What's Left

March 20, 2003

An ugly regime's ugly war

By Stephen Gowans

After a year of the groundwork being laid for an invasion of Iraq through an increasingly strident campaign of demonizing Saddam Hussein, and years after the invasion was planned by those later appointed to the Bush cabinet and its circle of advisors, the invasion has begun. War only in the last instance, said leaders of the countries who opposed it, a sound enough statement if not hypocritical coming from leaders who would have only been too glad to climb aboard the killing machine if there were something in it for them or the corporations they represent. But as there wasn't, and in fact, as there were only promised setbacks for the French and Russian and Chinese oil firms whose rights to develop Iraqi oil will be lost in the American conquest, they took to pointing out (quite accurately) that with Bush it was war in the first instance, never the last. It's not so surprising that a country that touts capitalism as its ideology, which it sells with hypocritical drivel about democracy and freedom, which has built up the largest military in history, would favor war in the first instance to push American capital into all corners of the world (including the dark corners, as George W. Bush calls them.)

How many Iraqis will be slaughtered? No, how many people will be slaughtered, for the fact that it is Iraqis whose brains will be blown out, whose skin will be burned, whose limbs will be  severed, doesn't make them any less people. We'll never know how many were crushed, blown apart, left to die long horrible deaths -- we'll only know it happened. It's Saddam's fault, it is said, when the pain and horror and sorrow of the afflicted poke briefly through the layers of minutia about military hardware and phoney alerts against the "virtual certainty" of retaliatory terrorist attacks, alerts designed to keep Americans in a constant state of apprehension, focused on their own safety and not on the horrors that are being perpetrated in their names. It's Saddam's fault because he could have disarmed, we're told by the intelligent who practice casuistry to justify slaughter and by the morons who fall for this and won't tolerate the suggestion that their country is the aggressor, the purveyor, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, of most of the violence in the world. It's Saddam's fault because he could have left Iraq when given the chance. It's Saddam's fault that hundreds of thousands died as a result of sanctions.  It's Saddam's fault, it is, it is, it is.

"We are not interested in seeing a relaxation of sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power," said Secretary of State James Baker in May, 1991. "We do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction sanctions should be lifted," said Secretary of State Madeliene Albright in March, 1997. "Sanctions may stay on in perpetuity," said U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson in August, 1997. History is rewritten to suit the purposes of those in power. Sanctions would have been lifted had Saddam complied. Right.

Adam Smith, a Canadian from Waterloo, Ontario says "that Saddam Hussein is responsible for the deaths of more than a million Iraqis in the past 20 years. Sticking to a one-million estimate, that works out to 137 a day. So, if the US forces can stick to 136 or less a day, or if the war lasts less than 20 years, I've got to think they are not only ridding the world of Saddam, but also saving Iraqi lives." (Letter to the editor, Globe and Mail, March 19, 2003.) This is so twisted it's hard to credit. Is he mocking the casuistry routinely trotted out to justify slaughter? Or is he serious? If killing x number of people prevents the repression and killing of many more than x people, then killing x number of people is fine and just and noble. This is the twisted logic of terrorism. Does that mean the United States is a terrorist state, that George W. Bush and his cabinet are the chief terrorists, for isn't this the logic they use? We need to kill many Iraqis now, in order to prevent many more Americans being killed later. George and Osama, two peas in a pod.

"No, I'm sorry, I won't have that!" rage Bush sycophants and patriotic Americans, the symbol-minded, as comedian George Carlin calls them. Osama meant to kill civilians. "We" don't. Who is this "we"? Why are Americans always saying "we" did this or "we" did that, when they don't have the slightest input into what "we" do or don't do? What "we" do or don't do is decided without an ounce of thought about whether it would suit our interests or whether we would agree or even whether the people who nominally represent us in Congress would agree, and the people who make the decisions don't for a moment think of asking us what should be done, because we don't matter. What "we" do or don't do is decided by a small collection of people, most of them unelected, over which we have practically no control whatever. If it makes you feel like you matter to stand on the sidelines and applaud whatever horrors these people perpetrate in your name, enjoy your political Bedlam. As to Bush and his advisors and the Pentagon not wanting to kill anyone, let me invite you to my house. You can sit in the living room, while I fire a shotgun randomly into the house from outside. If I hit you, that's regrettable, because I won't have intended to hit you, though I'm certainly aware there's a good chance I'll hit you or someone else. Sorry.

