The disorder of George Bush’s “new world” did not take long to reveal itself: On the muddy mountainsides along Iraq’s borders with Iran and Turkey, hundreds of thousands of Kurds seek refuge from the depredations of Iraq’s army, while the rest of Iraq’s battered society confronts a future of hunger and epidemic bequeathed by the US war machine. In Kuwait, His Highness Jabir Al Sabah polishes the chandeliers in his makeshift palace under a soot-darkened sky while the US Army Corps of Engineers farms out lucrative contracts to US firms, and US Special Forces “restrain” Kuwaiti military and police from torturing Palestinians and other “foreigners.” The US commander all the while takes divine inspiration from the “practically non-existent” casualties suffered by the US: “You know,” muses Norman Schwarzkopf, “that kind of made you feel that God was on your side — had to be on your side for that to happen.”
Iraqi opponents of the Baath regime did not understand that when Bush called for Iraqis to “take matters into their own hands,” he did not have them in mind. Rather, he was calling on cohorts of Saddam Hussein in the upper military and party echelons to replace him with another of their own. This was not a war of liberation but of restoration — of the emir in Kuwait and a dictator in Iraq with an inbred deference to the proper order of the universe. Once the issue becomes one of political self-determination, in Kuwait or Iraq, Bush discovers the virtues of non-intervention, hiding his preferences for continued authoritarian rule behind a facade of respect for sovereignty and a distaste for meddling in a “civil war.” The people of Nicaragua and El Salvador, among many others, must have had a bitter laugh.
The left’s anti-interventionist inclination has for the most part served it well, opposing Washington’s war in the Gulf but not obscuring the need for a forceful response to Iraq’s aggression. It is important that this impulse should not align us now, practically speaking, with Bush and Saddam, by privileging the state — the Iraqi state or any other — over the society and the people whose interests said state allegedly embodies.
There is a desperate need for material, humanitarian aid, to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Kurds and other Iraqis, including those who have fled to Iran. Beyond this, there are other interventions which the left should support, consistent with its posture toward other conflicts, including Palestine. The point of vulnerability for the US-led restoration project in the Gulf is the question of democracy and self-determination. This happens to be the question that Arab progressives from Rabat to Riyadh have long identified as the first priority on their agendas. The Kuwaiti opposition, long before Iraq’s invasion, demanded free elections in that country. Notwithstanding Baghdad’s opportunistic promotion of this notion after seizing Kuwait, it remains an excellent suggestion that deserves broader application, certainly to Iraq itself. The movement that coalesced to oppose the US war should press for free elections in Iraq and Kuwait, under auspices that are genuinely international and multilateral.
Washington, for its own part and in deference to the House of Saud, will resist, piously citing principles of non-interference in internal affairs of other states. The US has no hesitation infringing on Iraqi sovereignty when it comes to skimming Iraq’s oil revenues for reparations, for instance, or intrusively manipulating Iraq’s military structure to secure the regional dominance of its allies. Iraqi reparations — which Kuwait needs not at all — should serve as leverage to encourage movement in Iraq toward a more democratic order. Restrictions on Iraq’s military should apply to the entire region, beginning with the cancellation of US plans to sell its allies there some $18 billion worth of new weapons.
The collaboration of Washington and Baghdad in pushing the Gulf confrontation to war eliminated many decent political options for the region. Subsequent developments have dramatically shown the murderous and destructive consequences of the war option. Further US military intervention is not a viable remedy to those consequences. The suffering of Iraq’s Kurds is unique in its concentration and its visibility; it is not substantially different from the slaughter of innocents that is routine in many countries — Guatemala, for instance — that the US supports. We need to support the demands of Kurds, Iraqis and Kuwaitis for self-determination and democratic rights with modes of intervention appropriate to the task and, in the process, develop mechanisms and means of confronting the murderous behavior of states toward the people fated to live within their borders.