Bush's Desolate Imperium, Copyright © Bernard Chazelle, Princeton, December 2003


If what Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair was true and, indeed, democracy and human rights were preeminent American concerns, then why did the US before the war put no pressure on Saddam to release political prisoners, allow inspections by ICRC officials, or supply the UN with lists of missing individuals? If NATO could threaten Milosevic over humanitarian considerations, why could the US not threaten Saddam on the same grounds? UN Resolution 1441 addresses only the issue of UNMOVIC and IAEA access to weapons sites in Iraq; not a word about human rights in its decisions [36]. There is no merit to the argument that Russia and China might have vetoed any UN resolution referring to human rights. For one thing, neither of them vetoed Resolution 688, which addressed the plight of the Kurds in 1991. But even if they did this time around, so what? The United States showed that it was willing to bypass the UN anyway. The issue of credibility goes far beyond missed opportunities, however. There are the intentions and then there is the history, the nefarious history of American involvement in Iraq.

First, the intentions. Apart from the Bush doctrinaires, few have clamored more loudly for a remaking of the Middle East along progressive lines than liberal columnist Thomas Friedman. (The pro-war camp cuts right through party lines.) His heartfelt longing for Iraqi democracy is unassailable; at least on the off days when he is not calling for a dictatorship:
... the best of all worlds: an iron-fisted Iraqi junta without Saddam Hussein. [37]
That was in the aftermath of Desert Storm. In early 2003, while keeping the welfare of Iraqis close to this heart, Friedman still displayed his legendary knack for cutting through the smarmy sentimentality of naive do-gooders.
... a war for oil? My short answer is yes. Any war we launch in Iraq will certainly be—in part—about oil. To deny that is laughable. [38]
Refreshing straight talk brought to you 100% sarcasm-free: The man actually approves. Now, why in the world would any Iraqi reading Friedman doubt the purity of American intentions? And keep in mind that this is not even one of those megalomaniac Bushies speaking but rather a pillar of the liberal establishment.

Another chink in the intentional argument is the widely shared belief that the US would never allow a democracy to take root if it were anti-American. The reality must be faced: A true democracy in Iraq today would almost certainly be anti-American. Does anyone in Washington seriously believe that a US promise not to mess with such an outcome would be taken seriously by anyone in the region? Of course, not. Unfortunately, Iraqi politicians know that, too; therefore, they would be less than impressed by a reassurance of noninterference coming from someone who they know full well does not even believe that his own reassurance is credible. A dialogue of the deaf.

And now, as promised, the history. Sadly, the United States has had a hand in virtually all of the calamities that have befallen Iraq in the last 40 years. The CIA funded the 1963 coup that brought the Ba'ath party to power and paved the way for Saddam's bloody takeover in 1979. In late 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, then President Reagan's special Mideast envoy, flew to Baghdad to assure Saddam of US support in the Iran-Iraq war (Washington's favorite spectator war). In the mid-eighties, State Department reports of Iraq's daily use of chemical weapons on Iranian troops did nothing to dent Saddam's image in the White House as our bulwark against Iran, the enemy du jour. That Iraq was a true ally was demonstrated in May 1987, when an Iraqi attack on the USS Stark killed 37 American sailors. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger immediately threatened Iran (no, this is not a typo), while the US quickly accepted an apology from Saddam. In March 1988, Saddam's forces killed over 5,000 Kurdish civilians by poison gas in Halabja. Repelled by this atrocity, the US Senate passed sweeping sanctions against Iraq. Reagan's fierce opposition killed the bill in the House. For good measure, his administration granted Iraq 65 licenses for dual-use technology exports in the weeks following the attack [39]. A year later, the White House provided Saddam with a billion-dollar loan [40]. Now, that's a friend for you.

Alas, the Washington-Baghdad lovefest did not last. On August 2, 1990, Saddam foolishly sent his tanks rolling into Kuwait. What gassing civilians, invading Iran, and slaughtering political opponents could not do, Saddam's designs on Kuwaiti oil did. He had crossed the red line. With an eloquence to rival his son's, Bush Sr declared three days later: "This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait." On January 16, 1991, his spokesman Marlin Fitzwater proudly announced, "The liberation of Kuwait has begun." To save anyone the embarrassment of taking the word liberation too seriously, Secretary of State James Baker had this pithy line: "It's about jobs, jobs, jobs!"

