Edward Herman on U.S. Aggression Against Iraq
ZNet Commentary, 2002-12-06

It is pretty depressing to see how frequently liberals and some leftists have been unable to maintain a principled opposition to the U.S. policies toward Iraq, which, following more than a decade of "sanctions of mass destruction" are now rushing us toward a war of outright aggression. There is significant opposition, manifested in the growing and numerous protest marches and teach-ins, where people of quite varied political beliefs have expressed opposition to the prospective war. But this widespread and deepening dissent has had only a modest impact on the mass media, which are still serving mainly as conduits and press agents of the war party, and the liberals and "leftists" who make it there commonly accept premises of the war party and serve its interests, which is of course why they make it into the media.

Many of the liberals and leftists who have joined the war party, or criticize it only on tactical grounds, have been overwhelmed by the flood of administration and administration-supportive propaganda, and find it difficult to escape that barrage. Some, however, are what Eric Alterman approvingly calls the "patriotic left," who are not leftists but liberals who cannot bear to see their country accused of criminal behavior and insist on "balance," "pragmatism" (i.e., accepting the premises of state policy), and support for moderate and reasonable interventionism.

Without stopping here to analyse the work of the patriotic left (see my "The Cruise Missile Left," Z Magazine, November 2002), let me review first some of the paralyzing elements of the PR barrage, then note briefly points downplayed or omitted by the patriotic left and other apologists for war.


1. Saddam Hussein is evil, hence his removal is justifiable

It is certainly true that Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator, but that is not a reasonable justification for his removal by a foreign invasion. Such an invasion is strictly prohibited by the UN Charter, except where the targeted government threatens an attack, which, unlike the United States, Iraq has not done.

An attack on Iraq would therefore entail a breakdown of international law and constitute a return to the law of the jungle. Furthermore, an invasion will be extremely costly to the Iraqi population, which has already suffered genocide-level sanctions by the UN, covering for U.S. and British policy. This point is reinforced by the fact that the United States regularly uses methods of warfare that produce high civilian casualties in the target country in order to minimize U.S. casualties.

Removal of a bad government is primarily a task for the victim population; any help from the outside should fall far short of holding the population hostage to regime change (the ongoing sanctions policy) or external intervention by force.

It should also be noted that Saddam Hussein's qualities as a leader can hardly be the real reason for the proposed war, given that the United States and Britain supported him energetically in the 1980s when he was fighting Iran; and they have supported other dictators in his class of brutality (e.g., Suharto, Trujillo, Mobutu, Pinochet, the Argentinian generals, 1976-1983).

Given the U.S. and British record, their purposes (see "the hidden agenda," below), and the chaos and hatred that an invasion would engender — following 12 years of genocidal sanctions — there is no reason whatsoever to believe that they would want, or that their intervention would result in, an end of dictatorship.

2. Saddam's acquisition of "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) would threaten U.S. and world security

This is untenable nonsense, first, because the United States is well able to defend itself and has overwhelming retaliatory capability, and even Israel would threaten a level of retaliation that precludes Saddam's using those weapons offensively against it even if he had them.

What is more, he has no delivery systems that would allow him to reach U.S. targets. He has used WMD in the past, but only when the United States supplied him with and protected his use of such weapons (against Iran, a U.S. enemy), the United States even going so far as to prevent condemnation of Saddam's methods in the Security Council (for details see the Labour Party "counter-dossier," Sept. 21, 2002: http://www.traprockpeace.org). Saddam did not use WMD during the Persian Gulf War, because he knew that if he did so U.S. retaliation would be severe. CIA head George Tenet testified before a Senate Committee in early October that the probability of Saddam's using WMD in "the foreseeable future" was "low," except as a desperation move if attacked. In short, even if Saddam Hussein did possess WMD, he could only use them as a means of self-defense, unless he directed them against a U.S.-approved target, as in the 1980s.

3. Saddam's obstructive behavior toward Security Council resolutions and the inspections regime is intolerable

This charge assumes that the inspections regime has moral standing and has not been an instrument of a U.S. program and vendetta. In fact, although the inspections system was put up nominally to assure the elimination of Iraq's WMD, throughout the Clinton years it was repeatedly made clear that the inspections-sanctions system would stay in place until Saddam Hussein was removed.

This eliminated any incentive for Saddam to cooperate with inspections, and it also showed that the inspections system was a cover for a quasi-hidden U.S. agenda. It has also been acknowledged by U.S. and high UNSCOM officials that the United States used UNSCOM to spy on Iraq in preparation for military attack, which helped targeting in the December 1998 "Desert Fox" bombing campaign carried out by the United States and Britain. That bombing campaign, the numerous further bombings, and the "no-fly zones" were never authorized by Security Council rulings or decisions, or the 1991 truce accord with Iraq, and are therefore illegal, unilateral acts of aggression. The inspections regime is also discredited by the fact that its sole proponents, the United States and Britain, have regularly refused to allow the enforcement of Security Council resolutions when this suited their political interest. Resolution 687, which imposed sanctions and inspections, also called for the creation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. This has not been implemented, as it would require the United States to admit to, and force the elimination of, Israel's large stock of WMDs.

In the case of Iraq, the United States and Britain have also used Iraq's alleged 687 failings to continue the "sanctions of mass destruction," which have resulted in more than a million civilian deaths.

Joy Gordon has shown in "Economic Sanctions of Mass Destruction" (Harpers, Nov. 2002) that the United States and Britain have repeatedly interpreted sanction rules to prevent humanitarian relief to civilians (vetoing ambulances, vaccines, water pumps, fire-fighting equipment, even wheel-barrows), actions on the part of U.S. and British officials that constitute war crimes.

