Apocalypse Now

Against the Current, No. 74, May/June 1998

Edward Said

IT WOULD BE a mistake, I think, to reduce what is happening between Iraq and the United States simply to an assertion of Arab will and sovereignty on the one hand versus American imperialism, which undoubtedly plays a central role in all this. However misguided, Saddam Hussein’s cleverness is not that he is splitting America from its allies (which he has not really succeeded in doing for any practical purpose), but that he is exploiting the astonishing clumsiness and failures of U.S. foreign policy.

Very few people, least of all Saddam himself, can be fooled into believing him to be the innocent victim of American bullying; most of what is happening to his unfortunate people, who are undergoing the most dreadful and unacknowledged suffering, is due in considerable degree to his callous cynicism first of all, his indefensible and ruinous invasion of Kuwait, his persecution of the Kurds, his cruel egoism and pompous self-regard which persists in aggrandizing himself and his regime at exorbitant and, in my opinion, totally unwarranted cost.

It is impossible for him to plead the case for national security and sovereignty now, given his abysmal disregard of it in the case of Kuwait and Iran. Be that as it may, U.S. vindictiveness, whose sources I shall look at in a moment, has exacerbated the situation by imposing a regime of sanctions which, as Sandy Berger, the American National Security advisor, has just said proudly, is unprecedented for its severity in the whole of world history.

Since the Gulf War 567,000 Iraqi civilians have died, mostly as a result of disease, malnutrition and deplorably poor medical care. Agriculture and industry are at a total standstill.

This is unconscionable of course, and for this the brazen inhumanity of American policymakers is also very largely to blame.  But we must not forget that Saddam is feeding that inhumanity quite deliberately in order to dramatize the opposition between the U.S. and the rest of the Arab world.

Having provoked a crisis with the U.S. (or the United Nations dominated by the U.S.) he at first dramatized the unfairness of the sanctions.  But by continuing it as he is now doing, the issue has changed and has become his non-compliance, and the terrible effects of the sanctions have been marginalized.

Underlying Causes of Crisis

Still the underlying causes of an Arab/U.S. crisis remain.  A careful analysis of that crisis is imperative.  The United States has always opposed any sign of Arab nationalism or independence, partly for its own imperial reasons and partly because its unconditional support for Israel requires it to do so.

Since the 1973 war, and despite the brief oil embargo, Arab policy up to and including the peace process has tried to circumvent or mitigate that hostility by appealing to the U.S. for help, by “good” behavior, by willingness to make peace with Israel.

Yet mere compliance with the United States’ wishes can produce nothing except occasional words of American approbation for leaders who appear “moderate:” Arab policy was never backed up with coordination, or collective pressure, or fully agreed upon goals.  Instead each leader tried to make separate arrangements both with the U.S. and with Israel, none of which produced very much except escalating demands and a constant U.S. refusal to exert any meaningful pressure on Israel.

The more extreme Israeli policy becomes, the more likely the United States has been to support it. And the less respect it has for the large mass of Arab peoples whose future and well-being are mortgaged to illusory hopes embodied, for instance, in the Oslo accords.

Moreover, a deep gulf separates Arab culture and civilization on the one hand from the United States on the other, and in the absence of any collective Arab information and cultural policy, the notion of an Arab people with traditions, cultures and identities of their own is simply inadmissible in the United States.

Arabs are dehumanized, they are seen as violent irrational terrorists always on the lookout for murder and bombing outrages.  The only Arabs worth doing business with for the U.S. are compliant leaders, businessmen, military people whose arms purchases (the highest per capita in the world) are helping the American economy keep afloat.

Beyond that there is no feeling at all, for instance, for the dreadful suffering of the Iraqi people, whose identity and existence have simply been lost sight of in the present situation.

This morbid, obsessional fear and hatred of the Arabs has been a constant theme in U.S. foreign policy since World War II. In some way also, anything positive about the Arabs is seen in the United States as a threat to Israel.  In this respect pro-Israeli American Jews, traditional Orientalists, and military hawks have played a devastating role.

Moral opprobrium is heaped on Arab states as it is on no others.  Turkey, for example, has been conducting a campaign against the Kurds for several years, yet nothing is heard about this in the United States.  Israel occupies territory illegally for thirty years, it violates the Geneva conventions at will, conducts invasions, terrorist attacks and assassinations against Arabs, and still, the United States vetoes every sanction against it in the UN.

Syria, Sudan, Libya, Iraq are classified as “rogue” states.  Sanctions against them are far harsher than against any other countries in the history of U.S. foreign policy.  And still the United States expects that its own foreign policy agenda ought to prevail (e.g.  the woefully misguided Doha economic summit) despite its hostility to the collective Arab agenda.

In the case of Iraq a number of further extenuations make the United States even more repressive.  Burning in the collective American unconscious is a puritanical zeal decreeing the sternest possible attitude towards anyone deemed to be an unregenerate sinner.

This clearly guided American policy towards the native American Indians, who were first demonized, then portrayed as wasteful savages, then exterminated, their tiny remnant confined to reservations and concentration camps.  This almost religious anger fuels a judgmental attitude that has no place at all in international politics, but for the United States it is a central tenet of its worldwide behavior.

Second, punishment is conceived in apocalyptic terms.  During the Vietnam war a leading general [the reference is to Curtis LeMay, also an early architect of a strategy for massive nuclear warfare against the Soviet Union- ed.] advocated as was almost achieved the goal of bombing the enemy into the stone age.

