The US had a right to wage war against the perpetrators of the terrorist massacre in New York and Washington and their allies, but it was not right to do so. Although the war in Afghanistan has destroyed the Taliban and weakened al-Qaida, it has brought death to many innocents. On conservative estimates, at least 5,000 Afghan civilians have died as a result of the US bombing (compared to 3,000 civilian deaths in the USA). Only one US official, a CIA operative, was killed in the first 3 months. In this latest ‘risk-transfer war’, impoverished Afghans have paid the price of saving George Bush’s face and America’s pride. There were other, maybe slower, means to weaken the terror networks and bring the terrorists to justice, which would not have risked these lives.
In any case, the US does not have the right to attack Iraq under the same rubric that it claimed for Afghanistan. Few if any significant links have been established between Iraq and the perpetrators of 9/11. Certainly, the Iraqi regime is one of the world’s most brutal. Its leaders have launched aggressive wars and committed genocidal crimes, for both of which they deserve to be brought to international justice (every bit as much as Slobodan Milosevic). The international community has a right and duty to restrict Iraq’s military capabilities and to support movements for political change in that country. But this is not the same as a right to launch war against the Iraqi regime.
This issue has a history, of course. George Bush I ended the Gulf War just as the Iraqi Shi’ites and Kurds, responding to Bush’s appeals, rose up against Saddam Hussein. American troops and planes stood by as the Iraqi Republican Guard massacred the insurgents in southern Iraq; they even allowed the regime to use helicopter gunships on them. At that point, it would have been fully justified to support the insurgents. Minimal US airpower would probably have disabled the weakened Iraqi forces and protected the rebellions, leading probably to the overthrow of Saddam in Baghdad. It was criminal of George I not to have taken this action.
Only after it was too late, when the US’s Turkish allies were faced with a huge influx of Kurdish refugees, fleeing from Saddam’s repression, and the world’s TV highlighted their terrible plight, did the US, UK and France intervene in Iraq to create the Kurdish ‘safe’ area. (I analysed this development in Civil Society and Media in Global Crises, London: Pinter, 1996). This autonomous region survives to this day, a twilight zone vulnerable to both Turkey and Iraq, only indirectly and partially protected by the northern ‘no-fly zone’. Policing this zone involves the US and UK in a continuous low-grade war, with intermittent small massacres of civilians, which has been stepped up since the Iraqi military started to attack the Western planes.
On the ground, meanwhile, the UN sanctions have been manipulated by the regime to protect its forces and lifestyle, while impoverishing ordinary Iraqis. They suffer from inadequate food and medicines, and Western TV is on hand to record the distress and pin responsibility again on Western governments. The belated move to ‘smarter’ sanctions has so far brought little improvement to the misery of ordinary Iraqis nor extra pressure on the regime.
This is a terrible mess: that much is sure. There is no easy answer. Removing all international sanctions on the Iraqi regime, the simple answer of some on the left, will allow it to renew its military ambitions as well as easing the pressure on the people. Smarter sanctions, the more complex new solution of Western governments, will keep some pressure on the regime, but will probably still give the regime the excuse not to address the plight of the population.
War is the simple answer of the Republican hawks, now seemingly dominant in Washington. I have said that it would have been right for the US to support the rebellions to topple Saddam in 1991. The situation today is different, however. There are no rebellions. The Kurdish parties in the North exist in a state of uneasy armed truce among themselves. Even with US help, the exiled Iraqi opposition does not appear in a position to mount a serious challenge. The main means the US has to topple Saddam is high-altitude bombing, now seemingly the only answer the American government has to every troublesome problem on the ground.
‘Bombing works’, Polly Toynbee has told us. It destroyed the Taliban — with how many deaths, military as well as civilian, we do not know. But the Iraqi regime, even after a decade of sanctions, is a far better organised and armed enemy than the Taliban. There is no armed internal opposition, like the Northern Alliance, waiting to pick up the military struggle on the ground. It is not clear that the rival Kurdish parties are willing or able to fulfil this role. It is possible that extensive and intensive bombing, on a greater scale than that in either Kosovo or Afghanistan, will break the back of the Iraqi regime. But at what price this deus ex machina?
It is a truly reactionary political doctrine that says that the US has the right to change the government of a state by bombing it — and its people — into submission. This is not support for a popular uprising, as it would have been in Iraq in 1991. This is not prevention of genocide, as it was in Kosovo in 1999. It is not the destruction and punishment of a force indirectly responsible for a murderous attack on the US, as it was in Afghanistan. By any standards, a US attack on Iraq will be a bombing campaign too far. Its political repercussions will be profound, threatening not just to break up Bush’s new anti-terrorist coalition with Russia, China, India and Pakistan, but also to destabilise the core Western alliance. It underlines the nature of the problem that the Bush administration poses for any serious project of global governance.
written for www.openDemocracy.net