This is the sixth installment in a series on issues of War or Peace. There will only be two more installments. I promise.
I’m trying to gain some perspective on a century and a half of wars and empire-building by the United States. I think I have a thesis which is rather simple, so please hear me out.
The Persian Gulf War, what I will call Bush War I for simplicity sake, was not a war at all but rather the beginning of permanent war. Everything since is not a series of separate events but a continuation of what is now a normal state of affairs. It is the modus operandi of the empire; it’s what keeps the business running, the oil in the machine, if you will. It is the state religion and an integral part of our culture and so-called “civilized society.”
That quick and nasty little war that George Bush the First and all his henchmen brought us, the war that most Americans probably forgot about years ago, was in fact the most successful one of all. It was successful because it set the stage and opened the door to the ultimate objective: endless war to sustain the empire.
Remember Vietnam? Probably one of the most savage and senseless wars in human history, up to that point. So what was the one good thing to come out of that war, which took down a president and utterly destroyed an entire country in Southeast Asia? It was something called the Vietnam Syndrome.
No, it’s not a virus to be defeated with a dose of antibiotics. It’s the name that was given by the principalities and powers to the natural aversion of humans to military force, foreign intervention and war. It’s the natural predisposition that war should be avoided at all cost, except for the most justifiable of causes, and that there should be reasonable limits to national power. In other words, it was a disease that had crept into the American psyche and needed to be vanquished.
After Bush War I came Clinton’s war, which was war-by-another-name, but nearly as deadly and disastrous. And that flowed right into Bush War II, where that nasty syndrome seemed to rear its ugly head again for a moment. But then came the relief of the Obama years, when the liberals all agreed that war, state-sponsored assassination and repression were fine as long as there was a black face at the helm of the imperial ship of state.
My thesis is that Bush War I was truly unique: the war that would make all things possible (except peace). All wars are cruel and, Catholic doctrine aside, none are “just.” But this war went beyond cruelty to sadism and barbarism. Violence and barbarism were not means to an end, but the end itself.
It was the institutionalization of terror. The charge could be made that it was a pointless war, except that the war itself was the point.
It was probably the most hypocritical of wars in a long history of ignominious US foreign policy in which hypocrisy has always played a major role. Last but not least, this sordid little war was the one where our exalted “free press” officially became part of the machinery of death. Moving forward, we would have our “smart” weapons and a dumb and drugged media to do the bidding of the principalities and powers. No more speaking truth to power. The media would partner with those in power in speaking lies to the public.
So why was there a war? What was the motivation, and why did Bush and his cronies rush to war before peace had a chance to break out?
Les Aspin, a Wisconsin Congressman who was head of the House Armed Services Committee, said the goal was to determine “whether we can or cannot still call on force to achieve our goals abroad.” A former Strategic Air Command (SAC) general commented that the war was necessary to give “a demonstration to the world” of “the real capability of some weapons that a lot of us have been working on for decades.” The Wall Street Journal said the purpose of the war was to let “America, and above all its elite, recover a sense of self-confidence and self-worth.”
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, hardly a left-wing radical, said the war “is about making money, about protecting governments loyal to America and punishing those which are not, and about who will set the price of oil.”
Diana Johnstone, in In These Times, may have said it best: “This is a war to prove that war works, that war is possible, that war is the future. It is the triumph of Henry Kissinger’s life work: to enable the US to overcome the inhibitions of nuclear deterrence and take up war as a normal instrument of foreign policy. It is the expression of our technological culture in which mastery of inert objects–missiles, electronic guidance systems, satellites–is so overwhelming that it allows our leaders to dispense altogether with the less quantifiable and more subtle science of human understanding.”
So yes, the war was a success. It was a feel-good pill for the wealthy and powerful. It was a show of force. It was an obscene display of “smart” new weapons and war technology and a beguiling invitation to Mideast countries to gorge themselves at the US arms bazaar.
What was the price? Only history can judge. Was it worth it? It depends on where you sit. If you happen to sit in the White House or a palace in Saudi Arabia, the answer is probably yes.
The US air campaign over Iraq and Kuwait was the most intensive, violent and sustained bombardment in human history.
The US dropped 82,000 tons of bombs during its six-week campaign. According to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the bombs measured ten times the explosive power of all the bombs dropped on Japan in the final 14 months of World War II.
How many people died in the war? The US wasn’t saying. General Norman Schwarzkopf, in charge of the slaughter, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying: “I have absolutely no idea what the Iraqi casualties [are], and I tell you, if I have anything to say about it, we’re never going to get into the body-counting business.” But estimates from various sources placed the total number of Iraqi troops killed at 100,000 to 200,000. Fewer than 150 Americans lost their lives.
This was just the kind of war the US needed: quick, clean and brutal. As an article in The Progressive a couple months after the war pointed out, the government and its think tanks had determined, in a 1984 study, that the citizenry still had a tendency to “fear and resist involvement that may draw US forces into another foreign conflict.” (The syndrome.)
In wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, and proxy wars in Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia and elsewhere, the US used mass assassination and other tactics to dispose of a third of a million people with only about 200 American casualties. Then they perfected the formula with the invasions of Grenada and Panama: paint the enemy as evil, strike with disproportionate force, and get the killing done before Americans die.
In my file on Bush War I, I came across two essays by Edward Said, the Columbia University professor who died in 2003. I think they are worth quoting at length for their perspective and their prophetic nature. In the first, published in The Christian Science Monitor in August, 1990, Said wrote:
“Saddam is a deeply unattractive, indeed revoltingly tough and callous leader, who has suppressed personal freedoms, subjected his gifted and hard-working people to unimaginable rigors, and harassed and invaded his neighbors. But he is neither mad nor, I would suggest, an unexpected figure to emerge out of the desolation that has characterized recent Arab history. He is admired today by many Arabs who deplore his methods, but who say the world is essentially dominated by powers who invade, grab land, and attempt to change governments.
Turkey seized part of Cyprus a few years ago, the Russians invaded Afghanistan, the US has bombed or invaded Grenada, Libya, and only a matter of months ago, Panama, because it suited its interests, as defined by the president. Above all, every Arab is agonizingly aware that because of an American green light the Israeli army invaded Lebanon, killed 20,000 people, attempted to destroy the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and set up a basically puppet government.
The US did not apply sanctions to Israel, and continues to subsidize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and part of South Lebanon. At the UN, the US blocked any censure of Israel; together the two countries defied the entire world, with the US permitting only resolutions to pass that “regretted” the “violence on both sides,” a phrase both cynical and insulting. The habitual American leniency toward Israel confirms an indecent double standard …
We should not therefore underestimate Saddam’s appeal to Arabs who feel that nothing less than the future of Arab civilization is at stake. Historically opposed by the West, regarded with contempt and through a racist optic that considers Arabs mainly as greasy oil-suppliers, terrorists, or camel-jockeys, a resurgent Arab nationalism has taken heart from the resistance embodied in the Palestinian intifadah, the various Islamic groupings, and the Iraqi president …
Governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Jordan are likely to recover badly, if at all, from the US rush to military reaction. Immense economic and ecological changes unforeseen in their scope will, I think, radically change the face of the whole Middle East. And I greatly fear that Arab nationalist hopes and cultural assertions will yet again be re-channeled into xenophobia, religious revivalism, and the politics of hostility and revenge.
No Arab can excuse today’s ghastly spectacle of corrupt or unjust regimes, massive social and economic inequities, horrendously backward educational and cultural establishments, overblown security apparatuses and abrogated democratic freedoms. But I submit, the Western–and especially the American–failure to draw out the Arabs in a real dialogue, to take their hopes and fears seriously, has contributed to much of what is unattractive in the Arab world.”
An opinion piece published in the New York Times five months later, on January 11, 1991, six days before the US air offensive began, was titled A Tragic Convergence. What follows are a few paragraphs from that essay:
“Clearly, the major reason for the American buildup and the increasing likelihood of war is that the US still believes in its right to project its power where it pleases, for its own ends, wrapped in its own “higher” morality and principles.
This is an imperialist ideology. In the new world now dominated by one superpower, US policymakers feel an urgent need to confront challenges to American interests and, if necessary, to rout the challengers.
It is terrifying to watch Iraq now being readied for mass destruction. First its leader is transformed into the personification of evil, and our new allies “the embodiment of virtue.” Then Iraq’s people and society are reduced to “military assets” in a demonized “Islamic jihad.”
Finally, after some arbitrary deadline has expired, Iraqi society is declared a virtual nonentity, with cities to be smashed from great distances and heights, agriculture and industry to be torched, roads and bridges to be reduced to rubble. In all this, Western ignorance of Arab and Islamic culture becomes a useful mode of warfare: The enemy is easily dehumanized and readied for the final blow …
Who has given the US the right to project its power while simultaneously proclaiming its higher purpose and superior wisdom? The US is in fact repeating the practices employed by the British and French in the 19th Century. The big differences are that Washington today is capable of much greater destruction, and it refuses to admit that it is engaged in the business of empire …
The Gulf is not merely an empty desert with a large pool of “our” oil underneath and a whole bunch of sheiks, terrorists or Hitlers on top. It is a place with actual peoples, traditions and societies whose aspirations and values have to be viewed as having merit independent of our needs and attitudes …
So overbearing have Arab rulers become that the most grotesque situations are tolerated … No Arab president or king is accountable to his people; this is just as true of Saddam Hussein as of the others.
The bureaucracies and the secret police rule more or less unchallenged although they are universally hated and feared. Only some of this can be blamed on imperialism or Zionism for, after all, it was the Arab states that deserted the Palestinian intifada. There is no Arab country today that can adequately defend itself or its borders, yet national security arguments are used to justify gigantically large outlays of money for imported weapons, standing armies and praetorian guards …
The tragedy, then, is that there is a convergence between an imperialist American will to war against an upstart third world state and an almost equally remorseless Arab propensity to violence and extremism that began with Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait and continues in the Iraqi-Kuwaiti-Saudi-Egyptian drive to war.
