MERIP’s Iraq issue (MER 215) represented an opportunity to shape the magazine according to the needs of the new activism challenging Washington’s policy towards Iraq-the movement against crippling economic sanctions, thrice-weekly bombings, the undermining of the United Nations and the regional arms race that hamstrings real disarmament.
US policy is falsely depicted as being aimed at “him,” as if Iraq were populated by 23 million Saddam Husseins. But tens of thousands of people across the US now oppose that policy because it is destroying the people of Iraq, not the regime. Ours is a movement still seeking broader influence, clearer strategy and closer coordination between disparate groups of activists, a movement that needs MERIP’s participation.
In the past, MERIP was at the center of such movements — helping to build the Palestine solidarity movement in its first years. Ten years ago, a new movement emerged in the runup to Desert Storm. That war, at the confluence of the Cold War’s end and the Soviet Union’s collapse, defined for progressives a moment in history. We certainly stood in opposition to the invasion and the brutality of the Iraqi regime; many of us had held this position before. But at that moment, we watched Washington’s unprecedented military buildup transform a potentially containable regional crisis into a global conflagration. What defined us then was that we stood in opposition to the war: its yellow-ribbon jingoism and the false claims of “international consensus” that belied the unilateral power behind it. MERIP was part of that movement.
Only a few progressives stood apart. Fred Halliday was one, a respected Middle East scholar of impeccable left credentials and a long history with MERIP. He was wrong then to support the war, and he is wrong now, when he writes that “Saddam Hussein has not changed one jot, everyone knows it and many think he could start the whole thing again.” (Fred Halliday, “Letter from Kuwait,” MER 215) Perhaps many believe that; believing it doesn’t make them right.
We don’t have a clue whether Saddam Hussein personally has changed. We do know that there is little in Iraq that has not changed since the war. Iraq’s military was decimated, and the infrastructure of a world-class oil industry and a technologically advanced modern society was destroyed. Economic sanctions have prevented their rebuilding. Whatever “he” may dream of, he could not start the whole thing again.
Fred Halliday notes that in Kuwait “virtually all the damage done to buildings has been repaired [and] the oilfields are functioning.” While the Compensation Fund that accelerated the rebuilding of Kuwait still claims 30 percent off the top of Oil-for-Food revenues, Iraqi civilians survive — or don’t — on a monthly food basket that lasts only 21 — 23 days. Kuwaitis may indeed feel a “deep, enduring insecurity,” but the fact is that Kuwait today remains under the protective umbrella of the US military, including the Sixth Fleet.
Do these realities matter? For Kuwaitis, maybe not. But in the US, where the anti-sanctions movement is working hard to educate a new generation in real history and politics and US policy, they matter a great deal. MERIP should be standing at the center of that movement. Challenging US policy is precisely what MERIP should be doing. n
I read with great interest Fred Halliday’s “Letter from Kuwait” (MER 215), especially his observations on the “desertification” of Kuwaiti society. Here, Halliday refers to the ongoing “process of conservatism” which he sees as related to the increased participation of tribal elements in Kuwaiti politics. I lived in Kuwait from the mid-1980s to 1990, and have visited the country frequently over the past five years. The presence of tribal elements — not only in politics but in every aspect of social life — has indeed grown during this period. Kuwaitis are acutely aware of this phenomenon, though not everyone regards it as a problem. Rather than “desertification,” though, people commonly speak of “tribalization.” People with a Bedouin tribal background have gone from being a small minority of Kuwaiti citizens in the early 1960s to being a fast-growing majority. In 1961, the total number of Kuwaiti citizens was around 170,000. Today it is close to 750,000. The major reason for this remarkable growth is the mass naturalization of Bedouin tribes, mainly from Saudi Arabia. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the authorities granted Kuwaiti nationality to thousands of Saudi nationals for the purpose of increasing the Kuwaiti population. Today, an estimated 60 percent of Kuwaiti citizens are naturalized Bedouin. In politics, they have allied themselves with the Islamists. It is the combination of conservative politics and demography that elicits concern among many urban Kuwaitis.
