What's Left

November 28, 2002

Real solutions to the real Iraq crisis

By Stephen Gowans

A right-wing politician in the area in which I live once told a group of supporters that the first step toward change is to manufacture a crisis. The next step is to propose the solution.

In this case, the crisis was public schools. Schools were failing, students were being short-changed, illiterates were graduating from high-schools (or so it was said.) A glossy government-produced brochure, mailed to every household, showed where students stood on international rankings: dead last. (The graph was truncated, to include only the few jurisdictions that had better scores. Jurisdictions with lower scores--the vast majority--were lopped off.)

Something had to be done, and the government had a plan. There would be a radical restructuring of the entire school system. And so, over some protests, the restructuring went ahead -- the crisis had to be addressed. Teachers were fired, special education was gutted, schools were closed, others left to crumble (school maintenance somehow becoming an extravagance); user fees escalated.

Not too long after, the wealthy got a tax cut -- $1 billion worth, exactly the amount school restructuring saved the government. Some parents correctly perceived the crisis to be phoney, the "solution," simply a stalking horse for the pursuit of someone else's interests -- that someone else being rich individuals and wealthy corporations, nowadays the favorite beneficiaries of activist (tax cutting) governments. But most were gulled. Those who weren't, simply acquiesced, withdrawing into their own private isolation, working out private solutions to a real public crisis the government had authored.

It used to be that activism was associated with efforts to enlarge the interests of the majority against those of the few who benefited the most from the way things are. Conservatives would try to beat back those efforts, and liberals would seek compromise to keep the boiling water of activist demands from blowing the lid off the pot of the carefully controlled arrangement of the world as a pyramid with the wealthy at the summit. These days, however, activism is more likely to be associated with efforts to aggrandize the privileged dwellers at the pyramid's apex. And that activism, over and over again, uses the same old ruse: manufacture a crisis -- then present the solution.

Not too long ago, before 9/11, a movement was growing to end sanctions against Iraq.  Some 90,000 Iraqis (40,000 of them children under the age of five) were dying every year from sanctions-related causes -- often preventable illness and lack of medicines. In ten years, the sanctions --which were said to be put in place to force Saddam Hussein to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction--had killed almost one million people, more than double the 400,000 that political scientists John and Karl Mueller estimated had died from chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the entire course of history. And of the 400,000, more than half were blotted out by the United States (200,000 died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone), a country that has made a fetish of weapons of mass destruction, acquiring them in vast arsenals, while reserving the right to say who cannot have them. On the other hand, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction can be blamed for only a tiny fraction of the total. Yet it is Iraq--or rather its people, including those under the age of five--who are paying the price with their lives.

There were other problems. Former chief UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, an American, insisted that Iraq was effectively disarmed, but the sanctions remained, Washington deciding that Saddam Hussein's ouster, not disarmament, was the key to lifting the embargo. And UN bureaucrats appointed to oversee the food for oil program (to alleviate the effects of the sanctions on the civilian population) were resigning in protest, calling the sanctions genocidal.

Today, calls for an end to the sanctions regime, and pleas to leave Iraq in peace, are called the shibboleths of an ultra-left fringe that has lost touch with reality. The ground in whose soil the budding anti-sanctions movement once took root has been all but hollowed out, and in its place has been filled a manufactured crisis -- Saddam Hussein's "evil" and what to do about it. Many accept the crisis as genuine, but seek, as has become the wont and continuing folly of progressives, to offer alternative solutions. Washington says bomb Hussein, oust him, and replace him with a provisional US military government. Progressives, who not too long ago demanded sanctions be lifted, now say let's try diplomacy, let's work with the UN, let's give inspections a chance, and let's leave sanctions in place.

Let's, or let "us," means "we," as if we have anything to do with whether war or inspections, intervention or non-intervention, is the policy the US, and other Western governments, pursue. Have you noticed that what "we" think doesn't matter a whole lot, except insofar as it becomes a problem to be solved by public relations and opinion management exercises to ensure we come around to the right way of thinking, which is whatever way is congruent with the interests of those who own and control the economy and are looking for new, fresh and exciting profit-making opportunities? So it doesn't really matter whether we propose alternative solutions, because they aren't going to be implemented anyway. Worst, we usually end up reinforcing the idea that the crisis is real, and that intervention is legitimate.

