Ten years ago, on August 2, 1990, US policy in, toward and around Iraq dramatically changed course. From close if sometimes distasteful allies, Baghdad’s government and its leader, Saddam Hussein, were transformed overnight into Washington’s public enemy number one: “Hitler!” thundered President George Bush.The policies put in place then to implement the new approach, military assault and brutally effective civilian-targeting sanctions, remain largely unchanged today. The policies’ ostensible goal, primly defined as “regime change,” remains as distant as ever, and their target is still firmly in power.

Long before the invasion of Kuwait, one might have wondered about the US-Iraq alliance. Certainly it was partly tactical, aimed at preventing outright victory for the ascendant Islamic Republic of Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Certainly it reflected the three long-standing goals of US policy in the Middle East: protection of Israel, control of access to oil and stability. One might have wondered why US officials willingly, if not eagerly, turned a blind eye to the Iraqi regime’s crimes. It wasn’t as if they didn’t know of Iraq’s repressive rule, its Anfal campaign to depopulate Kurdish villages and its use of internationally outlawed poison gas against both civilians and Iranian soldiers. Human rights violations are common throughout the region — arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, house demolitions, repression of dissidents, persecution of Communists — and Iraq’s government was right up there with the best. Washington knew of Iraq’s violations, but expressed little official concern. Nor were US officials interested in the incidental reality that the majority of Iraqi civilians enjoyed an almost First World-level standard of living, with education and health care systems that remained free, accessible to every Iraqi and among the highest quality in the developing world.

Perhaps the alliance shouldn’t have been surprising. Iraq’s is a neighborhood of absolute rulers, most of whom are uncritically embraced by Washington. Baghdad’s power relied on ties with the US and its European allies, as well as Russia and others, to provide arms, technology, biological weapons seed stock and more. For the US, the primacy of commerce trumped any hesitations that might have surfaced regarding Iraq’s internal rule.

Further, in a region where occupation of a neighboring country (or two or three) is practically a normative requirement for regional powers — Israel in Palestine and Syria, Turkey in Cyprus, Morocco in the Western Sahara — there is little reason to think that Iraq expected US opposition, let alone Desert Storm-level opposition, when it joined the ranks of occupiers.

The notion of “dual containment” that shaped US strategy towards the Arab-Persian Gulf even before its official articulation in the early 1990s, was primarily designed to prevent either Iraq or Iran from emerging as a serious challenger to US interests. For Washington, Iraq may or may not have been the lesser evil, but it was certainly the weaker evil. The nascent Islamic Republic had inherited the US-supplied bounty of the Shah’s military, so Washington weighed in on the side of Baghdad when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. After all, Iraq was a secular country with a proven pro-US orientation; Washington viewed the Islamists in Tehran with significantly more unease. Further, US aid wasn’t really to help Iraq defeat Iran. It ensured that the war itself, with its commensurate slaughter of Iranian and Iraqi soldiers and innocents, and its destruction of oil, wealth, property and the environment of both countries, would continue.

A Superpower Without a Challenger

Soon after the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, the world’s bipolar center could no longer hold. The Soviet Union was nearing collapse, and US strategy turned toward trying to justify a superpower’s hegemony while lacking a strategic challenger. Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait gave the US a pretext to reassert its international status. The US would use bribes, threats and punishments to assure United Nations endorsement, and would lead the world against the “new Hitler.” If the US was to be viewed as a world-class “hyper-power,” it had to defeat a villain worthy of the fight. Iraq had to be elevated to the status of world-class villain.

The demonization set the stage for widespread acceptance in the US of economic sanctions and years of illegal air strikes. Public passivity was rooted largely in a lack of information about civilian suffering, but was exacerbated by a subconscious belief that Iraq is really populated by 23 million Saddam Husseins, so anything done to Iraq is really against “him.”