The same view prevailed during the Gulf War in 1991.  Sinners are meant to be condemned terminally, with the utmost cruelty regardless of whether or not they suffer the cruelest agonies.

The notion of “justified” punishment for Iraq is now uppermost in the minds of most American consumers of news, and with that goes an almost orgiastic delight in the gathering power being summoned to confront Iraq in the Gulf. Pictures of four (or is now five?) immense aircraft carriers steaming virtuously away punctuate breathless news bulletins about Saddam’s defiance, and the impending crisis.

The President announces that he is thinking not about the Gulf but about the 21st century: How can we tolerate Iraq’s threat to use biological warfare even though (this is unmentioned) it is clear from the UNSCOM reports that he neither has the missile capacity, nor the chemical arms, nor the nuclear arsenal, nor in fact the anthrax bombs that he is alleged to be brandishing?

Forgotten in all this is that the United States has all the terror weapons known to humankind, is the only country to have used a nuclear bomb on civilians, and as recently as seven years ago dropped 66,000 tons of bombs on Iraq. As the only country involved in this crisis that has never had to fight a war on its own soil, it is easy for the U.S. and its mostly brainwashed citizens to speak in apocalyptic terms.  A report out of Australia on Sunday, November 16 suggests that Israel and the United States are thinking about a neutron bomb on Baghdad.

The Sadism of Raw Power

Unfortunately the dictates of raw power are very severe and, for a weak state like Iraq, overwhelming.  Certainly U.S. misuse of the sanctions to strip Iraq of everything, including any possibility for security, is monstrously sadistic.

The so-called UN 661 Committee created to oversee the sanctions is composed of fifteen member states (including the U.S.) each of which has a veto. Every time Iraq passes this committee a request to sell oil for medicines, trucks, meat, etc., any member of the committee can block these requests by saying that a given item may have military purposes (tires, for example, or ambulances).

In addition the United States and its clients e.g. the unpleasant and racist Richard Butler [director of the UN weapons inspection program ed.], who says openly that Arabs have a different notion of truth than the rest of the world have made it clear that even if Iraq is completely reduced militarily to the point where it is no longer a threat to its neighbors (which is now the case), the real goal of the sanctions is to topple Saddam Hussein’s government.

In other words, according to the Americans very little that Iraq can do short of Saddam’s resignation or death will produce a lifting of sanctions.

Finally, we should not for a moment forget that quite apart from its foreign policy interest, Iraq has now become a domestic American issue whose repercussions on issues unrelated to oil or the Gulf are very important.  Bill Clinton’s personal crises require him to look strong, determined and “presidential” somewhere else.

Moreover, the increase in military expenditure for new investments in electronic “smart” weaponry, more sophisticated aircraft, mobile forces for the world-wide projection of American power are perfectly suited for display and use in the Gulf, where the likelihood of visible casualties (actually suffering Iraqi civilians) is extremely small, and where the new military technology can be put through its paces most attractively.

For reasons that need no restating here, the media is particularly happy to go along with the government in bringing home to domestic customers the wonderful excitement of American self-righteousness, the proud flag-waving, the “feel-good” sense that “we” are facing down a monstrous dictator.

Far from analysis and calm reflection the media exist mainly to derive their mission from the government, not to produce a corrective or any dissent.  The media, in short, are an extension of the war against Iraq.

Iraqis’ Protracted Agony

The saddest aspect of the whole thing is that Iraqi civilians seem condemned to additional suffering and protracted agony.  Neither their government nor that of the United States are inclined to ease the daily pressure on them, and the probability that only they will pay for the crisis is extremely high.

At least and it isn’t very much there seems to be no enthusiasm among Arab governments for American military action, but beyond that there is no coordinated Arab position, not even on the extremely grave humanitarian question.

It is unfortunate that, according to the news, there is rising popular support for Saddam in the Arab world, as if the old lessons of defiance without real power have still not been learned.

Undoubtedly the United States has manipulated the UN to its own ends, a rather shameful exercise given at the same time that the Congress once again struck down a motion to pay a billion dollars in arrears to the world organization.

The major priority for Arabs, Europeans, Muslims and Americans is to push to the fore the issue of sanctions and the terrible suffering imposed on innocent Iraqi civilians.  Taking the case to the International Court in the Hague strikes me as a perfectly viable possibility, but what is needed is a concerted will on behalf of Arabs who have suffered the United States’ egregious blows for too long without an adequate response.

This article was published in late November, 1997 in Al-Hayat (an Arabic language newspaper) and in Al-Ahram Weekly (an English language, Cairo-based, Egyptian government-controlled newspaper).  It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Although it has circulated on the internet and appeared at an earlier stage of the ongoing crisis, we believe the article continues to have great relevance and deserves the widest possible audience.  We would note, happily, that since the piece was written, the U.S. public’s “almost orgiastic delight” for inflicting “punishment” on the Iraqi population has greatly diminished.

Professor Edward Said needs to introduction for those familiar with the politics of the Middle East. He is noted for his outstanding scholarship in the field of “Orientalism” (western perceptions of the Middle East), his participation in the struggle for Palestinian self-determination, and his trenchant criticism of the Palestinian leadership and of ruling elites in the Arab world.

ATC 74, May-June 1998