As I have listened to the discussions about Saddam
Hussein and Iraq, some disturbing questions have arisen. As an ordinary citizen
with no special expertise in foreign policy, I am unable to get to the bottom of
them. As a skeptic, however, who remembers how the Gulf of Tonkin incident of
1964 was made the pretext for the horrific escalation of military action in
Vietnam, I think they are worth posing.
Did Saddam Hussein gas the Kurds? He is regularly accused of
doing so, but the story may not be true. A little-known Army War College study,
written by Stephen Pelletiere and Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Johnson, came to
the conclusion that he did not. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, Pelletiere served
as the CIA's senior political analyst on Iraq, and Johnson has taught at the U.S.
Military Academy. Their study investigated what happened at Halabja, where gas
was used by both sides.
authors concluded, did not use poison gas against his people. While hundreds of
civilians died in the crossfire, what felled them was the kind of gas used by
Iranians. The Iranians, however, insisted that the gas came from the Iraqis.
Their story prevailed in the U.S.
Jeffrey Goldberg wrote damningly about
Iraq's role at Halabja (New Yorker, March 25), but when asked by the
Village Voice why he had ignored the War College study, he explained that
he trusted other sources. Why ignore significant evidence to the
The New York Times has recently disclosed that the Reagan
administration, which supported Iraq against Iran, acquiesced in the use of gas
(August 17). According to retired Colonel Walter P. Lang, who was senior defense
intelligence officer at the time, "The use of gas on the battlefield by the
Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern."
Dilip Hiro says that
while Saddam may have gassed civilians, conclusive proof was lacking at the time.
"That is where the matter rested for 14 years--until 'gassing his own people'
became a catchy slogan to demonize Saddam in the popular American imagination"
(Nation, August 28).
Did Saddam attempt to assassinate former President Bush? U.S.
intelligence sources allege that Saddam attempted to assassinate the president
in April 1993 when he was visiting Kuwait. However, Seymour Hersh concluded that
this intelligence was "seriously flawed," and that the administration's "evidence"
was "factually incorrect" (New Yorker, November 1, 1993). A homemade bomb
had been found miles away in a van, not in the hotel where Bush was staying. Evidence
that remote-controlled devices were used was discredited by independent U.S. experts.
It was clearly against Saddam's own interests, Hersh observed, to involve himself
in such a plot.
Why did the UN arms inspectors leave Iraq? From 1991 to 1998
UNSCOM arms inspectors worked throughout Iraq. Did they leave because they were
kicked out by a ruthless tyrant who had something to hide, as we are constantly
told, or were there other reasons?
The Washington Post reported that the "United Nations arms
inspectors helped collect eavesdropping intelligence used in American efforts to
undermine the Iraqi regime" (January 8, 1999). According to Swedish diplomat Rolf
Ekeus, who ran the UNSCOM operation, the inspections were "manipulated." The
U.S., he said, had spies posing as inspectors. They were keen, for example, on
tracking Saddam's movements, which "could be of interest if one were to target
The U.S. took punitive measures against alleged Iraqi arms
violations. Illegal bombing forays in 1993 and 1996 were followed by a heavy
four-day U.S. bombing campaign in December 1998. Since early 1999, unauthorized
air strikes have occurred on an almost weekly basis. UNSCOM arms inspectors
withdrew, in part, because they did not want to be bombed by U.S. and British
Scott Ritter, the former UNSCOM inspector, has stated: "In terms
of large-scale weapons of mass destruction programs, these had been fundamentally
destroyed or dismantled by the weapons inspectors as early as 1996, so by 1998 we
had under control the situation on the ground." In briefing the incoming Bush
administration, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen said: "Iraq poses no
threat to its neighbors."
The situation would seem to be complex. First, by
1998, as a result of the arms inspections, Iraq was virtually disarmed. Second,
Saddam, who seeks weapons of mass destruction, may still have a residual arsenal,
though of doubtful reliability. Finally, the arms inspections were tainted by
Western intelligence abuses. One need not whitewash Saddam to recognize the
complicity of the U.S. If new arms inspections are to be instituted (as seems
desirable), credible guarantees must be given to allay legitimate Iraqi fears
Who is responsible for the devastation wrought in Iraq by the economic
sanctions? "History's biggest concentration camp" is what Jim Jennings,
president of Conscience International, a relief organization, has called Iraq
under the sanctions. The sanctions regime, he pleads, is "punishing the people
of Iraq in a way that I think most American people, if they could see and understand
what is really going on there, would find totally unacceptable in a moral sense.