The US called the UN Security Council into session and imposed economic sanctions against Iraq less than 100 hours after the Iraqi military swept into Kuwait. At the time, Iraq depended on imports for 70 percent of its food. Even medicine and food were prohibited during the first months of the sanctions regime; but with oil sales forbidden and hard currency accounts frozen, there was suddenly no money to buy anything, anyway. Shortages and widespread suffering soon followed. The sanctions, originally crafted to pressure the Iraqi leadership to withdraw from Kuwait, continued throughout the punishing air and ground wars of early 1991. Sanctions remained in place, changing only in their justification, when UN resolution 687 imposed a ceasefire and a host of rigorous requirements on the defeated Iraqi government in April 1991.

The US Goes It (Almost) Alone

The new sanctions regime was linked to Iraq’s efforts to create weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Economic sanctions were supposed to end when Iraq complied with the prohibition on WMD programs. To oversee their elimination, the UN created UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission. Over the years, despite Iraqi recalcitrance and embarrassing revelations of US and Israeli spy agencies’ infiltration and undermining of UNSCOM, the agency still managed to find and destroy the overwhelming majority of Iraq’s weapons sites.

A key disjuncture soon emerged between the US and the UN, in whose name the US-constructed sanctions were imposed. The UN resolution described the precise requirements for Iraq to get the economic sanctions lifted. But US officials consistently moved the goalposts. From Presidents Bush and Clinton, to their secretaries of state, and down Washington’s foreign policy food chain, officials asserted that sanctions would stay in effect until “the end of time” or Saddam Hussein was out of office, until human rights were guaranteed and until Kuwaiti prisoners were returned, among other criteria. So US demands derailed any incentive for Iraq to comply with the weapons requirements, and instead signaled Baghdad that regardless of its compliance, Washington would not allow the sanctions to be lifted. (Now, the most visible non-governmental sanctions defender, Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, essentially ignores the UN requirements regarding weapons of mass destruction. Appearing on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” with Hans von Sponeck on May 3, Clawson focused solely on “containment” and “regime change,” and never even uttered the words weapons of mass destruction.) The UN itself became a victim of US policy in Iraq.

From 1990 until today, the most comprehensive and tightly enforced economic sanctions in history have been the cornerstone of US Iraqi policy. For Iraqis this has meant a decade of death — 500,000 children under five would be alive today if the economic sanctions did not exist, according to UNICEF. The devastation wrought by the US and its militarily spurious “coalition” has yet to be repaired. Iraq’s oil infrastructure is severely eroded; rusted water and sewage treatment plants lie inert for lack of spare parts; schools and universities wither; and a new generation of Iraqis is growing up knowing nothing but war, sanctions, deprivation and a hatred of Western governments. The Iraqi regime remains in power, and for most Iraqis, its continuing political depredations have long been overtaken in significance by the physical and human devastation caused by US-led economic sanctions.

Prowling the Gulf

At the time of the December 1998 Desert Fox bombing campaign, the Clinton administration’s Iraq policy seemed immutable. Months before, tens of thousands of Americans poured into the streets and into administration-orchestrated “town meetings” to protest, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan flew to Baghdad to negotiate a stand-down to what seemed an imminent US air assault. Endorsing Annan’s deal with the Iraqi government, the UN Security Council made clear that future responses to any Iraqi violation would have to be decided jointly by the Council. But US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke made clear he believed Washington no longer required any UN approval, boldly asserting that anything the US believed to be an Iraqi violation would be met in the future by unilateral military action. Months later, Desert Fox struck Iraq.

The UN arms inspectors pulled out of Baghdad on the eve of the strikes. (They didn’t bother even to notify the hundreds of international and local UN humanitarian staff of the imminent strikes.) UNSCOM’s withdrawal ended arms monitoring, although their reports through November 1998 provided overwhelming evidence that Iraq’s weapons programs were qualitatively eliminated.