A further irony is that this convergence is beginning to look like a conflict between Islam and the West, those two always convenient rubrics. A sobering look at the concretely terrible consequences of a war that seems ever more likely might set a different course–less imperious and dreary–for Americans and Arabs alike. There can be no real winner in this war, despite braggadocio and threats. It must not begin at all.”
Writing in New Statesman and Society, also in August, 1990, Eqbal Ahmad referred to the US’s “splendid affliction with the Vietnam Syndrome” and its subsequent recovery from the disease. “Their responses to the latest crisis in the Middle East suggest that Congress and the media have decisively overcome the nascent habit of casting critical eyes at flexed American muscles,” he commented.
Ahmad, who died in 1999, was a Pakistani writer, lecturer, historian and activist who studied and taught at Princeton and other universities in the United States. For ten years he was a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. In 1971, he was indicted along with anti-war priest Phillip Berrigan and other militant priests, nuns, teachers and students on federal charges of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger in a plot to end the bombing of Southeast Asia. (The jury declared a mistrial.)
“In order … to establish the uniqueness of Iraq’s aggression in Kuwait,” Ahmad wrote, “the press has repeatedly stated that in the contemporary period no Arab country has invaded another. The statement obscures the more relevant fact that in recent decades invasions and annexations have been routinely carried out in the Middle East. Until it reacted to the Iraqi adventure, the United States had aided and condoned them all.”
Ahmad went on to point out that the United Nations was widely praised in the US for condemning Iraq and imposing sanctions. But he reminded readers that “in 1982 similar resolutions against Israel’s immensely more destructive invasion of Lebanon were repeatedly vetoed by the United States.”
“For the Arab people, this has been an era of grief and humiliation,” he wrote. “Since the end of the second world war, five Arab countries–Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt–have lost all or part of their land to Israel. Egypt finally regained Sinai but at the cost of betraying the others, and isolating itself from the Arab milieu.”
Ahmad went on to explain how a “power vacuum” came to exist in the Middle East, starting in the 1980s. When he signed a separate peace agreement with Israel, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat anticipated a comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict that never materialized. “After making peace with its most populous and powerful Arab enemy, Israel proceeded to colonize and conquer the others with ruthless impunity,” he recounted.
Under the Camp David Accord, “A fraction of the Palestinian people (under one third of the whole) is promised a fraction of its rights (not including the national right to self-determination and statehood) in a fraction of its homeland (less than one-fifth of the area of the whole),” he said, quoting another commentator. Only days after the treaty had been signed, Israel announced the establishment of new Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories. This was a violation of promises made at Camp David, as Jimmy Carter would confirm.
“The sheikhs, led by Saudi Arabia, pleaded with Washington to save Arab face and their own dynastic future,” wrote Ahmad. “But they are prisoners of dependence and uneven development. They have acquired wealth without working and make enormous profits without producing. Their countries are littered with expensive machines but they have no technology. Their economies have tied them symbiotically to the United States. As expectations failed, they became objects of contempt. The power vacuum in the Arab world came to be palpably felt.
“The first clear sign that Iraq, not its Ba’athist rival Syria, was keen to fill the vacuum in the Middle East came when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980. Instead of discouraging his adventure, the United States quietly helped his ally, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait supplied Iraq with no less than US $60 billion in aid. The monster, if that is what Saddam is, was made by them.”
When Iraq invaded Iran in September, 1980, initiating a war that lasted for most of the decade, the US pursued a policy of playing both sides against the middle, with the objective of ensuring that neither nation would emerge with hegemony in the region. While maintaining what a White House official characterized as “55-45 percent neutrality” in favor of Iraq, the US helped both sides at one time or another. It secretly sold weapons to Iran in ’85 and ’86 while publicly asking its allies to embargo arms sales to that country. It provided reconnaissance information to Iraq via Saudi Arabia while clandestinely slipping information to Iran about Iraq. The US saw the Iran-Iraq war as an opportunity to increase its influence and military presence in the Gulf.
Despite this cynically opportunistic approach–a trademark of US foreign policy–the Reagan and Bush administrations consistently encouraged and supported Hussein during his rise to power. Early in 1983, when Iraq was near bankruptcy, the US granted $400 million in credit guarantees for the import of US wheat and agricultural commodities. Later that year, the “tilt” towards Iraq continued with the US informing its European and Gulf allies that an Iraqi defeat “would be contrary to US interests.”
In 1984, the same year the US confirmed Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran, Ronald Reagan restored full diplomatic relations with Iraq. The US encouraged its allies to make major weapons sales to Iraq, since the Soviet Union had cut off sales when Iraq invaded Iran.
