There has been much criticism lately of Republican vice-presidential
candidate Dick Cheney’s business record -- the
propriety of his stock options, his role in getting government contracts,
and whether or not he earned the millions he was
paid. Earlier this summer we also heard much about some of Cheney’s less
compassionate conservative votes in Congress
-- against gun control, Head Start and Nelson Mandela.
All those issues are relevant and worthy of discussion. But what is
striking is that no one is anyone talking about another
aspect of the Cheney record -- his admission of war crimes in the Gulf War.
Go back to the summer of 1991, after the Gulf War. The results of the
43-day bombing campaign -- the most devastating
concentrated bombing attack in history -- were painfully clear. A Harvard
study team had reported that the attack on Iraqi
electrical, water, and sewage treatment systems had begun to kill thousands
of civilians, especially the most vulnerable --
children, the elderly, the sick.
Though international law specifically prohibits civilian targets, Pentagon
planners and U.S. politicians knew perfectly well
that the civilians would die as a result of those bombs. As a Washington
Post reporter put it after extensive interviews with
military officials that summer, some Iraqi infrastructure was bombed
primarily to create “postwar leverage.” The “damage
to civilian structures and interests, invariably described by briefers
during the war as ‘collateral’ and unintended, was
sometimes neither,” the reporter concluded.
After 10 years of the most comprehensive multilateral economic sanctions in
modern times, at least 1 million Iraqis have
died as a result, according to U.N. studies.
So, what did Cheney have to say about these choices of targets after the
war, when there was no way to deny the deadly
effects on civilians?
Every Iraqi target was “perfectly legitimate,” Cheney told the Post
reporter, adding “if I had to do it over again, I would do
exactly the same thing.”
Cheney has never repudiated this comment, never expressed contrition for
the deaths of innocents that he had to have
known would result from policies he helped shape and implement. But instead
of being challenged for defending the
targeting of civilians, Cheney is being heralded as a politician with
“principles” willing to stand by his “convictions.”
What are these principles and convictions? The principle that civilians can
be sacrificed without concern because the
United States wanted a military solution to the Iraq/Kuwait crisis? The
conviction to never reflect on one’s complicity in
Why are Democrats -- eager to challenge Bush’s “compassionate conservative”
label -- not going after Cheney’s war
record? Why would opponents sink their teeth into every questionable
business deal or nasty vote but steer clear of his
Perhaps because the Gulf War remains popular with much of the U.S. public,
but also because on these matters, there is
little difference between Republicans and Democrats.
It appears that the discussion of Iraq in the upcoming campaign will not be
about the moral imperative of lifting the
sanctions and dealing with the widespread malnutrition, water-borne
diseases and social disintegration in Iraq. Instead, the
only question is whether the Clinton administration has been tough enough
on Saddam Hussein. George W. Bush hints that
if elected, he’ll take more serious steps to oust Hussein. Clinton
administration officials defend their starve-and-bomb
strategy (in addition to the sanctions, the United States continues the
regular, and quite illegal, bombing of Iraq in the
so-called “no-fly zones”).
Neither party wants to face the ugly reality that the 1991 war and the
policies that have followed -- in Republican and
Democratic administrations -- have killed innocents by the hundreds of
thousands. They have not promoted democracy in
Iraq, improved the lot of the Iraqi people, nor made the region any safer.
Those policies have failed the people who live in the region, but they been
effective -- at least in the short term -- in helping
impose U.S. dominance in the Middle East. That is the principle underlying
the Gulf War and the ongoing sanctions, and
the conviction that keeps the sanctions in place.
Iraqis live under a brutal regime that protects its own interests ahead of
its people, a regime with no conscience. When
both major U.S. political parties agree that the suffering of innocents
must continue, we must ask, “Where is the conscience
of our nation?”
Clearly, not in Cheney, nor in any of the other candidates. The question
is, can the consciences of ordinary Americans be
stirred in time to help ordinary Iraqis?
Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of
Texas at Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com.