At the end of the conflict, the United States committed one of the most shameful betrayals in modern times [41]. Bush Sr encouraged Kurdish and Shi'ite uprisings, only to withdraw US support at the last moment and allow Saddam to slaughter as many as 100,000 people. Thomas Friedman had to see the "the mass graves and the true extent of Saddam's genocidal evil" to find justification for the war [18]. You mean to say, Mr. Friedman, you didn't know? You did not know that Saddam did the bulk of his butchering while enjoying full US support. To paraphrase FDR, Saddam was a son of a bitch, but he was our son of a bitch.
We created this monster. If you want to know who's to blame for all this, we are (Stephen D. Bryen, TIME interview [42]).
Who is this Stephen Bryen to accuse the US of creating the monster of Baghdad? Some anti-American pinko commie bastard? Actually, Reagan's Deputy Under Secretary of Defense.

If that were not enough, America bestowed other gifts on poor Iraqi citizens, no doubt cementing enduring gratitude. A 12-year regime of sanctions crippled an impoverished nation while doing nothing to hurt Saddam or threaten his grip on power. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that sanctions had caused the deaths of 567,000 children by 1995 [43]. UNICEF estimated that half a million children under the age of five had died as a result of sanctions [44]. Even a skeptic such as Columbia Professor Richard Garfield conceded a minimum of at least 150,000 excess deaths among young children [45]. UNICEF senior representative in Iraq, Anupama Rao Singh, reported on March 20, 2000 that mortality rates for young children had more than doubled by 1994. (As Garfield pointed out, not even World War II produced similar increases in child mortality.) By 1999, 13 percent of all Iraqi children were dead before their 5th birthday, mostly from contaminated water [46]. As John Pilger wrote in The Guardian on March 4, 2000 [47],
Chlorine, that universal guardian of safe water, has been blocked by the Sanctions Committee. In 1990, an Iraqi infant with dysentery stood a one in 600 chance of dying. This is now one in 50.
In early 2001, over the strenuous objection of health agencies worldwide, the Bush administration placed holds on $280 million worth of medical supplies such as vaccines against infant hepatitis, tetanus, and diphtheria for fear of dual use (a fear which biological weapons experts in Europe scoffed at). Only in March 2001, when the Washington Post and Reuters began to run stories about it, did the US relent and lift the holds. (Read Joy Gordon's chilling account in Harper's Magazine for the gory details [46].) Admittedly, the Clinton administration was no less shameful in its defense of the status quo. Here is a classic exchange on CBS's 60 Minutes between Lesley Stahl and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (December 5, 1996):

Stahl: We have heard that half a million children have
died. I mean, that's more children than died
in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?
Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the
price—we think the price is worth it.

The US rebuffed repeated efforts by UN Security Council members to amend the sanctions regime. If the proposed alternatives were found wanting, wasn't it incumbent upon the US and the UK to find better ones? They never even tried. At least not until 2001, when international pressure became too strong and a "smart sanctions" initiative (though barely less punitive) was introduced by the British—only to be scuttled by the Russians [48]. The sanctions hurt the people of Iraq while strengthening the grip of its ruling elite. Tellingly, Saddam's numerous palaces survived years of US-British strikes. The American position of keeping the status quo while blaming Saddam for all of Iraq's woes and doing nothing to hurt him was unconscionable. Few Iraqis will forgive, let alone forget, their grievous, unnecessary suffering.

The purpose of this brief journey through the sorrowful history of Iraq was not to criticize US policy (which, in fact, deserves even more criticism than this account suggests). It was to make the point that, whenever Bush talks about helping Iraq, its citizens can only laugh; and then cry.


[18] Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, June 2003.

[36] UN Resolution 1441, The Security Council, November 8, 2002.

[37] Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, July 7, 1991.

[38] A War for Oil?, by Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, January 5, 2003.

[39] US Diplomatic and Commercial Relationships with Iraq, 1980 - 2 August 1990.

[40] US Support for Iraq in the 1980s, Center for Cooperative Research.

[41] The Ghosts of 1991, by Peter W. Galbraith, Washington Post, Saturday, April 12, 2003.

[42] Making of a Monster: How the US Helped Build Iraq's War Machine, by William P. Hoar, The New American, September 1992.

[43] A Hard Look at Iraq Sanctions, by David Cortright, The Nation, December 3, 2001.

[44] Iraq surveys show 'humanitarian emergency, Unicef Information Newsline, August 12, 1999.

[45] Columbia News Video, by Prof. Richard Garfield, March 03, 2000.

[46] Cool War, by Joy Gordon, Harper's Magazine, November 2002.

[47] Squeezed to death, by John Pilger The Guardian, Saturday March 4, 2000.

[48] Iraq 'smart sanctions' derailed by Russia, by Anton La Guardia, telegraph.co.uk, April 7, 2001.