At an international conference on chemical weapons in Paris in 1989, the Bush Administration protected Saddam by opposing efforts of other countries to name Iraq as a violator of chemical weapons accords. In June, 1990, less than two months before Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the Bush Administration refused to endorse attempts by members of Congress to impose sanctions against Iraq for its human rights record and the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iraq for using chemical weapons on its own people.
Finally, on July 25, 1990, just one week before the Iraqi invasion, US Ambassador April Glaspie met with Hussein in Baghdad and told him: “President Bush is an intelligent man. He is not going to declare an economic war against Iraq.” She added, “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border dispute with Kuwait.”
Three days later the CIA informed Bush that there “was a high degree of probability” that Iraq was going to invade Kuwait. Still, the only action the US took was to kill a Voice of America broadcast warning Iraq against invading Kuwait.
All indications were that the US was giving Iraq a green light and that the intent was to trap Saddam in a war. This is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility given that Bush was “an intelligent man,” as well as the nation’s former chief spook.
Jonathan Ide, a Madison, Wisconsin researcher, published a well-documented paper titled The Gulf War: A Citizen’s Questions, shortly after the war. In his 20-page paper, he detailed the various grievances that motivated Hussein to invade Kuwait, his efforts to negotiate, and the US response. As Ide explained, Hussein had three main grievances:
First, that during its war with Iran, Kuwait’s border with Iraq had “crept north” until 900 square miles had been incorporated into Kuwait territory, including a tip of the rich oil reserve at Rumaila. Iraq also claimed that Kuwait was slant-drilling wells in order to extract Iraqi oil from Rumaila.
Second, Iraq had long sought naval access to the Gulf. It wanted rights to two uninhabited islands that belonged to Kuwait, and had offered to lease the islands. Kuwait had refused.
Third, Kuwait had been depressing world oil prices by overproduction, costing Iraq billions in lost revenue. Since Iraq was in a desperate economic state, this was something it could not afford to lose.
Overproduction by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in violation of OPEC quotas, had forced the price of oil as low as $11 or $12 a barrel, while Iraq wanted an oil price of $25 a barrel. During spring and summer of 1990, Iraq held negotiations with Kuwait, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. At one point, the oil ministers of all these countries agreed to push their oil prices gradually higher, but the following day the Kuwaiti oil minister announced that Kuwait would significantly increase production instead.
To make matters worse, Iraq had entered the war with Iran with $40 billion dollars in the bank, but left it $80 billion in debt. Kuwait had provided about $10 billion to Iraq during the war, which Saddam thought had been a grant. When the war ended, Kuwait demanded repayment and refused to restructure the debt.
As Ide pointed out, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the US refused to respond to at least five Iraqi overtures to negotiate. These offers were documented by The Nation, Der Spiegel, The Progressive and other publications. On August 9, 1990, one week after its invasion, Iraq sent a proposal to Washington offering to withdraw its troops in exchange for three things: control of the Rumaila oil field, access to the Persian Gulf, and US-Iraqi negotiations on oil prices.
Two weeks later, Iraq went further, offering to release all hostages, asking for sanctions to be lifted when a settlement was reached, and calling for the two countries to work together to “improve stability in the Gulf and to ease Iraq’s economic problems.”
At the start of the new year, as reported in Newsday, Iraq offered “to withdraw from Kuwait if the United States pledges not to attack as soldiers are pulled out, if foreign troops leave the region, and if there is agreement on the Palestinian problem and on the banning of all weapons of mass destruction in the region.” Furthermore, the New York Times reported that Yasser Arafat and Hussein were willing to drop their demands for “linkage” to the Palestinian problem provided there were assurances that the problem would be addressed in the future. This offer did not even mention the Rumaila oil field or access to the Gulf.
On January 14, the eve of war, France urged the UN Security Council to call for “a rapid and massive withdrawal” from Kuwait, together with a pledge that the Council would help settle regional matters, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by convening an international conference to work out “the security, the stability, and development of this region of the world.”
In exchange for no war, all the US was obliged to do was agree to a peace conference. But the French resolution was vetoed by the US and Britain. On February 15, Baghdad Radio announced an offer of “conditional “ withdrawal from Kuwait, asking only that it not take place under fire. The White House called the offer a “cruel hoax,” insisting the withdrawal must come before a cease-fire.
By February 21, Iraq had agreed to terms of a Soviet peace initiative, which included a specific timetable for withdrawal. But the US rejected the Soviet plan and gave Iraq 24 hours to start withdrawing under their terms. As the New York Times reported, “some American officers in Washington have said privately that an Iraqi retreat is “the last thing they want to see.”
As Jonathan Ide remarked in his paper, it was not really a war, it was a massacre, or, to use General Schwarzkopf’s words, “a war of annihilation.” This was most evident in the “ground war,” which was not a ground offensive at all. It appears that Iraqi forces had already started to withdraw on February 21, two days before the US launched its offensive, when Iraq accepted the Soviet peace initiative.