Despite the hidden agenda and illegalities of the inspections system, and Iraq's foot-dragging and deceptions, the system did oversee the destruction of an estimated 90-95 percent of Iraq's WMD stocks, and most of its WMD capacity. Iraq was essentially disarmed, according to Scott Ritter and Hans Von Sponeck, who were active participants in the inspection process. But this did not satisfy the United States and Britain, and couldn't do so because of their illegal aim of regime change.

4. Well, what do you propose?

In the face of planned aggression — the most serious of all international crimes — the only decent and rational response is: don't do it. Apologists cannot admit that their state is embarking on aggression, so they can't see this elementary point. They can't acknowledge that the "threat" posed by Iraq is contrived, and that the big problem is containing a superpower rogue state manufacturing reasons to go to war.

My first and main "proposal" therefore is that the United States and Britain be pressed to stop their plan to commit aggression, and that the "international community" end its support for sanctions of mass destruction and the superpower rogue's planned aggression and force the rogue to desist, threatening him with global economic sanctions if he fails to stop.

The second great threat is Ariel Sharon's and Israel's policies of occupation, ethnic cleansing and expanding settlements, and planned further wholesale terrorism and "transfer." I propose that the UN should condemn these policies, but also condemn U.S. support of this massive and accelerating ethnic cleansing, and threaten sanctions and expulsion from the UN and civilized community if these terroristic and ethnic cleansing policies are continued beyond a specific deadline.

As regards Iraq, given that the policies of inspections and weapons control have been based on a mythical fearsome threat, constructed to rationalize a hidden agenda and sheer vengefulness on the part of the United States and Britain, and that these policies have had genocidal consequences, they should be terminated forthwith.

Instead, relations with Iraq should be normalized and it should be given incentives to behave by establishing trade relations and "constructive engagement," which the United States regularly uses with repressive states that serve its interests. Iraq's "threat" will be controlled by this web of interests, by its acceptance of surveillance by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and by the existing balance of power system in which offensive behavior and use of WMD on its part would be immensely costly (2 above).

This will not automatically produce democracy in Iraq, but that is something that should come from within, and it is likely that it will happen sooner under "constructive engagement" and reduced siege conditions than with continuing intense hostility or U.S.-engineered regime change.


The apologists for U.S. policy and the imminent war regularly ignore or fail to see the significance of the features of that policy that make it hypocritical, illegal, immoral and criminal. Among them are the following:

1. Unclean hands

Saddam was not only supported, he was protected in his use of chemical warfare in the 1980s by the two countries that have been most concerned over his possession of WMDs today. The hypocrisy here is notable, but this consideration also suggests the fraudulence of the claim of a threat. The death of over a million Iraqi civilians as a result of the sanctions policy constitutes a major case of war criminality, violating the Nuremberg Code. The engineers of this genocidal policy not only do not have clean hands in pursuing Iraq any further, in a just world they would all be under trial in a court of justice. The apologists for U.S. policy and prospective war seem quite unaware of this hugely compromising background to today's policy discussions.

2. The illegality of preemptive war

The apologists are also very blasé about the fact that going to war against a country that has not attacked you and poses no credible threat of attack violates basic international law and constitutes plain aggression. This lack of concern with basic legality is helped along by the advanced demonization process and threat inflation. It also disregards the fact that according to "preemptive" principles, scores of states would be justified in preemptively attacking U.S. territory.

3. The double standard

It is also helped along by the long-standing double standard in which international law and Security Council resolutions apply to others only, not to ourselves or our friends. Thus the apologists find no problem in the fact that Ariel Sharon and Israel can not only ignore international law (the Fourth Geneva Convention) and scads of Security Council rulings, but also receive positive U.S. support for these violations. If their state says it is important to enforce the law selectively, they join in the selective enforcement bandwagon with great moral fervor.

4. The hidden agenda

Their moral fervor is not diminished by the obviousness of a hidden agenda beneath the claptrap about the threat to U.S. national security in the bad man's possession of WMD. The desire to control oil resources, to help Sharon, to help the weapons producers, to reshape the Middle East and project power more broadly, and to keep a war going to cover over the reactionary Bush agenda are unrecognized or kept out of sight. This is a great help to the Bush team's program.

5. The corruption of the UN

The apologists also ignore the extent to which U.S. policy has made the UN a farce and tragedy. The Bush team is openly contemptuous of the UN (and international law) as it pursues the administration's aims. It (and the Clinton team before it) will use the UN if it can and will ignore it when the UN is not available for service. In the run-up to an attack on Iraq the Bush team has gotten the UN to agree to an inspections regime that will assure a casus belli and make it possible for it to commit aggression with UN approval. Instead of opposing aggression the UN is colluding in its implementation. This represents the moral death of the institution.

6. The costs of war

The apologists underrate the costs of war. There will be modest U.S. casualties, but enormous Iraqi casualties as the U.S. carries out its standard policy of intense bombing prior to invasion-occupation. There will be huge costs in a destroyed Iraq and heavy costs in the conduct of the war. "Collateral Damage: The Health and Environmental Costs of War on Iraq," put out by the Medical Association for Prevention of War in November 2002, estimates half a million deaths assuming only conventional warfare, costs exceeding $200 billion, and immeasurable adverse secondary effects on health and welfare.

There will also probably be intensified terrorist responses to the attack on Iraq. This and the feedback effects of war on the U.S. society will push it further toward an authoritarian state. This is a plus for the Bush administration as it will, like 9/11 and the war on terror in general, help it cover over its anti-public interest agenda.

Copyright 2002 Edward Herman

More of Edward Herman's writings may be found at Znet.

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