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Barbarians at the gates

By Edward Said, 02/1999


For over two months now, the United States has been conducting a low-intensity war of attrition against Iraq in the guise of sanctioned police action authorised by the United Nations. Let me say from the outset that there is no doubt in my mind that the Iraqi regime itself should be condemned for providing the US with a major pretext for prosecuting this dreadful war. Clearly, neither Saddam Hussein nor his military and political supporters in Iraq are bearing the major brunt of the suffering imposed by the US: it is innocent Iraqi people who are paying the price. The Baathist government is, alas, a government of unprincipled tyranny for which no excuse can be made: it has pillaged and invaded its neighbours, it has squandered its country's considerable wealth and human resources, and it has led a prosperous modern secular society into ruin.

Since the Gulf War, the Iraqi government has lied and dissembled constantly. There can be little argument about that. The issue now is whether what the US is doing is commensurate with the Iraqi government's behaviour, or whether this war and sanctions far exceed in proportionality, savagery and hypocrisy what Saddam Hussein's rule has wrought.

To start to answer that question, it is necessary to recall that about 15 months ago, in connection with the sanctions, Mrs Albright was asked on television whether US policy goals (unspecified at the time) were worth the near-genocidal number of deaths of Iraqi civilians, already exceeding the many hundreds of thousands. "Yes," she replied confidently, "I think it is worth it." The premise is clear: whatever the US decrees according to its moral algebra is right, despite wholesale slaughter, disease and irreparable human cost.

Writing in The Independent on Sunday (22 February), Robert Fisk meticulously outlined the incremental, scarcely visible steps by which the US has been conducting its largely unnoticed war against Iraq. He notes that, by hitting a few targets here and there nearly every day, American planners have counted on the media's inattention, since the bombings were reported only intermittently and in a piece-meal fashion on the back pages. This gave the US campaign an air of haphazard pinpricks that seemed nowhere near as intensive or dramatic as the four-day attack of mid-December. In fact, charges Fisk, more damage has been done since than during the December raids, which were the central event on CNN for the whole period. More civilians have been killed, more missile and anti-aircraft sites have been targeted, more areas of the country have been hit than earlier, and all this with scarcely a lifted eyebrow from major newspapers, TV channels, and commentators. For example, on 25 January, a Basra housing complex was hit with a loss of 17 people plus 100 wounded. "In other words," Fisk said, "most of the victims were children. A US spokesman admitted to the Basra attack, responding to the casualties with the words: 'I want to repeat that we are not targeting civilians.'"

As I write these lines on 25 February, the New York Times reports that US planes hit what are described as "two missile sites" a few miles outside Baghdad; the paper goes on to say that Iraqi sources say that there were numerous civilian casualties. Two days later, an oil-pumping station was bombed and, although this was at first denied by the US, casualty figures have been given by Iraq. As Dennis Halliday, the UN director of the Oil for Food programme in Iraq, said in his letter of resignation late last year, the casualties of Iraq are mostly children, old people, women and the sick. The army, Baath Party officials, Saddam's entourage are spared the worst ravages of the war as well as the sanctions. A steady cross-border trade between Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iraq continues despite the sanctions, but only a relatively small number of people can benefit from this; the vast majority of the population has neither the means nor the mobility to get anything out of this smuggling. In addition, a UN official based in Iraq told me yesterday, even the Oil for Food programme is hardly working since most of Iraq's pumping capacity has either been deliberately targeted by bombing raids or rendered useless by the absence of spare parts, which are prohibited by the sanctions programme on the off chance that they might benefit Iraq's military programme. (On the same basis, tires for ambulances are prohibited, as are pencils for schools). Slowly, therefore, Iraq's infrastructure is being destroyed. Sewage, electrical power, travel, communications, food distribution, water, medicine, education -- access to all these is impaired to such a degree that most people now suffer the ravages of isolation, disease, darkness, and desperation without hope or respite. Anyone wishing to read about the horrendous extent of what has been done to Iraq is advised immediately to read the 1998 edition of Geoff Simons's book The Scourging of Iraq: Sanctions, Law and Natural Justice, a copious repository of facts, argument and condemnation (published by Macmillan's).

The stated US goal, now openly declared, is to replace Saddam. As with most American strategic objectives this has a nice theoretical sound to it but, given the realities of the disorganised and discredited exile opposition, is hardly realisable. Even if it were, it would mean so vast and complete a realignment of internal Iraqi society as to fragment the country into incoherence and catastrophe. The question therefore is a two-part one: one, does the US have the right to do all this, and two, is such a strategy itself worth it in lives lost, ruined, and otherwise distorted beyond recognition?