Although the White House and the military tried to hide the fact that the US was attacking Iraqi troops trying to withdraw, some US pilots gave the Washington Post a different story. They described a “massive, disorderly retreat” and termed the bombing offensive a “turkey shoot” and “like shooting fish in a barrel.”
As I’m writing this, I have in front of me, pulled from my files, a letter from Kathy Kelly, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Chicago activist who works with Voices for Creative Nonviolence. The letter is dated February 23, 1991 and addressed to an old friend of mine, Laurie Hasbrook, whom I knew from my years in Milwaukee. Kathy is writing from Amman, Jordan, where she has traveled with the Gulf Peace Team. The team had been evacuated from Baghdad on February 1 and she had felt “chilled and dismal,” she wrote. The letter is impeccably typed, which seems to belie the gravity of the situation.
“On the road between Baghdad and Amman, we passed numerous smoldering vehicles. Tankers, buses, cars … the route is vital for civilians who want to flee from the war and for humanitarian convoys that evacuate the wounded or bring supplies for the needy,” Kathy wrote.
She went on to describe how a donor had sent a huge shipment of milk supplement and baby food, none of which could be included in their convoy because UN sanctions only allowed Jordan’s Red Crescent to send medical supplies. Janet, a doctor from Scotland, is shedding tears while she hoists heavy bags of milk supplement off one of the trucks, so as not to compromise Jordan’s neutrality.
Already 14 Jordanian drivers have been killed while traveling on the road, but Kathy described the Red Crescent convoy drivers as playful and full or energy. “It was wonderful to see them clamber into the seven vehicles that formed our convoy, the first international relief convoy sponsored by the Red Crescent.” Fifteen tons of medical supplies were delivered.
Later, in a Red Cross international refugee camp, Kathy’s team is visited, late at night, by two doctors. One is an Algerian Red Cross doctor, the other the director of International Development for the Iraqi Red Crescent. Both had just left Baghdad on route to Amman. “The Algerian doctor described the situation in Baghdad as a siege on civilians,” Kathy wrote. “He said that average healthy people won’t die from going without food for several weeks. It’s the babies, the nursing mothers and the elderly pensioners who will suffer needlessly.” The 1949 Geneva Conventions endorse the basic rights of civilian victims of war, she notes.
Jean Dreze, a Belgian member of the peace team, had done extensive research on the impact of famine caused by the Gulf War. Millions of civilians, not only in the Gulf but elsewhere, suffer severely from the ravaging disruption of ordinary life caused by the war, she reported. Deep economic recession in many countries, famine in large parts of Africa, and a catastrophic oil slick in the Persian Gulf were only a few examples of devastation caused by the conflict.
The infant mortality rate had doubled in Iraq, Kathy added. From 1989 to 1990, Iraq had imported $2 million worth of medical supplies daily, she wrote. Since the embargo, it had dropped to less than $2 million a month. “If only nations would wage war on poverty and hunger with the same determination and political will as they are currently waging war against Iraq,” Kathy wrote near the end of her letter home.
Kathy Kelly’s peace contingent departed Baghdad on February 1 and Ramsey Clark arrived in Iraq the following day. Clark was the Attorney General in Lyndon Johnson’s administration. (His father, Tom Clark, had served as Attorney General under Harry Truman and later as a conservative Supreme Court justice under Earl Warren).
In a March editorial in The Nation, Clark described his week-long visit to Iraq with two filmmakers and an Iraqi-born American citizen. They traveled over 2,000 miles and “saw probably several hundred damaged or destroyed vehicles along the road. All were civilian vehicles: oil tankers, tractor-trailers, flatbeds, pickups, buses, minibuses, taxicabs and many private cars. In those we examined, we found no evidence of any military use,” he wrote.
The group examined civilian damage in Baghdad, Basra and Diwaniya, as well as smaller towns and communities. “No city, town or roadside stop we visited had running water, electricity, telephone service or adequate gasoline for transportation,” Clark wrote. “The effect on the cities has been disastrous.” The Minister of Health reported that the pollution of public water systems was the greatest health problem in the country, with tens of thousands known to be sick, hundreds of thousands assumed to be, and several thousand dead.
Basra was the most heavily damaged place the team visited, with hundreds of homes destroyed and hundreds of people killed and injured. Bombs had hit a low-cost, public housing development, killing 46 people and injuring more than 70, and other bombs hit an elementary and a high school. On the outskirts of Basra, a mosque was bombed to rubble and a family of at least ten were killed in the blast.
“Damage elsewhere in the cities and towns we visited was similar,” Clark reported. “There was no “collateral” military damage; all the destruction was to civilians. Bridges, telephone exchange, electric generator plants, water-processing and pumping stations, even government office buildings are essentially civilian and entirely noncombatant. We saw no evidence of military presence in any of the bombed areas we visited … The air assault deliberately targeting the civilian population of Iraq is a war crime.”
