A Festival of the Oppressors

Against the Current, No. 34, September/October 1991

David Finkel

IF ONE TAKES seriously the stated aims of the United States in the Persian Gulf war, the situation in the aftermath of Operation Desert Slaughter is all but incomprehensible.

Saddam Hussein rules in Baghdad, with Iraq’s military capacity against the outside world destroyed but with his regime’s ability to crush internal opposition confirmed. The plight of the starving and freezing children of Kurdistan residing in isolated mountain camps commanded the standard fifteen minutes of media compassion before being “solved’ by yet another benevolent U.S. military deployment and then disappearing into the same oblivion that previously swallowed up the Central American death squads.

The return of the emir to ‘liberated” Kuwait brought greater political repression than before Iraq’s invasion, with thousands of long-time residents being arrested or deported, dumped or stranded on the Iraqi border—often tortured, sometimes tried and even sentenced to death (commuted to life sentences after expressions of acute U.S. embarrassment) on the flimsiest evidence of collaboration with Iraq.

Further, we had been promised—with Iraq’s military strength eliminated, the Lebanese civil war finally over and the remaining Palestinian fighters there disarmed—that the mad to a negotiated Israeli-Arab settlement would open. Instead, to the Lebanese request that Israel withdraw from southern Lebanon following the dismantling of Palestinian militia forces, Israel responds that its occupied “security zone” will remain.

On the face of it, then, the U.S. demonstration of strength has turned into its opposite. Its dependent Kuwaiti and Israeli clients thumb their roses at the Administration, while the defeated Ba’thist regime  of Saddam Hussein brutalizes the Iraqi people with impunity.

In this view, Operation Desert Slaughter accomplished only tactical military objectives but no meaningful long-range goals.

Such a view is deeply mistaken. United States undertook the war in the Gulf for loftier and worthier objectives than mere human rights, democracy or even political stabllity.

First, the United States organized this war to demonstrate military superiority to both domestic and global audiences. In this important sense, the war was its own justification.

Second, we went to war for a crucial point of principle: that Gulf oil revenues continue to be deposited in U.S. and English banks, not German or japanese ones. This, not silly principles of self-determination, required that the oil of Kuwait not fall into the hands of a Ba’thist Iraq that might defy Anglo-American dictates.

This principle also explains why thirty percent of future revenues from Iraqi oil will be garnished toy reparations to the emir of Kuwait—a totally reliable financial partner—while the people of Iraq die of preventable epidemics in their shattered country.

Through the United Nations, Washington has succeeded in imposing the thirty percent figure—a compromise, since it originally demanded fifty percent (This demand, incidentally, was made by the State Department on the day of the second anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, at the same time that the Bush administration was aggressively campaigning to restore most-favored-nation trading status to the Beijing regime.)

Third, as an extension of the second principle the MiddLe East is to be a U.S. zone of dominance, not to be shared with capitalist rival powers. This explains why Japan and Germany, in particular, get to pay many of the costs of the war without sharing in the post victory carveup.

An understanding of this principle is most critical to solving the apparent “U.S. defeat in victory’ paradox. The U.S. pretense of seeking Israeli-Arab peace was above all undertaken to make sure there would be no space in which any other possible peacemakers—the European community, for example—might be able to operate.

What have been the results on the ground? Israel systematically responded to every feeble appeal from George Bush and James Baker that it halt construction of new settlements in the West Bank by starting new ones. In Gaza, now virtually sealed off from the outside world by the Israeli army, real famine stalks the Palestinian population and an uncontrollable social explosion is building.

Overall, the level of social misery and political repression throughout the area has increased, and the probable contours of the next war are already emerging: Within the next few years Israel will be looking toward war with Syria—and possibly Jordan—to finalize its control of the Occupied Territories.

The United States seeks a “territorial compromise” between Israel and the Arab states, leaving the Palestinians without an independent state but with some crumbs of ‘autonomy,” the Arab ruling classes share this goal, but Israel sees no reason to give up anything. As these lines are written, the U.S. Secretary of State is simply begging Israeli Prime Minister Shamir to accept a formula for a peace conference that the Arab states have already accepted.

It now appears likely that Shamir will finally accept;, having received the most ironclad guarantees that the conference will be pre-arranged so that nothing can be achieved for Palestinian rights—not even symbolically. But results are of marginal concern anyway.

It is surely true that the U.S. government would prefer to see Israel offer the Arab world a few crumbs; but this goal is not important enough to carry through a real political confrontation with Israel and its domestic political lobby.

Similar considerations govern U.S. attitudes toward postwar Iraq, which despite appearances are in no way contradictory. The war was fought to eliminate Iraq’s potential to act as an independent Arab nationalist jive, certainly not to destroy the capitalist Iraqi state, and only marginally (if at all) to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Suppose for a moment that Hussein were gone. The reconstruction of Iraq would then be on the agenda, a project that will require massive foreign investment U.S. capital is not well-placed competitively or politically to undertake that project But if Japanese, German or even French capital move in to reconstruct Iraq, they will be playing a new prominent role in the Middle East This is the danger the United States has just fought a war to prevent.

Thus, until and unless the United States can construct its own military client regime in Iraq, itis better that Hussein or at least the Bath party remain in power—the better to justify continuing the sanctions that are now killing even more Iraqi civilians than the war itself.

By no means can the Kurds—any more than the Palestinians—be allowed to achieve independence. For one thing Turkey, a NATO ally, would not stand for it For another, it would be a most inconvenient example ma world where the aspirations of small oppressed nations are routinely trampled for imperial interests.

The Kurds of Iraq were encouraged to revolt as an auxiliary to an expected military coup. When this did not materialize, the United States abandoned them. When fleeing Kurds starved and froze to death, the United States used their plight to establish its right to occupy northern Iraq. Now the U.S. troops have withdrawn to Turkey, leaving the Kurdish population and Hussein’s armed forces in a position where they will exhaust each other but where neither can win.

Now, if this spectacular demonstration of imperialist cynicism disgusts you, then you belong in the struggle to destroy the system that produces it. To those who supported the war for its ostensible humanitarian or democratic goals, we are sympathetic, but disappointment is always the fate of dupes.

If, on the other hand, you supported the war knowing the real reasons why it was fought, then you at least were justified in cheering the victory parades and unfurling your American flag—your only way of participating in the festival of the oppressors.

September-October 1991, ATC 34