"So, you know, on top of killing, disabling and terrorizing tens of thousands of civilians during the Persian Gulf War, the United States and Britain -- and yes, Canada as a junior partner -- have killed over a million Iraqi civilians with sanctions."
"Oh, come on. It wasn't the Allies that killed all those Iraqis. It was Saddam Hussein. He's responsible. I mean, if he'd just let the weapons inspectors back in, and got rid of his weapons of mass destruction, the sanctions would end. And you know, Iraq's making billions from oil sales under the UN's Oil for Food program, so there's no excuse for all those people going hungry."
"Well, I agree that there's no excuse for millions dying from hunger and preventable diseases, but did you know that Dennis Halliday – he was an assistant secretary-general of the UN and the senior humanitarian official in Iraq – resigned his post in protest against the sanctions, saying they were genocidal? And his successor, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned for the same reason. And so too did the head of the World Food Program in Baghdad. They said that the Oil for Food program wasn't preventing the deaths and wasn't designed to."
"Well, I find that hard to believe. The Oil for Food program is a humanitarian program."
"That's what it's called, but whatever it's called, Halliday and von Sponeck, both of whom were the top officials in charge of the program, say it doesn't work.
They point out that a fair chunk of the proceeds from the oil sales goes to the UN so that it can administer the program and to reparations paid to oil companies and Kuwait. Iraq enters into contracts to buy various goods from around the globe, which are then okayed or vetoed by a UN committee, dominated by the US and Britain. It's like a Stalinist command economy. Goods that might have a military purpose, like chlorine, which Iraq needs for water treatment, but which could be used to make chemical weapons, are vetoed. And replacement parts to repair the civilian infrastructure damaged during the war, like water treatment plants, are often vetoed, too. The result is that much of the drinking water in Iraq is unfit for consumption."
"Yeah, but Iraq sells billions of dollars of oil."
"Right, but after deducting reparation and administrative costs, Iraq is left with about $100 a year per person.
Iraq is a mess. People dying by the thousands every month from hunger and lack of medicines. The country's infrastructure is lying in ruins. The economy is shot. No one disagrees with that. They only disagree about who's responsible."
"Well, if Saddam would cooperate with the UN and let the inspectors back in, the sanctions would be lifted."
"Are you sure about that? First of all, Madeline Albright, Clinton's Secretary of State, said that sanctions wouldn't be lifted until Saddam was gone. So, which is it – sanctions will be lifted when the UN is satisfied that no more weapons of mass destruction remain, or when Saddam is gone?
And how can you prove that there are no more weapons of mass destruction, anyway? Scott Ritter, a former UN arms inspector, says that Iraq is effectively disarmed, but he also points out that you can't prove a negative. Maybe that's why the sanctions have been in place so long. I mean, how many years will it take to prove that there are no weapons of mass destruction left? And while you're waiting, do you want to see 4,000 kids die every month as a result of the sanctions? That's how many kids die every month for want of food and from preventable diseases, according to the UN."
"Well, Saddam should have been more cooperative. And what's more, he shouldn't have kicked the inspectors out."
"He didn't. They left because they were told to leave by Washington. If you remember, the UN inspectors started to complain that the Iraqis weren't allowing inspections of all sites – which is true, they weren't. The inspectors wanted to inspect the Presidential Palace, for example, and the Iraqis balked. They said the inspectors were spying on behalf of the US. Of course, the US and UN denied the allegation, but later, they were forced to admit that Iraq's charges were not propaganda after all – the inspectors were indeed spying."
"Well, Saddam wasn't cooperating."
"As a matter of fact, the Iraqis had complied with the vast majority of inspections. It was hardly a case of a wholesale obstruction."
"Be that as it may, Saddam should have been punished for thumbing his nose at the international community."
"You might remember there were calls for the US to bomb Baghdad to punish Iraq for failing to comply. At first, Clinton dismissed the idea, saying that all that would accomplish would be to get the UN inspectors frozen out of Iraq, putting an end to the inspection program altogether. How could that be helpful, be wondered. Later he changed his mind. The inspectors were withdrawn, Iraq was attacked, and the inspectors haven't been back since. Look's like Clinton was right – and what was accomplished? I guess some defense contractors got to beef up their bottom lines by replacing the cruise missiles used in the attack, but other than that, nothing."
"Well, they should let the inspectors back in."
"Maybe. But the hypocrisy is galling. Israel is widely acknowledged to have 200 nuclear weapons -- in other words, weapons of mass destruction. But no one's calling for the dismantling of Israel's weapons."
"Yes, but Israel hasn't invaded a neighboring country."
"Oh? Israel invaded Lebanon. It occupied the country for almost two decades. It currently administers the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, as a result of invasions carried out in 1967."
"But Iraq's a rogue. It thumbs its nose an the international community and at international law."
