What's Left

January 21, 2003

Washington-engineered misery worse than Saddam

By Stephen Gowans

When something bad is about to happen to people over which they have no control, they often accept the event's inevitability, and then look for a silver lining.

Okay, so I have to get false teeth. But at least I won't have to pay dentist bills anymore, or put up with toothaches. And my TV no longer works, but that means there will be one less thing to distract me from more productive pursuits, like reading and writing and getting more exercise.

Find the silver lining, no matter how tenuous, and you feel better.

The same happens in politics, where horrible events outside our control happen all the time, even though those of us who live in democracies are, according to the rhetoric, supposed to have some control over public policy and the important events that affect our lives.

Of course, in the usual arrangement of things, all we have control over is the group of people who execute policy that seems to have nothing to do with what we want or don't want. Americans may want a Canadian-style single-payer healthcare insurance system, but the corporate sector doesn't, and so Americans do without. Big business gets what it wants, and we go along, willy-nilly. Hence, what governments do, like decide to attack other countries, often has a feel of inevitability about it. We're just spectators, along for the ride.

If that's troubling -- and for many people it is -- there are a lot of other people to help us find the silver linings in the terrible and apparently inevitable political events that are about to happen: Like an escalated war on Iraq ("escalated" because a low level war--really, more a one-sided US-led assault--has been raging for the last decade.)

These psychological masseuses can be found just about anywhere, but the most visible of all are found in the media, ready to show us that no matter how bad things seem, they're not all that bad, and are actually a whole lot better than we think.

Take, for example, Margaret Wente, a columnist for Canada's The Globe and Mail. You probably haven't heard of her, but that doesn't matter. She's pretty much like any other columnist in any other mainstream newspaper, so I offer her up as emblematic.

Wente has made a career out of showing that everything you thought was bad, is really pretty good -- like SUVs, and greed, and two-tier education and healthcare, and pretty much any of the destructive things Washington is for, like war on Iraq.

"So far as the Iraqi people are concerned," Wente tells us, "liberation can't come soon enough." Ordinary Iraqis, she says, want Saddam Hussein gone. So, if you have reservations about the impending attack, stop feeling so bad. "War is terrible," Wente concedes. "But there are worse things. Just ask the people of Iraq."

You can find similar, though not identical, views elsewhere, on the margins, in the US left press, where Saddam is ritualistically denounced as a monster whose ouster would benefit the people of Iraq. To me, this ritualistic denunciation always seems to have more to do with establishing the author's "credibility" and side-stepping the charge that to oppose war on Iraq is to defend Saddam Hussein, than bringing up relevant points. Saddam may be a bad guy, but what's that have to do with bombing tens of thousands of Iraqis? George W. Bush and the pack of velociraptors he calls his cabinet are hardly angels, but that doesn't mean Washington should be bombed.

(Osama bin Laden, though, disagrees, but then Osama and George, who both think blowing up innocent people is perfectly all right--and can even be part of a moral crusade--are cut from the same cloth.)

Whatever the case, the ritual has the same psychologically comforting effect as Wente's "liberation can't come soon enough" argument. With an impending slaughter seemingly inevitable, and not a hell of a lot we can do about it, it's tempting to take refuge in the delusion that Iraqis will probably end up better off.

(By the way, saying there's probably not a whole hell of a lot we can do about it, doesn't mean we shouldn't try. And it does mean that we shouldn't be happy with a political system that deprives us of control over significant events, like war. We should be working to replace sham democracies with real ones, which is something far more fundamental than replacing Bush and Blair with new faces at the next election.)

What's interesting about Wente's argument is that it reveals (unintentionally) that Iraqis want Saddam gone, not because of anything Saddam has done, but because of what Washington is doing. Once Saddam is gone, they figure, Washington will stop doing what it's doing now: backing sanctions and threatening all out war.

This is not to say that a whole lot of Iraqis don't want Saddam to go, but it's curious that rather than trotting out the "acid baths" and "gassing his own people" stories from the ready-made list of Saddam-atrocities the US State Department has so helpfully furnished us with, that Wente quotes one Iraqi who says, "We want to become a normal country once again, a state that enjoys good relations with its neighbours and that is no longer an international pariah." In short, "We don't want to suffer at the hands of Washington because Saddam runs the country." There are two ways this can happen: Saddam can go, or Washington can leave Iraq in peace.

