journalist or anybody in any of the campaigns desires to talk about Iraq and would like to understand my perspective and some of the reasons why I believe the way I do, I'd be more than happy to talk to them.

The problem is, when Iraq's sexy I get a lot of media attention; when Iraq's not sexy, I get zero media attention. That's the reality of the way the media does business. It has nothing to do with the substance of the issue or even the fact that almost everything I've said about Iraq, every prediction I've made, has come true. Every fact I've said has held under close scrutiny. The media doesn't care about that. You've got your window where the public is paying attention and they'll put me up with someone who has zero credibility on the subject and give them equal airtime. So I've been challenging the American public and the media and the political mainstream for over a year now to think responsibly about Iraq. It's just not happening. It's very frustrating. And if there's anything I can do to continue the education process, I'd be more than happy to do it.

Both liberals and conservatives have it wrong

Ritter: There's very few people who are in opposition to the sanctions who have served in the military. So when you get, for instance - I think it's Voices of Reconciliation is one of these groups - I had a long discussion with them. I gave them a large interview. I told them right up front [that] when they address the issue of economic sanctions and then they liken what the United States is doing to Auschwitz, I said, "You've lost everybody at that point." It's about as grossly an irresponsible statement as I can imagine. This isn't Auschwitz, this isn't genocide, this isn't the Nazi regime attempting to eradicate the Jewish race off the face of the earth. This is horrible policy that's resulting in hundreds of thousands of dead kids. But there's a big difference between the two. And that's why I talk about levels of irresponsibility.

I also believe that these people haven't a clue about the reality of the regime of Saddam Hussein. I hold that for conservative too. I think that the people who are advising George W. Bush are giving as misguided policy on Iraq to presidential candidate George W. Bush as one can imagine. Yet they're to the far right.

So both sides of the spectrum have it totally wrong when it comes to Iraq. One side tends to view the regime as some sort of nice little genteel Middle East nation. The other one demonizes it to the point of making it the Middle East equivalent of Adolph Hitler. No one looks at the reality of Iraq within the context of the modern Middle East, and what the alternatives to Saddam Hussein would be, why this isn't an issue of Saddam Hussein but this is an issue of Iraq, etc. And until people introduce all those levels of complexity to their argument, their basic stance is full of holes and will be shot down.

On Ramsey Clark

Ritter: I wouldn't be in touch with Ramsey Clark. I fought in the Gulf War. I was in that war, I know what went on during that war, and we're not war criminals. I'm not a war criminal. And none of the people I served with are war criminals. And yet he's accusing the United States of committing war crimes because A-10 aircraft fired depleted uranium shells at Iraqi tanks. That's horribly irresponsible. I don't want to be associated with this man. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. He may have a point when it comes to economic sanctions but he hasn't a clue of what's involved in modern warfare and why we targeted certain targets. He doesn't know the intelligence information that went in behind it. And so when he offers the kind of gross condemnation that he sets forth, it's unwarranted.

On continued trips back to Iraq

Ritter: There's two issues here. One, you're dealing with the concept of civil disobedience; and it has a grand and glorious history in the United States. Everything that we did with the civil rights movement was a civil disobedience. And when you have a gross injustice, civil disobedience has a great role. The problem is, it was easy to convince people when you saw a picture of a white sheriff beating up a black girl that this was wrong. But because we've demonized Saddam Husse,in to such an extent and we've personalized this conflict around Saddam Hussein, it's very hard to convince the mainstream American that this act of civil disobedience - and again, I have nothing but the highest respect for the people in Voices in the Wilderness who go to Iraq. I think they're brave. I think they're courageous. I think they're courageous both in terms of physical courage and also moral courage. Now does that mean I'm going to get on the next bus and go to Iraq? No. Not because I'm a coward. But when I've done my assessment of the situation. And I've told them this -- they have been painted as reactionaries. And therefore no one will respect the act that they took. Same thing with Ramsey Clark. No one's going to sit there and say this was a brilliant act of civil disobedience done by a brave and courageous person. He's grossly irresponsible in some of the things he says. And Voices in the Wilderness have some things that have painted them in that corner.

What needs to be done

Ritter: What will be required is for a mainstream American group to not only go to Iraq but to directly challenge - this has to become a political issue. That's something I've said all along. The reason why I say this [is because] one of the things that has hamstrung our ability to formulate effective policy in Iraq isn't just ignorance at the highest levels of the American government or the American political body. The fact that we've passed something called the Iraq Liberation Act - this is public law which mandates that the United States provide $100 million worth of funds for the sole purpose of overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein.

People have to understand that we have passed a law that supercedes, in terms of the American system, Security Council resolutions. So it's hypocritical for anybody in this administration to be talking about arms control, to be talking about anything that relates to a Security Council resolution or a Security Council mandate because United States law dictates the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. And this has to sink into people's heads. Now the only way we're going to solve the issue of Iraq is to overturn that law and that has to be done through political action. We have to get enough congressmen and senators to understand that the law is not only illegal in terms of international law, but it's wrong and it's not going to work. It only hurts the United States, it only hurts the people of the Middle East, it only hurts Iraq. If we can get that law overturned, I think you'll see almost an immediate change in policy.

Conyers/Bonior Letter

Ritter: Again, the problem is the sponsors. If I call up somebody on Senator Helms' staff and mention that letter, they're not going to even bother reading the body of the letter. They're just going to immediately say, "Those left-wing radicals."

I like the letter. It's a good letter. It's something I wish the media would pick up on. And I wish that it would get grass roots support from the American public to put pressure on the representatives who didn't sign that letter because we need to de-link the two (economic and military sanctions). But it's bigger than de-linking. You can't treat things in a vacuum. The de-linking of economic and military sanctions is meaningless as long as the United States continues to pursue a policy of overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein. You have to deal with this issue on a comprehensive level. And the letter doesn't do that. That's why I think it's just a drop in the pond and it will ultimately have zero impact because it tries to oversimplify the problem by picking a single issue and saying, "If we do this everything will be OK," and that's not true. If we do that everything won't be OK.

Facing hypocrisy

Ritter: Take a look at some of the statements coming out of the U.S., government. We passed [a U.N.] resolution in December -- and of course we had the abstentions -- it's a binding resolution. And one of the things it calls for is the U.N. to pass a plan for improving the flow of humanitarian goods. Secretary General Kofi Annan has submitted this plan. The United States has come and said, "We're going to veto it." That's garbage. What it is, is that the U.S. doesn't want a massive alleviation of the humanitarian situation in Iraq because that basically starts the crumbling process for the entire system of economic sanctions.

So again, it's pure hypocrisy being run out of the State Department and the National Security Council. But the American people don't care because it's oversimplified by politicians. For instance, Senator McCain, who I have nothing but the highest respect for - I'll vote for him - but here's a man who talks about "rogue nation rollback." Well I'd like to hear how he's going to roll Iraq back. That's a fascinating concept Senator, but let's talk about the realities. Are you going to put American ground troops in Iraq? I don't think so. Are you going to increase the number of sorties flown? To what extent? What's your targeting plan? What are you going to target? Why are you going to target? Is Iraq a rogue nation? We've a got a lot of problems here.

Compare and contrast Iraq with a country like North Korea. Right now, we're entertaining a North Korean delegation to talk about their ballistic missile activity. Why can we deal diplomatically with North Korea and not with Iraq? There's just a lot of inconsistencies with the way we pursue foreign policy. And a lot of it boils down to internal domestic politics. Because we've demonized Saddam Hussein, it's politically unacceptable for anybody to go out and embrace a diplomatic solution for fear of being called an appeaser

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