It's cruel, inhumane, it's unconscionable."
Whose fault is
it that half a million children have died in Iraq since the economic blockade was
imposed? Whose fault that the water is contaminated, the hospitals are desperate,
the agriculture is ruined and the transportation a shambles? Could Saddam help
his people, if he cared, instead of using his money to buy weapons?
selling smuggled oil, Iraq currently obtains a sizable income. Some of it
undoubtedly goes for weapons. But is that the whole story?
The U.S. has
blocked billions of dollars of imports needed for relief and rehabilitation.
According to Denis Halliday and Hans Von Sponeck, both of whom resigned in
protest from the UN humanitarian program in Iraq: "The death of 5,000 to 6,000
children a month is mostly due to contaminated water, lack of medicines and
malnutrition. The U.S. and the UK governments' delayed clearance of equipment and
materials is responsible for this tragedy, not Baghdad."
While not easy to
sort out the sanctions issue, it seems clear that Saddam alone is not to blame.
As Princeton University's Richard Falk has stated: the U.S. and the UK "bear a
particularly heavy political, legal, and moral responsibility for the harm
inflicted on the people of Iraq."
How important is oil as a motive for this war? It is one thing
for the U.S. to target Iraq because Saddam supposedly harbors weapons of mass
destruction (though according to just war principles and international law that
is by no means sufficient). It is quite another if the goal is to seize control
of Iraq's oil.
At least one
cautious administration supporter, Anthony H. Cordesman, senior analyst at
Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, is quite candid:
"Regardless of whether we say so publicly," he admits, "we will go to war,
because Saddam sits at the center of a region with more than 60 percent of all
the world's oil reserves."
What does this mean? Are weapons of mass
destruction the pretext while oil is really the prize? Would Americans back this
war if they believed it was really about oil? Would they agree that the appalling
military, diplomatic and human costs are worth it?
For the oil industry,
"regime change" in Baghdad will not be meaningful unless it is followed by
political stability. To develop the oil reserves, according one analyst, "you
need two to three billion dollars, and you don't invest that kind of money
without stability." Even if Saddam can be toppled easily (which is by no means
certain), "stability" would almost certainly require a puppet regime and a
prolonged, costly military occupation, not democracy for the Iraqi people. Again,
is that really what Americans want?
Why the outrage at Iraq now? Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul
Wolfowitz has recently conceded, perhaps unwittingly, that any plausible threat
from Iraq is perhaps a decade away. "It's too dangerous to wait ten years for
them to hit us," he said. "September 11 was nothing compared to what an attack
with chemical and biological weapons would be. We have a problem. We're not going
to wait forever to solve it."
without waiting forever, it might be better to solve other problems first. The
"regime change" engineered in Afghanistan, for example, is already coming back to
haunt us. As former Canadian diplomat Peter Dale Scott has pointed out, Afghan
drugs, virtually eliminated under the Taliban, are not only back, but will be
used to fund worldwide terrorism. "Thanks to the U.S. intervention," he writes,
"Afghanistan will again supply up to 70 percent of the world's heroin this year.
. . . It is estimated that the 2002 crop will be about 85 percent of the
record-breaking 4,500 metric tons harvested in 1999." Besides spreading misery to
our society, this harvest will generate an increase of funds for terrorists
around the globe.
Wayne Morse (D., Ore.) was one of only two senators who
voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. He saw what was coming when few did.
Three years later he said: "We're going to become guilty, in my judgment, of
being the greatest threat to the peace of the world. It's an ugly reality, and we
Americans don't like to face up to it. I hate to think of the chapter of American
history that's going to be written in the future in connection with our outlawry
in Southeast Asia."
Will another such chapter be written on Iraq?
George Hunsinger teaches theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Copyright 2002 the Christian Century Foundation