Countdown to Disaster:
The Consequences of an Iraqi Misadventure
Remarks by Dr. Paul Atwood at a meeting of CPPAX in Boston (Citizens for Participation in Political Action), December 7, 2002. A brief bio of Dr. Atwood is at the end of this article.
I find it very instructive, and something the media largely ignore, that such opposition as does exist within the administration to invading and occupying Iraq comes from those members who actually served in uniform in Vietnam. Though his opposition is muted now, Colin Powell originally demurred. Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage served two tours in Vietnam and is on record as strenuously opposing war with Iraq, and former national Security Adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft has said that such a war would unleash Armageddon in the Middle East. Numerous high-ranking general staff officers are also on record in opposition to war.
Almost all of those in the Bush Administration who do favor war are men who also favored war with Vietnam but who found it expedient to find ways not to have to bear any burden or make any sacrifice themselves. Vice-President Cheney has infamously said that he had more important priorities than serving in uniform. He and Paul Wolfowitz and others were perfectly happy to have other less fortunate young men, and some women, do the dirty work of killing and of sacrificing their lives for the cause. And now they are willing to do so once again.
Cheney claims that Saddam is a threat to world peace, yet as Secretary of Defense in 1991 he played a central role in enabling Saddam to remain in power and in the process betray the Kurds and Shiites of Iraq—that is, those who have been his primary victims all along.
The Ignored Report
Given the political realities of the early 1990s it is more accurate to say that Saddam was deliberately allowed to remain in power because the US wanted him to. He was still the best bulwark for containing Irans Shiite fundamentalism, as well as the growing Sunni Islamist movement so dangerous to the stability of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. His dictatorship also prevented Iraq from disintegrating. This fact is key.
It Helps To Know the History
That fantasy ended abruptly when Saddam made his play for Kuwait and its oil. The claim of Iraq to Kuwait had some measure of validity since the boundaries of both Iraq and Kuwait had been drawn by the British for the benefit of the British and Iraq claimed that Kuwait had been administered by the Turks as part of Iraqs province of Basra and should revert to Iraqi control.
Remember that Washington raised no objections to Indonesias annexation of East Timor—quite the contrary—or to Turkeys invasion of Cyprus, or to Israels virtual annexation of the West Bank, and many other examples. Whatever the case, Iraqs annexation of Kuwait suddenly gave it control over oil reserves so vast that it could, if allowed to stand, send the international pricing system into disarray.
Had the danger of Iraqs fragmentation not been so acute it seems likely that the first Bush administration might have opted to remove Saddam but there was no one to replace him. Bushs key advisers wanted Iraqs Sunni dictatorship to remain in place expressly to forestall Iraqs disintegration. Had the Kurds of the north seceded and established a separate state that would instantly have occasioned Turkeys Kurds to join it, along with Syrias and Irans, thus sending the entire region into chaos. It so happens that the bulk of Iraqi oil is in the Kurdish north.
The majority Shiites of southern Iraq would also have opted for independence. In sum, Iraq would have disintegrated along with any immediate hope of re-acquiring control of Iraqs oil. So some dictatorship would have to remain in order to forestall that. The Bushites would have preferred Saddamism without Saddam but no one trustworthy was on hand. When it became clear that the Kurdish and Shiite uprising of 1991 could lead to such disintegration the US suddenly pulled back, taking such measures only as would forestall continued mass slaughter, but which left Saddam in power.
Whos Really Got the Nukes?
Defenders of Israels nukes claim that such weapons are necessary for a state that is surrounded by implacable enemies. Yet, the fact remains that once Israel had nukes those neighbors themselves felt deeply threatened. Moreover, numerous Israeli politicians have said unofficially that Israel is prepared to employ the so-called Samson option, i.e., if Israel faces a military crisis it is prepared to take the rest of the Mideast with it. Israels conventional forces are more than a match for all the Arab armies combined and would be in an even better position if the U.S. would stop arming Egypt and Saudi Arabia with sophisticated weapons.
In the perverse logic of nuclear realism, when ones enemy has the doomsday weapon then one must have it as well. The continued proliferation of nuclear weapons—extra-legally as Israel and others have done—virtually ensures copycat measures and Iran and Syria and Libya all are moving in the same direction. Yet one hears virtually nothing about any of this. Nor do we hear calls for Israel or Pakistan to destroy its weapons of mass destruction.
The claim that Saddams possession of other WMDs in the form of chemical and biological weapons is equally hypocritical. When Saddam developed these weapons in the mid-1980s he did so with the aid of US and European companies with the full knowledge of Washington. When he actually used these weapons against Iranians and against Kurdish civilians the United Nations General Assembly instantly condemned these atrocities. But the US abstained, effectively giving its assent to these crimes.