Had you interviewed a Nicaraguan while Washington was trying to oust the Sandinistas, a Serb while NATO was seeking to replace Slobodan Milosevic, or an Afghan while the US was driving away the Taliban, you would have heard much the same. "If Americans are going to starve me, bomb me, terrorize me, because they don't like my country's leadership, then of course, I'd like the leadership changed."

And if you had interviewed a Nicaraguan during the last election, he may have told you he wasn't going to vote for Daniel Ortega, because Washington had made plain what misery it would visit upon the country were the wrong electoral choice made. Nicaraguans succumbed to the blackmail. Ortega -- and democracy -- never had a chance.

Washington, every once in a while, admits it's putting the screws to the general population of other countries to get the country's leadership changed. US Air Force Lt. General Michael Short told The Washington Post in the spring of 1999 that the strategy behind NATO's 78-day air war against Yugoslavia was to make the civilian population so miserable it would oust Yugoslav Slobodan Milosevic. Short said,
 

"If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, 'Hey, Slobo, what's this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?'"


This, of course, is a textbook definition of terrorism. If a shadowy group started detonating bombs throughout the United States on the understanding that the bombing would stop once the Bush regime stepped down, to be replaced by one the bombers specified, it would be denounced for what it is: blackmail and terrorism. But when the United States does it, it's called foreign policy, or a moral crusade, or making the UN legitimate, or audaciously, a war on terrorism.

Wherever foreign governments get in the way of the free, and preferably, privileged, flow of US trade and investment, Washington goes into terror mode, enlisting economic blackmail, blockade, subversion, support for domestic secessionist and reactionary groups, or war, to make the target population scream and cry uncle. Terrorism, it seems, is perfectly all right, as long as it's done in the interests of US trade and investment. Otherwise, it's a terrible scourge, that civil liberties, international law, and the lives of numberless foreigners must be sacrificed to stop.

Targeting civilian populations, which revered Western leaders have been doing avidly since the days the British firebombed Dresden and the Americans flattened Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki with, variously, incendiaries and atomic bombs, makes the idea of war crimes tribunals a sick joke.

It is surely now an unwritten, and who knows, perhaps written, part of modern military strategy to attack the morale of the enemy population by inflicting terror through bombs or economic blockade or both so as to produce the effect of forcing the victims to ask, "Hey, what's this all about, and how much more of this do I have to withstand?"

In other words, the commission of war crimes is what modern military strategy is all about, which, no doubt, accounts for why Washington refuses to have anything to do with the International Criminal Court, and has been actively undermining it by blackmailing other countries into signing bilateral treaties pledging not to turn US citizens over to the Hague. War crimes tribunals, according to this boldly hypocritically position, are for the leadership of countries Washington has "lost patience with," not for Americans and privileged allies like Israel, who must be free to commit war crimes aplenty. How else to target enemy populations?

Does this mean that if you lay aside the misery Iraqis have had to endure from the Gulf War and its aftermath, from the US-backed sanctions regime that has led to the deaths of over one million, and from the almost daily US-UK bombing sorties, that Iraqis wouldn't prefer Saddam gone?

Doubtlessly, some would, and some wouldn't. How many belong to either camp is hard to say, but let's accept for a moment that most would. Would this then give the United States the right to act unilaterally, without the invitation of Iraqis themselves, to topple Saddam Hussein, and then to instal a regime of its own devising?

Moreover, are we to believe that Iraqis would invite a war that could put up to 500,000 of them into early graves, (according a group of British healthcare professionals), and could (according to a UN report), lead to 200,000 of them being displaced from their homes, and 10 million at risk from hunger and disease? To suggest they would is patently disingenuous.

So, wouldn't Iraqis be better off with something like a real democracy, rather than a Baathist dictatorship? That depends on how well it served the interests of the US investor class. If it didn't, and it's doubtful Iraqis would put the interests of foreign investors ahead of themselves in a true democracy, they would be subjected to as much US-engineered misery as they are today, and would continue to live in misery until they accepted a US-imposed sham democracy that put US corporate interests first.

But that's academic; something like a real democracy isn't on offer. Instead, what's being offered is relief from US-engineered misery and replacement of the Baathist regime with one that serves US corporate interests first, and ordinary Iraqis incidentally, if at all.

This won't be liberation from Saddam, so much as liberation from over a decade of the United States brutally punishing the Iraqi people and ushering millions of them (considering the civilian toll of the Persian Gulf war and sanctions) into early graves.

To say this is in any way liberating or moral or welcome by the Iraqi people, is as monstrous as saying a women who submits to rape after the rapist threatens to cut her throat, has been liberated.

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