Resolution 687, besides imposing economic sanctions, called for Iraq’s disarmament to be a step toward regional disarmament, for a nuclear weapons-free zone throughout the Middle East, and for a “zone free of all weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them.” But Israeli nukes remain immune from international inspection, and weapons flood the already arms-glutted region. US troops, planes and weapons stand ready at bases in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and elsewhere in the region, and the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet prowls the Gulf on virtually permanent assignment. Stationing US military forces in the Gulf was one of Washington’s biggest prizes from the war. Even the truck-bomb attack on the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia, which killed dozens of US service personnel, did not lead to troop withdrawals. They are in the Gulf for the long haul.

US warplanes patrol the “no-fly zones” in northern and southern Iraq without UN approval, and attack Iraq’s antiquated air defense systems and a host of civilian targets on an average of every third day. According to Hans von Sponeck, the second UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq to resign in protest of the economic sanctions, 144 civilians and scores of sheep were killed by US — and occasionally British — bombing raids in 1999 alone. Iraq’s military capacity has never recovered from Desert Storm. Its anti-aircraft batteries lie rusted and ineffectual; no US plane has ever been hit patrolling or bombing the no-fly zones.

Isolation and Dissent

After years of dogged efforts by faith-based, peace, Arab-American and other groups, public opinion slowly began to shift. For many years there were only incremental gains. Then, beginning in early 1998, the anti-sanctions movement became a newly viable force. Large-scale protest from increasingly diverse communities and constituencies greeted each new bombing and persisted against the sanctions.

As of the spring of 2000, the US-led sanctions remain in place. But changes are undeniably afoot. The passage of Security Council resolution 1284 provides a useful indication: It did not qualitatively change the devastating impact of the existing economic sanctions (that failure led von Sponeck to resign shortly after its passage). It tinkers with the sanctions regime, creates a new arms monitoring agency and considers, more than a year down the line, the possibility that some economic restrictions might be temporarily suspended. But economic sanctions remain the default position, unless the Council, including the US, affirmatively votes to keep them suspended after each four-month period. Under such restrictions, no oil company worth its stockholders is likely to risk large-scale investment in Iraq, however much they may covet Iraq’s oil wealth. Without such investment, repair and reconstruction of the oil industry itself will remain impossible, and Iraq’s poverty will only deepen.

Even with those limitations, it is certain that 1284 could not have passed US muster as recently as two years ago. Ironically, it has long been clear that the sanctions policy holds no strategic value. Until the last few months, there was no political constituency (except the Kuwaiti royal family) demanding that economic sanctions remain in place. The refusal even to consider lifting sanctions reflected craven political concerns: The US couldn’t appear “soft on Saddam Hussein.”

In early spring 2000, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) suddenly seized the pro-sanctions mantle. Until that time AIPAC had largely avoided the fray, deeming Iran a far more serious potential threat to Israel than Baghdad’s degraded military. In February 2000, after a congressional letter had called on President Clinton to lift the economic sanctions, AIPAC, by some reports at the urging of the White House, began a campaign supporting a “keep the sanctions” letter initiated by Rep. Tom Lantos, chair of the House Human Rights Caucus.

By December 1999, US policy faced isolation, both domestically and internationally. In the UN, only the British remained qualitatively supportive. The Netherlands, with a new foreign minister from the conservative Liberal Party, moved to defend the US-UK alliance, with half-hearted support from dismayed Dutch diplomats. But support for sanctions was fraying. Resolution 1284 squeaked by with permanent members France, China and Russia, as well as Malaysia, abstaining. France, Russia and China were unwilling to spend the requisite political capital to veto 1284. But, as the Wall Street Journal described it on May 1, now it was “unclear which side is more isolated: the dictator who has successfully defied sanctions, or the Anglo-US alliance that insists they remain in place.”

