Last week's Senate hearings on whether the United States should go to war in Iraq could hardly be given much credibility by any serious student of U.S.-Iraq policy, given the conspicuous absences of Iraq experts who offer indispensable insight.
For starters, even though he notified Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden of his willingness to testify, Hans Von Sponeck was not invited to the discussion table. Who is Von Sponeck? Only a former United Nations assistant secretary general with impeccable credentials and the former head of the U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq -- the organization that sanctions supporters claim is adequate to meet the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi civilian population.
Von Sponeck resigned his post several years ago in protest of the sanctions, realizing that not only was the oil-for-food program inadequate from the beginning, its hands were tied; not by the Iraqi government but by the "Washington consensus."
I spoke to Von Sponeck last week. More familiar with the atrocities of the Iraqi dictator than most, he's no Saddam Hussein dupe. Nevertheless, he said, a fair and honest assessment must be made.
"No one can approach this from a black or white perspective," he told me. "There is a massive sharing of responsibility for what is happening to the people of Iraq" that stretches from Baghdad to Washington. "The impression given here is that the oil-for-food program is being abused by the Iraqi government. Not true. Extensive independent medical research has been done investigating the impact of the sanctions."
The root of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq is the lack of adequate water and electrical supply systems, which were intentionally destroyed in the Gulf War by U.S. bombs. With the sanctions blocking the contracts and materials needed to repair Iraq's infrastructure, thousands of innocent Iraqi children die each month of easily treatable, water-borne diseases in a country whose health care system was so advanced prior to the sanctions regime that the biggest problem facing Iraqi pediatricians was obesity.
"That should be absorbed into the minds of those who deal with Iraq," Von Sponeck said. "We are grooming more anger, more extremists." And that's why he thinks the hearings are important. If only there were a broader range of expert opinion allowed at the discussion table so that the American people can understand what's really going on in Iraq.
Although former UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler was called to testify, the man who served in that post the longest, Rolf Ekeus (1991 to 1997), was not. Ekeus, by the way, wrote a piece last week in the Swedish press about his tenure over the toughest weapons inspection regime in history and how the inspections process had been misused by the U.S. intelligence community to gather information that had nothing to do with the U.N. disarmament mandate.
He also wrote about what he perceived as UNSCOM being used to provoke military confrontations with Iraq. Footnote: the weapons inspectors were pulled out of Iraq by Butler in December 1998 because of an imminent U.S. military strike. They were not kicked out by the Iraqi government, as has been widely misreported in our "free" press.
The hearings also didn't include the technical expert UNSCOM called in to lead the inspection team on the ground when it had become apparent that Iraqi officials were lying about weapons retention -- former UNSCOM chief inspector Scott Ritter, a retired Marine intelligence officer who worked directly under Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War.
"I feel very agitated by the deliberate distortions and misrepresentations," Von Sponeck said. "You have this attempt to portray Iraq in a way that makes it look to the average person in the U.S. as if Iraq is a threat to their security. I don't know by what stretch of the imagination that claim can be made."
Having been in Iraq two weeks ago with a German TV news crew, Von Sponeck visited two of the sites that both media and government officials claim are likely sites for the production of chemical and biological weapons.
"One of those sites is called Al Dora. It is on the outskirts of Baghdad. That facility was disabled by Mr. Ritter and the other inspectors in 1996. I visited there in 1999 and it was totally disabled. It was a shell with destroyed machinery. And two weeks ago, with a German television crew, we saw exactly the same thing. We didn't even have electricity.
"But Mr. Ritter is a real expert on this. And he was there on the ground. You should check with him," Von Sponeck suggested.
So, unlike the Senate hearing organizers, I did. Next week I'd like to share with you what Ritter -- a self-proclaimed "card-carrying Republican ... who voted for George W. Bush for president" -- thinks about all this.
Sean Gonsalves is a columnist with the Cape Cod Times. E-mail: email@example.com