New Gulf War? Just Say No!

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

The Editors

THEY BOMBED IN Columbus, big time. Nonetheless the Clinton administration’s wag-the-dog and pony show “Demons of 1998,” starring “Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction,” continues its theatrical run in the op-ed pages of the elite press.

At the beginning of this year, we guessed that the war scare over UN weapons inspections, having arisen and receded, “will surely arise and recede and arise again.” (“A Letter from the Editors,”ATC 72) And so it seems to be: In all likelihood, the Kofi Annan-Saddam Hussein agreement will only temporarily interrupt the escalation toward another Gulf confrontation.

Whether the Clinton administration will seek to turn the next round into full-scale war is not clear.  But it is vital, during this relative calm between Gulf War storms, to maintain and strengthen the opposition to Washington’s assault on the Iraqi population.  Toward this objective, we offer a few observations.

The antiwar movement in this country has gained precious time and can take heart from the Administration’s wonderful fiasco of the Columbus town hall meeting.  By now the story of that event is well known, but there are two important lessons to be drawn.

First, the explosive dissent in the hall, which overwhelmed CNN’s plan to allow only stage-managed friendly questions, was no spontaneous accident but rather the result of an organized mobilization by anti-war forces, most notably Anti-Racist Action, the local Middle East Peace Committee and a coalition of church-based peace and justice activists.

Rarely is the power of a movement to influence public sentiment so graphically demonstrated.  Second, important sectors of that public, to their great moral credit, understand (as few did in 1991) that the victims of bombing Iraq have been and will be Saddam’s victims, the Iraqi people, not his regime.  This is an enormous restriction on Washington’s freedom to use its arsenal.

Even more important, thanks to the extraordinary vision and courage of U.S. citizens defying the sanctions against Iraq, most especially the wonderful work of the organization Voices in the Wilderness, awareness is growing that these sanctions are themselves the real, not potential, Weapon of Mass Destruction in this conflict.  We highly recommend, as an important resource, a report by Voices in the Wilderness organizer Kathleen Kelley, “The Children of Iraq 1990-97,” published in the January-March issue of The Link (Americans for Middle East Understanding, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 245, New York NY 10115; e-mail:

Indeed, the Pentagon’s own estimates reported by the New York Times that a four-day, round-the-clock bombing campaign would kill 1500 Iraqis would amount only to one week’s worth of civilian deaths from the sanctions’ effects on the country’s medical, hygienic and nutritional infrastructures.

The Administration’s central problem is that it cannot present a credible war objective.  Is its purpose to remove the Iraqi regime? Almost certainly not: Such a commitment would require a willingness to carry out a land campaign and an occupation of Iraq that could last for many years and/or risk the breakup of the country.

The public naively assumes that a war has some substantive purpose and is supposed to “solve” something.  In 1990-91, driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait offered such a “solution,” even if the real “problem” had more to do with oil than with self-determination.  In the present instance, however, the fundamental purpose of the adventure is simply to demonstrate to allies and adversaries that the United States makes up and enforces the rules of global politics.

Killing and starving hundreds of thousands of people for the purpose of “weakening but not eliminating Saddam” is satisfactory only to the kind of “sophisticated” types for whom Madeline Albright’s answer to a journalist’s question about the deaths of all those Iraqi children–“Yes, Leslie, we think it’s worth it”–represents political thought.  It is not acceptable to ordinary people whose morality and common sense haven’t been wiped out by ideological conditioning.

Nor will most people accept the secondary reasons for going to war: field-testing the new generation of smart bombs designed to penetrate five floors of underground concrete before detonating; keeping Iraqi oil off the market to prevent prices from falling low enough to threaten oil company profits and drilling ventures in the Caspian.  Under these circumstances, especially after Columbus, the administration found itself in no position to veto Kofi Annan’s negotiation of a “diplomatic solution” to the weapons inspection impasse.

All this is a striking contrast with the Bush administration’s ability in 1990-91 to subvert all diplomatic efforts to get Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, and to launch Operation Desert Slaughter from a position of great political strength.  Yet while the agreement in Baghdad is likely to hold for several months, it can unravel at whatever point either side decides to provoke the next crisis.

The U.S. military buildup in the Gulf is too large and expensive to remain in place indefinitely it must be used or withdrawn.  At the same time, Saddam Hussein’s regime at some point-with support from European states who hope to gain lucrative contracts for rebuilding the shattered country-must force the issue of removing sanctions in exchange for its cooperation with weapons inspections.  Ending the sanctions without Saddam Hussein’s removal would be a huge political setback for U.S. imperialist policy; yet all analysts concede that the chance of “getting” him through bombing alone is remote.

It is impossible to predict now exactly when the crisis will erupt again, or whether it might be triggered by some post-Paula Jones domestic threat to Clinton’s presidency.  But while opposition to the 1990-91 Gulf War built up powerfully before the bombing began, yet largely dissipated in the face of the great “victory,” opposition to the war in 1998 may have started late but shows the potential to escalate well beyond what anyone had anticipated.  As we’ve emphasized before, the movement in this country needs to focus on the crimes of our government, without fostering any illusions that Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship represents anything progressive or “anti-imperialist.”

By focussing on the gross indecency of the sanctions against Iraq and the hideous prospects of another round of bombing, anti-war forces have a powerful opportunity to de-legitimize the whole assumption of the United States as policeman of the Middle East and the world.  That in itself would be a substantial contribution, and all of us in the movement should do everything possible to help accomplish it.

ATC 74, May-June 1998