In that context, the growing domestic opposition took on new visibility. In 1999 Congressman John Conyers had sent a letter to Clinton signed by 40 of his colleagues, calling for a “delinking” of economic and military sanctions against Iraq. Earlier that year, during a speaking tour sponsored by major peace, faith-based and Arab-American organizations, this writer and former UN Humanitarian Coordinator Denis Halliday spoke to over 10,000 people directly, and reached hundreds of thousands more through op-eds, radio and TV interviews in 22 cities. But results would take a while longer.

In the summer of 1999, the first group of congressional staff traveled to Iraq to examine the impact of sanctions. All but one represented members of the Progressive Caucus of the House; three were also members of the Congressional Black Caucus. By spring 2000 the latest congressional letter had 71 signatures, and demanded economic sanctions be lifted. Democratic Whip and close Clinton ally David Bonior called the economic sanctions “infanticide masquerading as policy.” Rep. Tony Hall, known as “Mister Hunger” for his twenty-year commitment to that issue, traveled to Iraq in April 2000 to examine the humanitarian conditions. He did not call for lifting the economic sanctions, but brought back a devastating critique of the sanctions and admitted that the US was the main problem within the UN’s Sanctions Committee. By May 2000, Representatives Conyers and Cynthia McKinney called for an official congressional delegation to Iraq.

Then there were the resignations. UN Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday had resigned in October 1998 to protest what he later called the “genocidal impact” of economic sanctions. His successor, Hans von Sponeck, announced his resignation a little more than a year later, convinced that “every month Iraq’s social fabric shows bigger holes.” A day later, the director of the UN’s World Food Program for Iraq, Jutta Burghardt, resigned as well. The Economist wrote that when Halliday resigned in protest it was interesting; when his successor did the same thing it was an indictment. But State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin, upon learning of von Sponeck’s decision, responded “Good,” and repeated false accusations regarding von Sponeck’s work “on behalf of…the regime” in Iraq.

Clinton administration officials, along with their counterparts in London, pressured the UN Secretary General to fire von Sponeck, because he had insisted that tracking the civilian casualties from the bombings in the “no-fly zones” was part of his job. Von Sponeck also stated that sanctions were devastating the people of Iraq — and they, not the Iraqi government, were his concern. True to form, Rubin announced in November 1999 that von Sponeck had overstepped his mandate in “raising his own personal views as to the wisdom of the sanctions regime.”

The administration was starting to look stuck. The day after Halliday and von Sponeck testified in Congress, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger struck back, writing an op-ed in the Financial Times (May 4) entitled “Saddam Is the Root of All Iraq’s Problems.” Not surprisingly, the article was thoroughly misleading. It claimed that in the past, Iraq never spent enough money on its population: “To illustrate, in 1989, Iraq earned $15 billion from oil exports and spent $13 billion on its military.” Berger ignored that those military goods (largely from the US and its allies) were not purchased with cash but with huge long-term loans, mostly from Kuwait and other Gulf states. Berger bragged that “when UN members expressed concern about the [sanctions committee] contracts review process, we investigated, [and] released contracts worth more than $300 million.” True, but he left out that the US still had $1.6 billion worth of contracts “on hold.”

On the eve of Desert Storm in January 1991, Eqbal Ahmad quoted Tacitus: “the Romans brought devastation, and they called it peace.” US policy has indeed brought devastation to Iraq and an arms race to the region, all in the name of imposing peace. The task for the anti-sanctions movement is to raise the political price for maintaining the status quo. The 2000 elections do not bode well: a choice between the son of President Desert Storm and Anything-for-Israel Gore. But growing public awareness of the sanctions-driven catastrophe in Iraq provides some hope. Madeleine Albright cannot appear publicly without being challenged by anti-sanctions campaigners. Protesters and the class valedictorian disputed her speech at Berkeley’s May 2000 graduation. Perhaps for the first time the anti-sanctions campaign has the chance to renew a struggle for real peace — in Iraq and in the region beyond.

How to cite this article:

Phyllis Bennis "“And They Called It Peace”," Middle East Report 215 (Summer 2000).

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