"So does Israel. Do you know how many UN resolutions Israel is in violation of? Dozens. And they get away with it because the US, which wields a Security Council veto, is prepared to let them get away with it. They veto the international community whenever it demands that Israel comply with international law."
"Well, Israel hasn't committed the kinds of atrocities Saddam has."
"There's no doubt about it. Saddam is a brute and is responsible for horrible, heinous atrocities. But Israel has been implicated in atrocities too – dozens of them. Have you heard of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps? Israelis may not have pulled the trigger, but their surrogates did, and the Israelis knew what was going on, and let it happen. Ariel Sharon, the man whose visit to the al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem touched of the latest Intifada was held indirectly responsible. And the current Intifada, the uprising by Palestinians, has seen more than its share of horrible acts committed by the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces: Extrajudicial killings – basically assassination, of anyone the IDF doesn't like; Firing rockets from helicopter gun ships into apartment buildings; Shooting children in the head who are throwing rocks. I mean, so over top are Israeli outrages, that even the normally see-no-evil, hear-no-evil Canadian government backed a UN resolution condemning Israel's use of disproportionate force. Amnesty International went further, saying the IDF's actions border on war crimes."
"Well, what about Saddam's gassing of the Kurds."
"Ah, the Kurds. Did you know there are Kurds in Turkey, as well? In fact, there are tens of thousands fewer of them than there might otherwise be, killed by Turkish forces. Seems the Turks are as brutish in their dealings with the Kurds as Saddam has been. The difference between Turkey and Iraq is that Iraq is punished by the US, and Turkey gets US military aid. Figure that out.
And don't forget, at one time, Washington supported Saddam, when Saddam was prosecuting his war with Iran, and, get this: Saddam was oppressing the Kurds then too. Washington was prepared to overlook that, which says a lot about how concerned the US is with preventing bloody repressions and protecting human rights.
What's more, Turkey regularly launches raids across the Iraqi border, to hunt down Kurdish rebels, the same people the US is presumably protecting from Saddam by enforcing a no-fly zone in the north. US pilots flying the no-fly zone say they regularly see Turkish fighter jets returning from their bombing sorties. Of course, all this goes on with the US's blessing...and though Washington thundered indignantly at Iraq's violation of Kuwait's sovereignty, the US doesn't seem to be particularly troubled by Turkey's routine violations of Iraq's borders. Nor, either, is it too concerned by its own violation of Iraq's sovereignty. The no-fly zones were imposed by the US and UK without a UN imprimatur -- they're illegal under international law. Talk about rogue countries.
Four decades ago, the US folk signer Phil Ochs wrote a song about his own country's foreign policy. He called it Cops of the World. He didn't mean good cops, like Andy of Mayberry. He meant something like the LA cops who beat up Rodney King. It seems the US continues to live up to the song."
"So what you're saying is because the Israelis have done some bad things, it's all right for Iraq to do the same?"
"No, I'm not trying to say that the atrocities carried out by Iraq are forgivable because US allies have also carried out atrocities, but it does lay bare the utter hypocrisy on which US foreign policy is based."
"Oh, come on. I wouldn't say US foreign policy is hypocritical."
"You're right. US foreign policy isn't hypocritical. The justifications are hypocritical. US foreign policy is about what it's always been about – aggrandizing the US, even if that means overlooking allies' atrocities, even if it means committing American atrocities, even if means encouraging atrocities, even if it means cultivating alliances with dictators and other assorted creeps. Look at Saudi Arabia, one of the US's most steadfast allies in the Middle East. It's a model of a repressive, undemocratic, illiberal, brutal state, but it serves Washington's interest so they leave it alone, free to repress women, free to execute countless numbers of people, free from the rule of law, free from parliaments, free from suffrage, free from civil liberties. All the hype about human rights and rogues and the international community melts away like a brittle icicle on the first warm day of spring when you examine Washington's foreign policy justifications with a critical eye."
"Well, I don't know. The Canadian government and all the major newspapers are agreed on two things: First, that the sanctions are useful, and second, that Saddam's responsible for all the deaths that have happened."
"Let's look at those two points. In what respect are the sanctions useful? Have they toppled Saddam? No. Have they forced Iraq to disarm? Scott Ritter, the former UN arms inspector says that effectively Iraq is disarmed – so, maybe, yes, the sanctions have been effective in that respect. But why then does the sanctions regime remain in place?
There's talk of disarming not being enough. Iraq also has to show that it hasn't the capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction. Can you think of any modern country that doesn't have the capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction? How can you not have the capacity? If you have nuclear power plants to generate electricity, do you not have the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction? If you import chlorine to treat water, do you not have the capacity to produce chemical weapons? If you manufacture pharmaceuticals, do you not have the capacity to create biological weapons? What, other than a primitive society, doesn't have the capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction?
Is it any wonder that some have said that 'US and British policy (which Canada obediently goes along with) is one of continually moving or hiding the goal posts so that compliance by Iraq becomes impossible', and as a result, the sanctions can never be lifted?