A newscaster said that Bush had told Saddam "and his henchman" that they had 48 hours to leave Iraq. Shouldn't Perle, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Powell be called Bush's henchmen? Shouldn't Bush be dubbed the CEO of Terror Inc.? Sure, you might think Osama fits the bill, but he's more like the owner-proprietor of a small hardware store in Boise, Idaho compared to Bush's being owner of Walmart.  Wouldn't it be a whole lot better were Bush and his henchman given 48 hours to step down?

Imagine that Saddam Hussein said, "Bush has 48 hours to hand over the US government to Iraq, and if he doesn't, dirty bombs will be set off in 50 American cities." Would Bush step down?  After the bombs were detonated, and hundreds of thousands were killed, would Saddam say, "It was Bush's fault; he could have complied; we are a peaceful country"? Would Adam Smith of Waterloo, Ontario write, "It is estimated that the Bush government killed 800,000 Americans last year when it refused to comply with Iraqi demands. If Iraqi forces kill fewer than 137 Americans per day for the next 15 years, and they oust George Bush and his henchmen in doing so, they will be saving American lives"?

There are Adam Smith's in Iraq who would write words as repellent as this, just as there are Adam Smith's everywhere, whose moral compass is set by whoever is in authority. Don't ask. Don't question. Don't think for yourself. Good children do as people in authority tell them. People in authority are only looking out for you. And children grow up, but never escape. Colonel Sanders is appealing to the chickens, and the chickens are following.

The difference between Saddam and Bush, it is said, is that Saddam was breaking the law, and Bush isn't, but that isn't true either. Bush is clearly trampling international law, a hoary presidential tradition, along with brazen lying. There is no UN authorization to slaughter countless Iraqis, but anyone who hangs their hat on the UN and international law being the only hope for a peaceful world is either denying the mountain of evidence staring them in the face, or has taken leave of their senses. International law hasn't stopped the world's great powers from rolling over the world's weakest countries. It didn't stop the French and later Washington from blasting away countless numbers of peasants in Indochina, nor the Russians from destroying the lives of scores of thousands in Chechnya. Nor did it stop the destruction of Yugoslavia. And it isn't going to safeguard Iraq from America's depredations, either. International law serves the interests of those who write it, the great powers. And when it doesn't serve their interests, they go around it, or deny it exists. So it is that "Mr. Bush dismissed suggestions that ordering US forces into battle to oust the leader of a sovereign state might be illegal.  'The United States of America' [he said] 'has the sovereign duty to use force in assuring its own national security'" (Globe and Mail, March 17, 2003.) That such an outrageous statement could be reported without comment evidences the complicity of the media in covering up American crimes, or how overtly like the Nazis the regime in Washington has become.

It's not the case that an attack might be illegal; it unquestionably is illegal, though it's a simple matter to produce a legal scholar to say otherwise (or that black is white if it suits your purposes.) But the question of whether it's legal to slaughter the citizens of a country that poses no threat is neither here nor there. There is no court that can both settle the matter and force compliance; no overarching authority whose sovereignty the great powers have surrendered to, or have any intention of ever surrendering to.  It is small countries that are to surrender their authority to a council of great powers, not great powers who are to subordinate themselves to a higher authority. That's the way the UN works. To those who say the UN is all we have, they should be clear that what they've espoused is something akin to a Pax Americana -- peace enforced by the great powers, or by the greatest of them all, the United States. That that peace should be arranged to serve US, or great power interests, in the first instance, and those of all other countries in the final instance, if at all, should be clear. That it can't prevent breaches of peace and security by any of the great powers, or among the great powers, should also be clear.

Moreover, UN Security Council Resolutions are almost always written in a deliberately ambiguous language that allows great powers room to claim they have UN authorization for whatever depredations their interests impel them to pursue. While Canada is not a great power, the case of Canada is instructive. Its prime minister, Jean Chretien, can claim with a straight face that Canada only participates in military campaigns authorized by the UN, pointing to vague language in Security Council resolutions that seem to have authorized NATO's 78-day air war against Yugoslavia, which Canada enthusiastically joined, boasting afterwards that its forces flew the third greatest number of sorties. The press, it will be acknowledged, steer clear of directly challenging leaders on issues of substance for a variety of reasons; to maintain good will with power-brokers and decision-makers they want to have continuing access to and because journalists and editors often share the same values as those in positions of authority. The result is that governments that haven't UN authority can claim they do, and the press will do little, if anything,  to challenge the assertion. Accordingly, it will be widely understood that UN authority was obtained.