In an interview in The Progressive the following month, Clark described the systematic destruction of water systems, telecommunications, hospitals and everything pertaining to civilian life in Iraq. “It’s heartbreaking to witness,” he said. “The people are the ones getting bombed. You can’t bomb a city without killing people, and the idea that there’s pinpoint precision is ridiculous, a great falsehood.”
“I believe America must liberate itself from its love of violence and its love of wealth–which are closely integrated,” Clark commented in response to a question from the interviewer. “We are a plutocracy in the purest sense of the word–a government of wealth … you can’t see the autopsy photos of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Bob Kennedy and you can’t read the history of the Philippine-American war, and watch what we were doing in Vietnam, without rejecting violence. I completely reject violence. And yet, at the sacrifice of everything else, America spends hundreds of billions of dollars annually on violence. We really believe that might makes right, and that leads us to perpetual war.”
Kathy Kelly and Ramsey Clark visited Iraq in February. On March 20, the United Nations released a report on conditions of life in Iraq. It read in part:
Nothing that we had seen or read had quite prepared us for the devastation which has now befallen the country. The recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results upon the economic infrastructure of what had been, until January 1991, a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society. Now, most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous. Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age.
The Reuters news service estimated the damage to Iraq’s civilian infrastructure at $180 billion.
As with most wars, it was not just innocent people, civilian infrastructure and the environment that suffered in Bush War I. It was also the concept of truth and the right of citizens to know what their government is doing that was damaged, perhaps beyond repair.
Bush I used the same ploy that his son would employ a decade later to sell a gullible public on war with Iraq: the pretext that Iraq was dangerously close to developing weapons of mass destruction. On November 22, 1990, Bush was warning a divided country about the grave threat of Saddam’s atomic program. But a comprehensive survey of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists a few months later would show that “Iraq was many years away from developing usable nuclear weapons.”
All the same, the US chose to attack all of Iraq’s major nuclear-research facilities, including the Tuwaitha reactor complex just 25 miles south of Baghdad. It was the first attack ever on an operational nuclear reactor. According to the Bulletin, the two small research reactors at Tuwaitha “were unconnected to Iraq’s bomb program.”
As noted in In These Times a couple of months after the war, the US won a minor PR victory at home “but defeated years of progress in international nuclear-arms control.” Just before the war, the UN General Assembly had passed a resolution urging against such attacks.
In the six-month build-up to the war, the American public was fed a steady stream of stories about Iraq’s fearsome arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Only after the war did Americans learn that Iraq lacked the technology to deploy those weapons. The New York Times reported that “captured Iraqi soldiers said most units had inadequate chemical-protection equipment, in some cases not even gas masks.” Newsweek reported that “not a single [Iraqi] chemical weapon has been found.” Does this sound all too familiar? Exactly. The whole script would be replayed a little over a decade later with another Bush in the starring role.
The media also speculated that Saddam possessed exotic fuel-air explosives (FAEs), powerful bombs that spread a highly inflammable mist over a wide area that they then ignite. An article in the New York Times warned that “Hussein might be planning to use [a] … horrific weapon, never before employed in combat, known as the fuel-air bomb.”
The In These Times article after the war pointed out that the fuel-air bomb had, in fact, been used before, by the US in Vietnam. If Iraq did have FAEs, it chose not to use them. The Boston Globe reported, on February 6, that “fuel-air bombs may have been dropped over Iraq” the previous weekend. The next day the Los Angeles Times reported that journalists touring a US air base in the Gulf spotted FAEs stockpiled on the tarmac. A few days later, a military spokesman admitted the US was dropping FAEs on Iraqi troops. On February 16, the Times reported that the largest FAE in the US arsenal, the 15,000-pound BLU-82/B, was being dropped on Iraqi targets. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute noted that this bomb “produces a concussive blast greater than that of the smallest nuclear devices.”
Not all the weapons employed by the US were “high-tech.” More than six months after the war, stories began to appear in the mainstream media about how the US Army had “used plows mounted on tanks and combat earth-movers to bury thousands of Iraqi soldiers–some still alive,” during the early stages of the ground attack. New York Newsday and the Philadelphia Inquirer gave the story front-page coverage, while the New York Times waited a few days and then “buried” the story.
An article in a veteran newspaper called On Guard reported on this heinous act of burying Iraqi soldiers and the subsequent response of the press. In an accompanying article in On Guard, Professor Francis Boyle, an expert on international law at the University of Illinois, inventoried a number of the atrocities committed by US troops and sharply refuted a report by Greenpeace which he claimed whitewashed US conduct of the war. Here are a few of the examples he cited:
- When the US gave its final ultimatum for Iraq to withdraw its forces from Kuwait, it promised it would not attack retreating Iraqi forces. But attacking retreating Iraqi forces is exactly what Bush did. “This is clearly a war crime,” Boyle said.