In 1984 Donald Rumsfeld was President Reagans special envoy to the Middle East. He sat down with Saddam, cozily drank coffee with him, and said NOTHING about these crimes against humanity. For Rumsfeld to claim now that Saddams possession of such weapons constitutes a threat is Machiavellian hypocrisy of the first order.
Rumsfeld also condemns Saddam for the environmental havoc he wreaked in the Gulf War. This brought to mind the fact that Secretary Rumsfeld, as a four term congressman, and later economic adviser to president Nixon consistently voted for or supported allocations to the war in Vietnam which enabled 19 million gallons of herbicides to denude forests encompassing the area of Massachusetts, and 12 million tons of bombs were dropped on a nation made up largely of barefoot people. Today Vietnam has the highest rate of birth defects in the world owing to what the international scientific community described as Ecocide committed in Vietnam.
The real deal does not involve Saddams criminality. When his criminality was useful it was employed and used by Washington in the most cynical fashion. The reality—in the face of growing antipathy to the US throughout the Muslim world, at a time when domestic demand for oil is growing, when continuing access to Saudi oil may be endangered—is that it has become imperative to those in the seats of power to re-acquire control over the worlds second largest proven reserves of oil.
Talk of bringing democracy to Iraq has a pleasant ring to it. But genuine democracy in Iraq would lead the majority populations there—the Kurds and Shiites—to opt out of any union with their hated Sunni masters, and that is not going to be allowed precisely because that would not allow western re-control of the oil reserves. So the realistic scenario is a war against Saddam and massive occupation of Iraq far into the foreseeable future.
While President Bush has bowed somewhat to international and domestic pressure to seek international consensus, even as UN inspectors arrive in Baghdad he has ordered hundreds of thousands of troops into the region, calling up tens of thousands among the reserves and National Guard units, deploying vast armadas of ships and aircraft, expending billions of dollars, and negotiating with client regimes like Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait and others for basing rights. Meanwhile oil companies and oil service companies, including Haliburton, Vice-President Cheneys old company, are already meeting to divide the expected spoils.
Obviously the hawks in charge of this gambit believe they can carry it off. In the midst of a global crisis involving deepening anti-Americanism in the Muslim world people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et al. are willing to conduct a full-scale attack on an Arab people. This seems a recipe made to order to recruit endless jihadists to the cause of anti-Americanism and endless terror. Moreover, these strategists have also implied that they would use their bases in Iraq to stabilize the rest of the region, meaning that their next likely targets are Iran and Syria.
Far from being a cakewalk, war with Iraq portends endless legions on the frontiers, stretched along an Islamic front almost 3000 miles long, endless streams of KIAs and casualties, the even greater militarization of the American way of life and therefore the corruption of our ideals, including a renewed draft down the line, and eventually what the Yale historian Paul Kennedy has termed imperial overstretch a point wherein the cost of maintaining empire will be more than the proceeds empire is intended to produce.
War also means more suffering for the Iraqi people who have already been immiserated by the Gulf War of 1991. I hope we all remember the callous and cynical remarks made by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who when questioned about the deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five answered coldly that the price was worth it.
So our nation, and the world, have reached a critical turning point. And now is the time for those who take democracy and the future of our nation and the world seriously to raise their voices to warn those who are sleepwalking of the dangers ahead, to raise public consciousness, and to turn the ship of state before it crashes on the shoals of war and disaster.
In many ways we have an advantage today that people like us did not have in 1964 when President Johnson lied to the public about events in the Tonkin Gulf. A viable, potent peace movement is already underway. I am sure that as the scenario Ive just painted plays itself out, that more and more citizens will come to see that just as our war in Vietnam was not a struggle to bring democracy to Vietnam, but to impose our will there, so this renewed war in the Persian gulf is a pure power play masquerading as a crusade for human rights and democracy that will suck our nation into a quagmire that will make Vietnam seem but childs play.
Whether we collectively reach this conclusion before a profound tragedy ensues will depend to a great extent on our ability to make our voices heard wherever we live and work.
Dr. Paul Atwood, Research Associate at the William Joiner Center for War and Social Consequences, is a lecturer of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Visiting Lecturer at Bridgewater State College.
One of the original founders of the Joiner Center, Atwood is a former Marine and holds degrees from Umass-Boston, Harvard and Boston University. He has edited the Joiner Center publications on the consequences of warfare and is the author of articles on the Vietnam War in Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia. Dr. Atwood can be reached through CPPAX: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story was published on January 8, 2003.