THE decision by the new Bush administration to engage in air strikes against suburban Baghdad indicates that not only is the new administration willing to continue the failed policies of the Clinton administration, but it is also ready to escalate them further. The bombing was justified on the grounds of enforcing the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. However, the targets of the attacks were well outside the no-fly zones. There appears to be no credible defensive rationale. Indeed, it appears to be yet another example of foreign policy by catharsis, an expression of anger and frustration against a recalcitrant dictator, which may feel good and help a president's standing in public opinion polls, but actually accomplishes little.
Neither the United Nations nor any other international body established the no-fly zones the U.S. seeks to enforce. They were unilaterally declared by the United States and Great Britain in 1991 and have no precedent in international law.
Despite their dubious legality, however, the no-fly zones initially received widespread support as a means of curbing the Iraqi government's savage repression of its Kurdish and Shi'ite communities. During that spring, thousands of civilians had died in assaults by Iraqi helicopter gunships and other aircraft in the now-protected areas.
International support for the no-fly zones has diminished dramatically, however, as they have evolved from an emergency humanitarian measure to an excuse for the U.S. and Britain to launch repeated air strikes against this impoverished country of 22 million people.
Initially, the U.S. military presence was in place to challenge Iraqi encroachments into the proscribed airspace. Then, it was escalated to include assaults on anti-aircraft batteries that fired at allied aircraft enforcing the zone. It was escalated still further when anti-aircraft batteries were attacked simply for locking their radar on allied aircraft, even without firing.
Then, the Clinton administration began attacking radar installations and other military targets within the no-fly zone, even when they were unrelated to alleged Iraqi threats against U.S. aircraft. Now, the new Bush administration has escalated things still further, targeting radar and command-and-control installations well beyond the no-fly zone.
The Bush administration's propensity for Orwellian language was demonstrated when Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, justified the air strikes as a necessary response to Iraqi ``aggression.'' The Iraqi government has certainly engaged in acts of aggression in the past, such as its invasion of Iran in 1980 and its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Yet this may be the first time in history that the use of radar to track foreign military aircraft encroaching within a country's internationally recognized airspace has been declared an act of aggression.
Despite efforts by administrations of both parties, echoed by media pundits, to portray the ongoing low-level air war as putting pressure on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator has not been harmed.
However, scores of Iraqi civilians and hundreds of unwilling Iraqi conscripts have been killed in these air attacks, which have occurred several times a week over the past three years. Indeed, the bombing raids have enabled Saddam to portray himself not as the bully and tyrant that he is, but as a victim and martyr of a vengeful and hypocritical West. Not only has this enhanced his standing among ordinary Iraqis, but among millions of Arabs and others in the Third World.
Indeed, it is striking the way the United States' closest Arab allies -- whom the U.S. claims we are defending against potential Iraqi aggression -- oppose the U.S. bombing and sanctions against Iraq. China, Russia and France, among other countries, also criticized the U.S. attacks. It is striking how a policy so widely condemned around the world would elicit such widespread enthusiastic support by elected officials of both parties.
Indeed, the strong support for the bombing by leading congressional Democrats will no doubt embolden the Republican administration to engage in further military actions regardless of its dangerous legal, moral and political implications.
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.