Halliday also mentions the National Assembly’s rejection of the Amir’s decree on women’s rights, pinning the blame on the Islamists, and “other MPs who said they…did not want to be instructed by the Amir on political reform.” Halliday reduces these MPs’ efforts to defend constitutional rule in Kuwait to something akin to adolescent rebellion against enlightened paternal authority. No one would dispute that the rejection was tragic, all the more so since the ban on women’s political rights blatantly violates the constitution. But to redress one wrong with another is hardly ideal. The important question is why the reform came as a decree, just a few weeks before the new National Assembly was elected. According to the Kuwaiti constitution, amiri decrees are issued only when “[necessity arises] for urgent measures to be taken while the National Assembly is not in session or is dissolved.” It should come as no surprise that the liberal deputies who had been struggling for years to defend the integrity of the constitution against attempts at infringement by the government felt obliged to reject the decree. To do otherwise would have undermined their credibility the next time a decree brings about less liberal or outright illiberal reforms. If the real purpose was to pass a law on women’s rights, a draft law could have been submitted to the National Assembly while it was in session.
In light of Kuwait’s parliamentary history, the constitutional argument needs to be taken seriously. By issuing a decree, the government looked enlightened, while those who voted it down were branded as backward and patriarchal. Further, the government consistently avoided the question of women’s rights when these dark forces did not hold a majority in the National Assembly. The government has demonstrated that it is possible to have one’s cake and eat it, too.
Anh Nga Longva
University of Bergen, Norway
I have read with interest the letters from Phyllis Bennis and Anh Nga Longva. I appreciate Phyllis’s praise for my record, but would be nervous about the word “impeccable”: life and politics are a bit too complex for that. Three issues at least merit comment. First, my view remains that the position which Phyllis Bennis articulates about US policy on Kuwait, which has come to dominate MERIP’s coverage, was mistaken in 1990 and is mistaken now. Nobody likes to support military intervention, above all by powers with an imperialist history, but in some cases it is the lesser of two evils. The difficulty which much of the US activist community has had over the past decade lies in its failure to realize, or even be willing to discuss, this. The same interpretation of “anti-imperialism” beset discussion throughout the 1990s on Bosnia, Kosovo and even East Timor. One does not have to endorse any of those interventions, or take them as a package, but the “no war, no US intervention” line is simplistic, a mirror image of hegemonic self-righteousness.
Secondly, on Iraq. That the regime has changed in any fundamental way would come as a surprise to any Iraqi, Arab or Kurd, or to any of the neighbors who have suffered its aggression: I would not try the Bennis argument in Tehran. The crisis in Iraq today is not a result, as is easily claimed, solely of sanctions, but of two other factors: one, the misappropriation by the regime of large sums of money for military and elite expenditure; two, the long-term consequences of the Iran-Iraq war — Iraqi per capita income fell from $8,000 in 1980 to $1,000 in 1990. Many of the problems seen today, not least in health provision, date from that war. Hence the mistaken message on the front cover of MER 215: it is the cost of twenty, not ten, years that needs analysis, as does the role of the Saddam Hussein regime in creating and perpetuating Iraqis’ misery.
Finally, on MERIP and its stance. I do not think that MERIP has been, or should become, an instrument of activism. It should inform the activists, but not be dictated to by them. It has an informational role, it has a role to represent debate, not just one stance. It is not, I would venture, purely a journal for, or written by, Americans. Solidarity is more complex than activists suggest. On Palestine, MERIP was right to support the right of the Palestinians to their state, but, as I long argued with the editors, wrong to deny the need for a two state solution. On issues of Orientalism and Western bias, MERIP and its associates were too long caught in another mirror image, one which failed to address misrepresentation in east as well as west. The Iranian revolution was a particular spur to such debates. Hence too my disagreement with Anh Nga Longva on the issue of women’s rights in Kuwait: this yields too much to cultural relativism and betrays the cause for which so many Kuwaiti women have struggled. A recognition of complexity, and a certain negotiated relationship to the kinds of anti-imperialism prevalent on the US left, may be in order. I trust that MERIP can continue to be somewhere where we can debate these matters.
London School of Economics