Few members of Congress are critical of US policy toward Iraq; fewer still are those willing to go public in their criticism of that policy. Not representative Cynthia McKinney. She is one of four members of congress who decided to send their senior aides on a fact-finding tour to Iraq in September ’99 in spite of repeated attempts by the State Department to scuttle that tour. In an interview with Middle East Report, McKinney, a Democrat from Georgia, questions the nine-year US-led sanctions against Iraq, arguing that the reason behind the sanctions is not even to “find an alternative” to the Iraqi leader or to “arouse a democratic fervor” in that country. The real reason, she says, is “to continue the status quo and, in the process, test a few weapons,” in order to market them to other countries. Representative McKinney from Georgia’s 4th District, and the ranking member on the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, believes that the sanctions are killing babies and other innocent Iraqis and, therefore, should be lifted immediately. She also calls US attempts to topple foreign leaders “reckless and irresponsible.”
You have adopted a stand regarding Iraqi sanctions that goes against that of the majority of your colleagues in both houses. Assuming that they have the same information you do about the sanctions’ consequences in Iraq, what made you move to your present position?
Well, unfortunately, it’s not the information you have, but what you do with it that matters. The fact is that the US is very isolated in the international community when it comes to Iraq and is at odds with France, Russia, China (permanent members of the UN Security Council) and the Arab League. The outcry from the international community has been uniform. When you have the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, saying that the policies supported by her institution have become a tool for the violation of human rights, that is mighty powerful. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization, the Pope, former Oil-for-Food Coordinator Denis Halliday and former weapons inspector Scott Ritter have all decried the effects of sanctions on the people of Iraq and have called for an end to the embargo. The most recent statement by the highest-ranking United Nations representative in Iraq, Hans Van Sponeck, calling for the immediate lifting of sanctions tells me that the US is increasingly isolated and, as I suspected a long time ago, wrong on this issue
Considering the domestic political and social atmosphere of hostility toward Iraq, and the inability, or unwillingness of this government to distinguish between the innocent people and the regime there, what did it take for you to agree to dispatch your aide to investigate the situation there?
I wanted to find the truth. I was not satisfied with our government policy… and I wanted to explore ways in which we could perhaps facilitate change in the effects of the policy, if not in the overall policy itself. Peter Hickey, my aide who traveled to Iraq, has painted a vivid picture for me: desperately malnourished babies, dying of treatable diseases formerly eradicated from Iraq as their under nourished mothers fan them in hot, dim hospital wards. Barefoot children, walking in the raw sewage surrounding their barracks-like housing complexes without railings on upper-floor balconies. Medicine in short supply. Families living on meager government rations, and clean water almost non-existent.
Objective sources that you quote in your article “Sanctions Kill” (Common Dreams News Center 9-16, 99) report that a million Iraqi’s have died and 4,500 children under the age of 5 are dying every month from the sanctions? How do you read the US government’s insistence that sanctions should stay?
The overall outcome of the Administration’s commitment to sanctions has been to decimate the very people that they expect to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein. By taking food out of the mouths of babies, they have hurt, in a very real and substantial way, the United States’ ability to have a positive image before the Iraqi people and a positive and lasting impact on development inside the country. We have grossly overplayed our hand in Iraq. We are quite exposed in that we don’t have a clear policy toward Iraq, or the policy we do have is one that allows for the continuation of Saddam Hussein’s leadership. This betrays a deeper truth than one would like to admit: the United States, for whatever reason, has not been able to find an alternative to Saddam. In fact, the policy does not aim to find an alternative to Hussein or to arouse a democratic fervor in the people, but rather to continue the status quo and, in the process, test a few weapons to see how well they work, so they can be marketed to other countries. Unfortunately, innocent women and children are being killed along the way.
We understand that the State Department tried very strenuously to convince the staffers and others not to go to Iraq. They still went. How do you feel charting an independent course — on a foreign policy issue – different from that of the State Department and the administration as a whole?
Congress has a right and a responsibility to oversee foreign policy. As the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, I was carrying out my responsibility. If it were left up to the State Department, no Member of Congress, nor any staffer, would go anywhere other than London or Paris.
Where does your constituency in Georgia stand on this issue, and have you received any feedback from them?
I have received several calls and letters from my constituents who supported my staff member taking the trip to Iraq. Many of them expressed their displeasure with the sanctions because innocent men, women, and children are being killed as a result. And they hoped that by seeing first hand the devastation, Congress and the Administration would see that the sanctions are not an effective tool in trying to get rid of Saddam Hussein.
What was your colleagues’ reaction, if any, to you consenting to the visit in Iraq?
I was pleased to have my staff joined by the staff from the offices of four other Members of Congress: Sam Gejdenson (D-CT), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Earl Hilliard (D-AL), and Danny Davis (D-IL). We have been asked by other Member offices to put together a briefing of the findings of our staff delegation to Iraq.
Were you or your aide asked by the White House or State Department for a briefing about the situation in Iraq? If not, why?
No. The State Department and the White House are well aware of the situation in Iraq, but they choose to ignore it and continue to support the economic sanctions. When asked about Iraqi children starving and dying as a result of the UN sanctions, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “It’s a hard decision, but we think the price … is worth it.” Whatever the merits of the accusations about Iraq, there is no way to justify the wholesale killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings.
Does the fact that you are an African-American have anything to do with your stand on this issue?
No. I believe in human rights for all people, regardless of their race, color, gender, or religious beliefs. It is a fundamental right.
In your article, you restate the Administration’s open secret position that the sanctions are there to “topple the regime” of Saddam Hussein and not necessarily to get rid of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Is it legitimate for the US or other governments to use innocent people and children as weapons to topple a regime they cannot influence?
Of course it’s not legitimate to use innocent people and children as weapons to topple a regime. Yet that seems to be what we are doing. The result of the Administration’s sanctions-at-any-cost policy has been to decimate the very people that they expect to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein. It’s very hard to get people to think about revolting when their primary concern is feeding their families or saving their dying children. It’s also reckless and irresponsible to talk of toppling leaders of other countries. Democracy is not something that can be manufactured at Foggy Bottom or at the Pentagon. The way to produce change is through incentives–for both the people and regime. We must show the Iraqi people that there is light at the end of the tunnel. We need to distinguish between the Iraqi regime and the innocent people of Iraq. This can be done by lifting sanctions on the people and maintaining or even tightening military sanctions on the regime.
Do you believe that it is going to be possible to prevent an Arab country from acquiring nuclear weapons as long as Israel has them? What should be done in this situation?
As you know, I feel strongly about the dangerous proliferation of nuclear weapons all over the world. But the United States must recognize its role in promoting regional arms build-ups. We’ve already turned the Middle East into the most arms-bloated region in the world. I think it’s very telling, that in its zeal to implement every aspect of UN resolutions against Iraq, there is one article that the U.S. overlooks and, consequently, nobody knows about: The very same resolution that calls for the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, UN Resolution 687, also calls for “the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone” throughout the Middle East. Any approach to arms control should be done in a regional context.