- When Marine Corps aircraft joined ground troops and began to bomb Iraqis fleeing Kuwait, it was not just Iraqis but innocent Kuwaiti people fleeing Kuwait City who died on the “highway to hell,” Boyle pointed out. “My guess is that at least 5,000 Kuwaiti citizens were killed by US military forces on this highway,” he wrote.
“Notice the order by Schwarzkopf “not to let anybody or anything out of Kuwait City” was a war crime itself. It called for the indiscriminate destruction of these vehicles irrespective of whether civilians or military personnel were in them.” The US Air Force had been given instructions to make the area a “free fire zone,” Boyle said, and this was a violation of international law because of the refusal to discriminate between military and civilian targets.
- Boyle noted that Greenpeace admitted that a rationale of the bombing was “to achieve a psychological effect on the Iraqi people.” That meant these were “terror bombings” … “clearly prohibited by international law and constituted war crimes,” Boyle attested.
When the war broke out in January, 1991, I wrote a letter to my then congressman, Scott Klug. His response was unsatisfactory but, since he ended by saying “I hope you will continue to keep in touch,” I followed up my first letter with an eleven-page missive that included a lot of history concerning Iraq, Iran and the Middle East. I mentioned the impact of European colonialism and US imperialism on the region, Winston Churchill’s bombing of Iraq in the 1920s to secure British domination of the Iraqi oil fields, and the British use of poison gas and other weapons when villages failed to pay their tribute to the British Empire.
I quoted Alexander Cockburn quoting Churchill, who defended his use of chemical weapons as “the application of Western science to modern warfare” and as saying “We cannot … acquiesce in the non-utilization of any weapons that are available to procure a speedy termination to the disorder that prevails on the frontier.”
The “disorder on the frontier” induced the United States, around 1948, (the year I was born), to gradually assume the role of dominant power in the Middle East. The US spent the late 40s and early 50s wrestling and shadow boxing with Britain for control of Middle East oil. The US used strong diplomatic pressure to oust Russia from a province in northern Iran where the Soviet Union had secured an oil concession with a 51-49 division of profits. (This was embarrassing to the Brits, who had allowed Iran only a 20 percent cut of oil profits.)
On May 1, 1951, three days after Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister, and with some egging on by the US, Iran nationalized the billion-dollar British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The US then collaborated with Britain to boycott Iranian oil and cut off its markets, while simultaneously giving Iran monetary aid. The US played with Mossadegh like a puppet on a string.
When Eisenhower came to office in 1952, the US resolved its differences with Britain and the puppet’s strings were promptly cut. John Foster Dulles was appointed Secretary of State and his brother, Allen Dulles, became Director of the CIA. (For those of you unfamiliar with US history of this era, picture Al Capone and John Dillinger on an international scale.)
The following August, a CIA-directed coup overthrew the Iranian government and replaced it with one led by a former Nazi collaborator. The CIA agent who managed the coup, Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Teddy, later left the CIA to join the Gulf Oil Corporation as “government relations director” in Washington. No, I’m not making this up. It gets worse.
As the intrigue in Iran was being plotted, Kermit was joined in Teheran by Brigadier General H. Norman Schwarszkopf, who had reorganized the Shah’s police force in the 1940s. That’s right, as if two George Bushes were not bad enough, there were also two “Stormin Norman”s. (Like father, like son.) Schwarszkopf was an old friend of the Nazi collaborator and he claimed he was in Teheran “just to see old friends again.” In truth, he was part of the operation that overthrew the Iranian government.
As a result of the coup, Britain lost its oil monopoly and Iranian oil was turned over to a consortium of England, France, Holland and the US.
In January, 1957, Eisenhower delivered a proposal to Congress, known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, which asked for authority for the president to use armed force in the Middle East “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations requesting aid against armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism.” Six months later, the US sent marines into Lebanon, accompanied by an armada off the coast of Beirut. It was a response to a rebellion against a pro-Western and crooked government, as well as a revolution in Iraq against the British-installed and pro-Western monarchy there.
The US first contemplated armed intervention in Iraq to oust the new government, but could not find anyone to collaborate with against the popular revolution. Instead, the US and Britain announced, according to the New York Times, that they would not invade Iraq unless the government failed to “respect western oil interests.”
In The Causes of World War III, a book he published shortly after the coup in Iraq, C. Wright Mills cited a Congressional document indicating that US concern had more to do with access to oil than any threat of “International Communism.” In fact, Colonel Karim Kassem, who took power in the coup, outlawed the Communist Party and slaughtered thousands of communists immediately after assuming control.
Shortly after, Kassem was toppled in another coup, which the French press said was inspired by the CIA. Kassem had announced formation of a national oil company and, according to an interview in Le Monde days before the coup, he had been threatened with sanctions by the US State Department. The Brits, aware of plans to oust Kassem, stipulated that the new government must abandon any claims to Kuwait, (still under the aegis of the British Empire), and must not proceed with plans to exploit the oil in areas recently recovered by Iraq.
