On February 16, US and British warplanes bombed targets outside the no-fly zones for the first time since December 1998, prompting a brief media frenzy that refocused the world’s attention on the low-level US-UK air war waged against Iraq since the 1990-1991 Gulf war. But the media mostly missed the real story. With bitter irony, George W. Bush’s characterization of the raid as a “routine mission” highlighted the media’s near-total neglect of the remarkable escalation of bombing inside the no-fly zones over the last two years. When the story faded from the front pages, US Iraq policy had once again escaped the thorough interrogation it deserves.
The latest raid, personally authorized by Bush, exposes the essential contradiction of US Iraq policy since 1991: measures employed to protect Iraqi civilians and topple Saddam Hussein have instead strengthened his regime and devastated Iraqi society. US claims that the bilaterally enforced no-fly zones protect Kurds in the north and Shi’a in the south are specious. The northern no-fly zone has not protected Kurds in Kirkuk from expulsion by the Iraqi army, nor does it apply to Turkish aircraft, whose repeated incursions into northern Iraq to hunt PKK fighters have caused civilian deaths and extensive property damage. Since 1994, State Department reports have conceded that the southern zone does not protect Shi’a civilians from Iraqi ground forces and artillery. The no-fly zones — which cost US taxpayers billions of dollars annually — are mostly a way for successive US administrations to appear “tough” on the Iraqi regime.
Almost absent from media assessments of the “damage” done by the latest bombing was any reference to the lasting damage to Iraqi society caused by the US-led economic sanctions. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell can still distract the domestic media by averring that Saddam Hussein hoards or misspends the oil revenue Iraq obtains through the UN’s Oil for Food program — hence the US has no responsibility for the deaths and malnutrition of children. (No one mentions the children who died before Oil for Food any longer.) But in the international arena, the US and UK face growing criticism for placing capricious “holds” on non-military goods ordered by Iraq to maintain and improve its infrastructure. The maze of restrictions is baffling even to insiders. As Benon Sevan, executive director of the UN Iraq Program Office, said: “Don’t look for logic in the Iraq program. There is no logic.” Quite independent of Oil for Food, increased oil smuggling and sanctions-busting humanitarian flights from Europe and the Arab world have mitigated the humanitarian crisis inside Iraq. Long after the sanctions are gone, Iraq’s schools, health care facilities and water supply and irrigation systems will struggle to recover from years of degradation. Every day that passes with the US refusing to lift sanctions increases US culpability for this disaster.
In this context, the media focus on “what to do about Saddam” after the bombing was a major public relations victory for the US. Talk about “self-defense” and “keeping him in a box” again diverted attention from the fact that US Iraq policy has failed. On February 22, the Washington Post reported that nearly half of the “precision-guided” standoff missiles fired February 16 missed their targets. Given the numerous Republican tongue-lashings the Clinton administration received for its “pinprick” bombings, we may reasonably expect that the Bush administration will order another raid to finish the job.
As Powell prepares for his whistlestop “listening tour” of several Middle Eastern countries beginning February 23, initial signals indicate that the US and UK may try to trade relaxation of the punishing economic sanctions for tacit Arab approval of stepped-up military action against the Iraqi regime, possibly including another doomed adventure for the fractious Iraqi opposition. The only “international leader” who cheered the last attack was Ahmad Chalabi, head of the feckless Iraqi National Congress, who — by happy coincidence — was visiting the State Department the day the missiles hit the outskirts of Baghdad. Apparently, the US and the Iraqi regime will recommence their ten-year danse macabre: the “bold” initiatives of each merely fuel the public relations machines of the other, and Iraqi civilians pay the price.