The Gulf Crisis, Again and Again

Against the Current, No. 72, January/February 1998

The Editors

THE GULF WAR, it turns out, solved nothing.  That’s the main lesson from the recent resurgence of the “crisis” over United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq, which then receded and which will surely rise and recede and arise again.  Operation Desert Storm produced a slaughter of a hundred thousand Iraqi conscript soldiers and civilians; the exposure of many tens if not hundreds of thousands of U.S. and allied military personnel to chemical and biological toxins, resulting in Gulf War Syndrome and the subsequent Pentagon coverup; sanctions that have reduced Iraq’s people to misery without touching the power of Saddam Hussein’s dynasty and police state.

All these were to be means toward the imperialist ends of a U.S.-led New World Order.  The means remain, with full deadly effect; the ends have disappeared, in the morass of the United States’ failure to deliver on the promises of a moribund Middle East “peace process.”

On its face, the weapons-inspection crisis arose over the allegation that Iraq is concealing an ongoing program of “weapons of mass destruction,” notably chemical, biological and nuclear.  It’s logical to assume that such a program exists in Iraq—as it did in the 1980s, when Saddam’s murderous regime was assisted by both the CIA and Eastern European intelligence agencies.

Similar weapons programs exist also in other countries nearby, including the major regional powers—India, Israel and Turkey—and their assorted allies and rivals such as Pakistan and Syria, and possibly others.  These in turn pale next to the world-annihilating capacity of the official nuclear powers.  The United States Senate, in fact, in the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act (1997), would allow the President to bar international inspections of U.S. facilities which “may pose a threat to the national security interests.”

Singling out Iraq’s alleged weapons program for constant inspection and destruction isn’t about peace and stability.  Rather, it serves the function of demonstrating United States “leadership” in dictating how the Middle East, and the world, will be policed.

The recent mini-crisis revealed the relationship of forces to be one of a volatile stalemate.  The United States, responding to Iraq’s expulsion of U.S. members of the weapons-inspection team, tested the waters for a Gulf War II, both at home and internationally.  Secretary of State Albright aggressively sounded out European and Arab capitals on this proposition, while a blood-curdling Newsweek cover with a Saddam Hussein montage tried to promote domestic hysteria.  (The 11/24/97 Newsweek story offered the Armageddon scenario of Saddam hitting Tel Aviv with chemical-tipped missiles, Israel responding with a nuclear strike on Baghdad, and then the ultimate horror: terrorist bombings of American shopping malls.)

It flopped, in both the world and home markets.  The Gulf War coalition proved to be, as the British would say, a “one-off,” a non-repeatable exercise of U.S. political-military muscle.  Neither European nor ex-Soviet nor Arab capitals (even Kuwait) were interested.  The coalition was fragile to begin with—ex-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev states in his memoirs that his extreme reluctance to join was overcome by massive U.S. leverage.  (Curiously, today’s post-Soviet pro-capitalist Russia is less vulnerable to U.S. pressure than the last of the Communist leadership.)

It’s true that the United States has the military might to wipe out Iraq a hundred times over, but that’s not politically viable without international backing—nor did the U.S. population respond with any fervor to the 1997 Saddam Menace revival.

Obviously, this U.S. failure is linked to the disintegration of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo process, a failure that has been discussed previously in editorials and essays in this magazine (most recently by John Dixon in ATC 71).  In 1990-91, Arab rulers’ fear of Saddam, and their trust in U.S. promises to deliver Israel for a viable deal, outweighed their own populations’ anger and loathing at the destruction of an Arab country.  In 1997 that is simply no longer true.

Iraq, for its part, tested the prospects of a wide-open split in the international sanctions regime.  It too failed: Russians and Europeans (except for Washington’s junior partner Britain) would prefer to see the sanctions attenuated, given the potential investment openings in Iraq, but see no purpose in a political showdown with the United States on this question.

The sanctions in their present form are leaky enough to keep Saddam’s military-police apparatuses solvent, but strong enough that between four and five thousand Iraqi children die every month from the combined effects of malnutrition, unclean drinking water and lack of medical supplies.  The estimated total death toll to date stands at around half a million children.

All by itself, this fact is enough to justify the demand that sanctions against Iraq end, immediately and unconditionally. That demand is simple human decency.  That is also why private citizens’ initiatives to organize humanitarian aid shipments to Iraq from this country, in defiance of U.S. government edicts, deserve support—not out of the slightest sympathy for Saddam Hussein’s gangster regime, but rather out of revulsion over the crimes of our government.

In the world of diplomatic policy and posture, however, where decency is irrelevant, the sanctions will continue, as will the human misery they produce and the crisis they purportedly aim to “solve.” That is the state of the Gulf and the Middle East this Christmas and, quite likely, next one too.

ATC 72, January-February 1998