Next followed the Nixon Doctrine, with Iran designated to play the role of surrogate policeman in the Persian Gulf. US arms merchants sold over $8 billion worth of weapons to the Shah during the 1970s and 50,000 US advisors helped expand and train his army and hated secret police.
The popular revolution that deposed the Shah in 1979 significantly altered the power equation in the Middle East. This and other events in the region led Washington to revert again to a strategy of direct military intervention. Soon after Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, dusted off an idea that had been around at least since the Vietnam War. The US should create a military force that could be dispatched rapidly to the Persian Gulf or anywhere else in the Third World.
In his State of the Union address in January, 1980, Carter declared: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This became known as the Carter Doctrine.
Saudi Arabia, with a population too sparse to play a role like Iran had under the Nixon Doctrine, was ideally suited to assume a key role under the Carter Doctrine, which required not armies but bases in the Gulf. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia had courted US favor since its birth in 1932. Within a year, the Standard Oil Company of California cut a lucrative deal with Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman al Saud, the tribal leader who created the country by seizing territory from the Ottoman Turks.
The US government and US oil corporations have stood staunchly by the Saudi autocrats ever since, a relationship of mutual convenience. In what became known as the Irangate scandal, Congress refused the Reagan Administration funding for the Nicaraguan contras, so CIA chief William Casey called on the Saudi ambassador, who wrote a million dollar personal check for the contra account in Switzerland and promised another one every month.
Saudi princes have reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in kickbacks on contract with western firms, particularly in the area of arms acquisitions. Between 1970 and ’79, Saudi Arabia had already purchased $3.2 billion worth of US weapons and military services. By 1978, nearly 700 US military personnel and 10,000 civilians employed by US defense contractors were constructing military installations in the country. The pattern persisted into the next decade, with over $18 billion in arms sold to Saudi Arabia by the US, France, Great Britain and other nations between 1983 and 1987.
The Carter Administration couldn’t find a pawn in the Gulf region willing to openly play host for the Rapid Deployment Force headquarters, but Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 provided the necessary leverage for the US to extract more concessions from Saudi Arabia. Over the next decade, Saudi Arabia dumped over $50 billion into building a Gulf-wide air defense system to US and NATO specifications. By 1988, the US Army Corps of Engineers had designed and constructed a $14 billion network of military facilities across the country. In August, 1990, the Corps returned to construct more facilities for the US troops there, since original scenarios hadn’t anticipated such a large deployment of ground forces.
Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense under Reagan in the 1980s, wrote in a classified Defense Guidance report that US troops, not Saudis, would be the first-line forces in any crisis. “Whatever the circumstances,” he wrote, “we should be prepared to introduce American forces into the region should it appear that the security of access to Persian Gulf oil is threatened.”
US naval intervention became reality in July, 1987, when Reagan responded to a Kuwaiti request to place its oil tankers under US protection. The US sent an armada that grew to nearly 50 ships in and near the Gulf. There were several confrontations with Iranian forces–opportunities to test sophisticated new weapons–including the missile system that shot down an Iranian civilian plane, killing 291 people.
Which pretty much brings us back up to 1991 and Bush War I, and my letters to Congressman Klug. I sent copies of the letters to US Senators Robert Kasten and Herb Kohl, Congressmen Les Aspin, James Moody and Robert Kastenmaier, and the mayors of Madison and Milwaukee.
My long second letter went out on February 15, but Senator Kasten replied on the 14th that, “with a heavy heart,” he had voted for the resolution authorizing Bush to use all necessary means to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait. “I believe that the President made every effort for a peaceful solution,” he wrote.
I wonder if he ever bothered to read the second letter, which clearly, extensively and unequivocally documented the fact that the US had been preparing for three decades or more for a non-peaceful solution.
Michael Klare, a professor of Peace and World Security Studies, wrote in The Progressive a couple months after the war that “American war aims in the Persian Gulf were truly predatory. The intensity of the bombing and the determination to destroy everything of industrial or military value in Iraq suggest a goal that exceeds battlefield considerations.”
It was “Iraq’s future military capabilities that US officials worried about most,” Klare wrote, “it’s theoretical ability to emerge as a regional superpower in the late 1990s and thereby constrain Washington’s intent to dominate the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. American leaders viewed the destruction of Iraq as a warning to other rising Third World powers of the terrible risks they will incur if they contest US primacy in areas the United States deems critical.”
Later in his article, Klare noted that some pundits were speaking of a new “Pax Americana” based on US domination of the international community. Bush himself had labeled this arrangement a “New World Order.” But Klare warned that it would be a terrible mistake to assume all challenges to US domination would disappear.
“The Iraqi experience is likely to lead other aspiring nations to move more rapidly toward the development of nuclear weapons so that they can effectively deter military intervention by the United States and its allies,” he wrote. “And those angry people who do not have access to powerful weapons will find other ways of expressing their hostility, producing an endless need for US “peacekeeping” throughout the vast sweep of the Third World … The destruction of Iraq may endow America with a sense of omnipotence, but it will not bring us peace.”
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