And the crisis isn't real; it's an invention, like the phoney public schools crisis. Iraq isn't attacking anyone. Saddam Hussein hasn't threatened the United States with war (on the contrary, it is the United States that has threatened Iraq.) And Iraq may not even have weapons of mass destruction, or a weapons program. And if it does, so what? Who can reasonably justify the forced disarmament of some countries, while other countries, like the United States and its fellow permanent members of the UN Security Council, build vast arsenals to intimidate the weak? This isn't preserving peace -- it's great powers plundering smaller countries through Security Council resolutions.

Still, we get sucked in, and we say something must be done. We always do. Something must be done about our failing schools; something must be done about Slobodan Milosevic; something must be done about Saddam Hussein; something must be done about whatever right-wing governments and corporations say something must be done about. When public schools were said to be failing and in need of restructuring few said, "No, the crisis isn't real; it's an invention." Instead, those who wanted to be seen as reasonable and to avoid the label "extremist" or "militant" said, "Yes, I agree, there are problems that need to be addressed, but not in this way," or "I see your point, but maybe we should go slower." From that point forward our pusillanimity carried us irretrievably into a trap.

When NATO threatened to bomb Yugoslavia, we said, "Yes, Slobodan Milosevic is a monster and he must be dealt with, but let's fund the opposition and work to encourage 'reform' and 'democracy'." And at that point, we were ensnared, for in accepting the crisis as genuine, and in accepting, even strengthening, the portrayal of the "enemy" leader as a "monster" (the way governments always portray the enemy leader in wartime) the debate over what do about Yugoslavia (which was entirely manufactured and shouldn't have been a debate at all) was reduced to a single question: is war or diplomacy more effective to solve this crisis? Since it is always easier in the United States to argue for war, and to ridicule those who call for diplomacy as Chamberlainian appeasers, the answer was foreordained: war it would be.

Today, ever ready to follow in the footsteps of past failures, we say, "Yes, Saddam Hussein is a monster and he must be dealt with, but let's fund the opposition and work to encourage 'reform' and 'democracy' and in the meantime, let's carry on with inspections."  In all instances, whether it's a phoney public schools crisis, the staged Balkan crisis, or the trumped up crisis in Iraq, we  can't wean ourselves from interventionist solutions. But it is precisely intervention that those who invent the crises seek; you can't exploit other people's resources, markets and labor by staying at home. So, with all sides advocating intervention (and only disagreeing on the type) the inventors of phoney crises get what they want: a green light to meddle. And while the meddling is done in the name of some lofty ideal, democracy or ousting a monster or defending human rights, the path has been paved for investors and corporations to lay their hands on Iraq's oil, on the socially owned assets of former Communist countries, on pipeline routes, and more broadly, on the markets, labor, and resources of other countries.

We may think we're offering a solution to the Iraq crisis in calling for UN intervention and inspections and sanctions, but we've got the wrong crisis and the wrong solution. The crisis isn't Saddam Hussein posing a threat; that's manufactured; the crisis is 90,000 Iraqis dying every year from sanctions-related causes. The crisis is right-wing groups and politicians and business lobbyists inventing crises to justify interventions from war to phoney programs said to encourage democracy to public school restructuring to enlarge their own interests. The crisis is being afraid to be called extremist or militant for refusing to be deceived and for advocating real solutions to real problems.

It's these solutions we should be talking about. Leave Iraq in peace. End the sanctions. Shelve inspections. And let Iraqis deal with Saddam Hussein in their own way. Forget about Washington and other Western governments funnelling money to the opposition; the West doesn't spend money on altruism; it makes investments to enlarge the interests of investors. Interventionist money will benefit US oil firms and US weapons manufacturers and multinational firms, not Iraqis.  Develop alternative, cleaner, energy sources to reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Axe spending on the military and bring US troops home from hundreds of overseas bases. A true Department of Defense defends the homeland; it doesn't maintain a string of bases in scores of countries, and it doesn't need to divert resources away from public schools and housing and health care; it needs to be strong enough to defend US soil, not US interests (that is, US capital) abroad. Work towards dismantling all weapons of mass destruction, including those of the United States, Russia, China, France and the UK, as well as Israel, India and Pakistan. And start thinking about how the vast wealth of the United States can be used to make Americans more secure at home, with better jobs, full employment, free health care and public education, rather than being used to bomb, plunder, undermine, and destabilize other countries to enlarge the interests of the wealthy few under cover of resolving manufactured crises. Finally, let's stop falling into the same trap, over and over.

The only real crisis in Iraq is what the West's sanctions of mass destruction are doing to ordinary Iraqis. The only real looming crisis is the death and devastation US bombers and GIs will leave in their wake if Washington decides to escalate its aggressive war. The only real solution is to leave Iraq alone.


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