If the answer is no (as I believe it should be), we should then go on to ask why such a ruinous policy is being prosecuted for such meagre, not to say frighteningly inhumane results. A number of reasons propose themselves. First of all, there is a long, relatively uninterrupted tradition in American history of exterminating without mercy peoples who are considered to be savages and demons. This starts with the native American peoples, 90 per cent of whom were massacred during the first two centuries of this country's life, all in the name of progress, doing God's work and eradicating barbarians.

This history of reducing whole peoples, countries and even continents to ruin by nothing short of holocaust deserves to be better known by non-Americans, who believe despite all the evidence that the US is a country dedicated to enlightened Wilsonian ideals of liberty and democracy. The facts tell a grisly story next to which the colonial experiences of Britain, France, Russia, Spain and Portugal can barely hold their own. An excellent source on the sad fate of local peoples is David Stannard's book American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (l992), but this can be supplemented by Howard Zinn's important volume A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present (l980).

The official story of America's dealings with lesser peoples is one of altruism, enlightenment and progressive policies of assistance and rescue. The real story is considerably darker, as a glance at the ruin brought on by US intervention throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia (especially the Philippines, Japan, Indochina, and Indonesia), Africa, and the Middle East will instantly reveal. There is an attitude of murderous righteousness in most cases, roughly the same whether it is the New England Puritans killing Indians or people like Henry Kissinger ordering the bombing of Laos and Cambodia.

A second factor is a combination of organised ignorance and official lying. Here the media plays a central role. To most Americans, Iraq is basically a non-existent place populated by a devil called Saddam Hussein, and that is all. Certainly the average person on the street is given no indication by CNN of the 6,000 years of civilisation there, or that modern Iraq was arguably the most modern, secular and advanced of Arab countries before its systematic destruction. As for Iraqis as a people -- they can hardly be said to have any identity at all since neither the country's poets and artists, nor its doctors, nor its architects, nor its productive and courageous citizens are given any coverage at all.

In effect then, as the US is destroying the country the media abets the policy by presenting no evidence that there is such a thing as an Iraqi people with a history, society and life that is undergoing a sadistic dismantling and dehumanisation. No evidence at all. And so the bombing continues with scarcely a peep of protest or awareness. A third factor is that the people responsible for this policy, whether one starts with Bill Clinton or Madeleine Albright, and then moves down through Sandy Berger, the CIA, the Defence Department and all the others, are basically uninformed and ignorant about what they are doing but so powerful and isolated as to be impervious to criticism. Take as another case in point the bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan last summer. Since that time, isolated reports have shown the whole enterprise to have been politically motivated as a way of trying to save Clinton's skin during his investigation and impeachment. Seymour Hersh, the celebrated investigative reporter who looked into the Sudan episode, wrote a scathing account of how there was no significant evidence that the pharmaceutical factory targeted by the CIA had anything to do with chemical warfare. I talked to Hersh last week and he told me how amazed he was at the CIA's folly and ignorance about Iraq, its clumsy attempts to set up coups (several of them not only failures but unreported by the media) and generally encourage the lamentable exile groups, all of it based on poor information and worse analysis. Unluckily, Arabs as a whole have such an unflattering image in this country, with no powerful lobby, and no tradition of public challenge to authority that the current policy against the Iraqi people can continue this way more or less forever.

The question that troubles me is how long our people will continue to tolerate so inhumane and contemptuous a US policy. This tolerance is widely interpreted in the US media as "total support for what we are doing in Iraq from our Arab allies". A few days ago a relatively small number of unarmed Lebanese students came down to Arnoun (recently occupied by the Israeli army) in south Lebanon and with their bare hands liberated the town from Israeli soldiers. Israel and the United States have similar policies towards the Arabs, which is why of course they support and give comfort to each other, but surely the lesson of Arnoun is that only courageous and stubborn resistance will get these oppressors to lay off their bullying. That certainly has been one of the lessons of the Vietnam War, of Cuba's refusal to be cowed by its gigantic neighbour to the north, and of the Arnoun episode.

As to why our rulers think that only a polite deference (seen as tacit acceptance for an American genocide against the Iraqi people) will get us America's respect and consideration is a mystery to me. At any rate, an awakened Arab citizenry needs to apply its weight and influence where both count. We need to organise against the campaign to "scourge" Iraq not only because it is morally wrong -- after all, the US cynically exploits the UN for this purpose, without paying its dues or observing any other UN resolutions, which it systematically flouts in Israel's case -- but because it is very likely that another Arab or Muslim country will be next.

This continuing series of US aggressions, in my opinion, is the clash of civilisations, or rather the clash of untrammeled barbarism with civilisation, with a vengeance.

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