It was clear that Resolution 1441's reference to the serious consequences that would attend Iraqi failure to disarm would be used by Washington to claim it had UN authorization to slaughter Iraq's people, and it must have been clear too to other Security Council members, including Russia, France and China, who agreed to it. As to Washington's stance on whether its invasion is legal, Bush and his henchman seem not to have abandoned altogether a campaign of paying lip service to the illusion that they have UN authorization. Bush points vaguely to three resolutions (678, 687, and 1441.) Still, he makes clear that this is of little moment, announcing that the highest authority is the United States sovereign right to act against other countries in self-defense (a doctrine that owes more to the Nazis than anything else.) So it is that we're left with the absurdity of Bush and his henchmen breaking a law that would restrain Washington from using force in Iraq, to enforce the law on Iraq that would disarm the country and oust the leadership.

But the whole tableau is rich with absurdities. There's the absurdity of ordering Iraq to disarm in the first place. Why Iraq, and not the United States, which has the world's largest arsenal of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons (which it denies UN inspectors access to) and which, what's more, it has used? The United States is a serial aggressor and an inveterate violator of international law that is a larger menace to peace and stability than any power, now or ever having existed.  The last country you want to allow to have weapons of mass destruction is a country with enormous imperial ambitions and a covetous desire to control the labor, markets and resources of the world and a penchant for blasting away millions of people to achieve the objectives its rich pro-capitalism drives it toward.

Moreover, while weapons of mass destruction are nasty and their elimination is to be fervently wished for, one has to ask why Iraq or North Korea or any other country should be denied them when the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia have no intention of surrendering theirs. It might be asked too whether great power demands that small countries disarm is tantamount to deer hunters ordering deer to come out of the woods and stand still. Those who say Iraq should disarm and North Korea should abandon whatever plans it has to develop nuclear weapons are simply supporting the depredations of great powers against the weak. You can say, "Oh yes, everyone should disarm," but it's clear nothing can make the great powers disarm, not international law, which is written to make weak powers disarm, and to leave great powers great, or greater.

More absurdity can be found in the position of Canada, which says it won't participate in a US-led attack on Iraq, but what Canada says and does are entirely different matters. Canadian troops, operating with US and British forces in the Middle East on exchange programs will not be withdrawn, and neither will Canadian warships patrolling the Persian Gulf be recalled. With its military resources stretched thin, Canada wouldn't have contributed much more than that if it had decided to back the US-led effort, which means Canada's non-participation is little different from its participation. What's more, while Prime Minister Jean Chretien says Canada won't back the war because it doesn't have UN authorization, he refuses to denounce the US-led war as illegal. This is too much for Stephen Harper, the pro-war leader of the right-wing Alliance party who quips, "Lots of countries will support a conflict and not send troops [but] this is the first government ever not to support a conflict and send troops anyway." (Globe and Mail, March 17, 2003.)  But that's Canada. It always finds a way of making its seem it has kept its moral hymen intact, when in fact it opens its legs whenever Uncle Sam demands it.

More richly absurd is the idea that people are being slaughtered so that Washington can impose democracy on Iraq.  Let's look at the coalition. The president of the lead country, the US, was never elected. There is strong public opposition in Britain. Over 80 percent of Spaniards are opposed. Turkey is unable to pass a parliamentary motion authorizing the deployment of US troops on Turkish soil, but the government is working fervently to throw its doors open to the American killing machine. The Australian public is sceptical. A majority of Czechs are opposed. A majority of Bulgaria's citizens are opposed. And Kuwait and Jordan are monarchies, which means when it comes to war, they act just as the nominal democracies do, with little regard to what their people want. It is precisely this kind of democracy Washington intends to impose on Iraq: Democracy that's insulated from the wishes of the majority, but is attuned to the interests of business, or more to the point, US businesses. Call it a democracy if you want, or call it what it is: a dictatorship of US capital. And call the war what it is. Not self-defense, but the twisting, tearing, ripping, and searing of human flesh, the depriving of people of their homes, their children, their mothers and fathers, their security, their sanity, their health and their lives, all in the interest of what Americans call freedom and democracy and self-defense, unaware these are the high-sounding terms behind which lurk so many interests of American capital.  War is ugly, but only as ugly as the countries that start them, and only as ugly as the reasons for them.

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What's Left