Madeline Albright's view is that the sanctions have been useful in 'keeping Saddam in his box.' She also said that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children was worth it. (Which raises another issue: Imagine Saddam Hussein had said the same thing: He'd have been branded a monster -- and with good reason. I think Albright deserves the same label.)
Other US officials have said, 'Yeah, maybe the sanctions have failed from the standpoint of deposing Saddam, but they haven't failed in preventing Iraq from jack booting around the Middle East.'
"Well, they're right -- aren't they?"
"Yeah, they are. But once you strip away the PR, it doesn't take long before US officials start admitting what really drives US foreign policy -- power politics. And in this case, keeping Saddam in his box. Which is another way of saying ensuring American preeminence in the region. If that's the rationale, fine. Why not say so?"
"Well, maybe because the American people might start getting a little uncomfortable. I mean, let's face it, how can Washington look after American interests if a squeamish public is always second guessing the President's actions. You've got to take hard decisions if you're going to sit in the Oval Office. You can't be concerned with the lives of people half around the globe. You're there to look after Americans, and their interests."
"Well, I think you've hit on something. Maybe that's why Washington, and the Canadian government too, which supports Washington's stance, says that Saddam is responsible for the deaths. It keeps the public from getting too squeamish. Maybe Americans -- and Canadians -- wouldn't be so interested in having their interests asserted if they knew their own country had blood on its hands. And maybe they'd start wondering exactly which American's -- and which Canadian's -- interests were being served.
I wrote a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressing my concern about the sanctions and Canada's role in supporting them. He wrote back saying, 'Yes, isn't is tragic? It's really a shame that Saddam is doing this.'
Of course, the Minister pointed to the Oil for Food program. But remember, Halliday and von Sponeck, who administered the program, said the program isn't preventing deaths at all – and they called the sanctions genocidal."
"You know, there is a sense in which Saddam is responsible. Were he to step aside and cooperate 100 percent with the UN, the sanctions regime could be lifted. But he isn't doing any of those things, so he bears a major responsibility."
"A major responsibility, or the only responsibility, as the Canadian government and the Globe and Mail says?"
"A major responsibility."
"We agree on that point. But that doesn't in any way absolve the countries that support the sanctions regime – including Canada.
I mean, saying Saddam is solely responsible is tantamount to saying that if the police fire at a gunman in a crowded room, the gunman is responsible for the deaths of bystanders hit by police bullets. By this line of reasoning, the gunman shouldn't have run afoul of the law in the first place, and should have meekly surrendered. True – the gunman bears some responsibility. But at the same time, the bystanders wouldn't have died had the police not fired into the crowd in the first place. The police could be cynical, and fire anyway, with little regard for the safety of the bystanders, knowing that they could always pin the blame on the gunman – which is what the US does. US foreign policy is predicated on the idea that the US should be able to attack anyone or any country with blame for the shed blood of innocents attached to the target of the attack.
Hence, the US can pull the trigger on sanctions and blame the messy result on Saddam. It can spend 78 days bombing Yugoslavia, killing at least 500 civilians, injuring thousands more, laying waste to civilian infrastructure, despoiling the air and water with carcinogens that will carry off countless others as the delayed – and uncounted -- victims of war, and say, It wasn't our fault – it was Milosovic's. And of course, Ottawa chimes in with its me-too, 'Yes, we agree with whatever they say.'
As for the metaphor, 'pulling the trigger on sanctions' the allusion is apt. Sanctions against Iraq have earned the sobriquet, 'sanctions of mass destruction', because the sanctions have killed more people than weapons of mass destruction have ever killed. I mean, the US -- the most conspicuous user of weapons of mass destruction, ever -- killed probably fewer than a half a million people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki when you add up all those who died immediately then later from malignancies caused by the atomic blasts. That's less than have been killed through sanctions.
And sanctions have killed more people than the Iraqis killed in invading Kuwait. Sanctions have killed more Iraqis than Saddam ever killed. I mean, the toll is horrendous, and no one's disagreeing about that. The only disagreement is over who should be held responsible for the deaths of innocent bystanders if you recklessly fire into a crowd. Some will say blame can be mitigated if the motivation is humanitarian or altruistic, but there's no altruism here – it's power politics, plain and simple.
And as for the humanitarian argument, that's like saying that a doctor who treats patients for hemorrhoids, knowing the treatment has a good chance of being fatal, can be absolved of any fatalities because he or she was only trying to relieve their patients' nasty itching and burning."
"Well, I don't know. I'm not convinced. I'll have to think about it."
"Let me leave you with a short poem by Bertolt Brecht.
General, your tank is a powerful vehicle.
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect: it needs a driver.
General, your bomber is powerful.
It flies faster than a storm, and carries much more than an elephant.
But it has one defect: it needs a mechanic.
General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect: he can think.
Yes. Please think about it."