Guest article

January 23, 2003

Why the Empire strikes first
Bad reasons for war with Iraq




A government as eager as ours to invade another country would normally be expected to have excellent reasons for going to war. And yet virtually no other country accepts the reasons our rulers have offered for attacking Iraq, and the United States seems to have lost sight of how aggressive it appears to the world. The official explanations for the invasion are, indeed, so inadequate, we are forced to look elsewhere for better ones.

A sign of the Bush administration's hunger for war is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's view of the UN weapons inspections. He made it clear from the beginning that if the inspectors found chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons it meant war with Iraq. On January 19, as the UN's January 27 deadline for disclosing the initial findings to the Security Council approached, the Washington Post reported further on the secretary's views: "Hussein was so skilled at deception, he said, that failure to find weapons the United States has insisted exist could be considered proof of Iraqi lack of cooperation." Since the Security Council has ordered Iraq to cooperate with the inspections, in Mr. Rumsfeld's view "lack of cooperation" is grounds for war. If the inspectors find weapons, it means war; if they don't, it still means war.

The Bush administration is impatient to attack, no matter what the facts on the ground may be. When inspections resumed in November, we heard repeatedly that U.S. intelligence agencies had "hard evidence" Iraq was concealing weapons of mass destruction. When the inspectors asked the Americans where they should look, we told them any hints would compromise our sources. It is hard to imagine how slipping the inspectors a few addresses could expose our spies, but after more than a month of stalling, we finally gave them information.

Presumably, we told them they could be certain to find anthrax, plutonium, or long-range missiles; but so far, the inspectors have found only a dozen empty chemical-weapon warheads with a range of 12 miles. Those turned up at the Ukhaider Ammunition Storage Area southwest of Baghdad, a weapons depot the inspectors had visited long before the CIA opened up its little black book. Iraq used battlefield weapons of this kind in the war against Iran, and stored this batch along with conventional warheads of the same 122mm caliber. The Iraqis said they would search their depots for similar warheads that might have been overlooked, and three days later, on January 19, reported they had found four more. Even the Americans hesitate to insist that these 16 warheads represent anything but an oversight.

The inspectors have looked into every warehouse, palace, and laboratory they wanted. "There has been prompt access," said chief UN inspector Hans Blix on January 18. "There has been access everywhere." Imagine, for a moment, just what this means. Imagine foreigners showing up unannounced at the Pentagon, the White House, Camp David, or Los Alamos, and tramping through any office or storeroom they liked. Iraq has submitted to intrusion of the most humiliating kind in order to demonstrate that it no longer has weapons of mass destruction.

The inspectors are now searching private homes. On January 16, they arrived unannounced at the house of Faleh Hassan, who once worked on Iraq's nuclear bomb project. They spent six hours rooting around, and one female inspector even went through their bedroom as his wife watched helplessly. "My tears were flowing," she says, "as she was going through my things and my closet and my drawers and my private things." The inspectors found documents concerning Iraq's efforts to use lasers to enrich uranium — a program that ended in the 1980s. Once again: Can we imagine the deep humiliation of opening every private home in the country to nosy foreigners?

President Bush insists that we cannot get the truth about the weapons unless we invite scientists to defect with their families and then tell all. Mr. Hassan says that at one point an American inspector sidled up to him and offered medical treatment for his wife outside the country, adding that Mr. Hassan could go with her as an "escort." He spurned the offer, saying, "We would rather live as beggars in our country than as kings abroad."

Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Bush seem to think every Iraqi is squirming under the heel of Saddam Hussein, and would leap at the chance to live in America — just as they seem to think the Iraqis will welcome American "liberators." They don't seem to realize that Iraqis might actually love their country.

The administration blusters and threatens as if the UN inspectors had already found mountains of forbidden weapons. On January 14, President Bush declared himself "sick and tired of [Saddam Hussein's] games and deception," and said once more that the Iraqis had better disarm or else. It seems not to have occurred to him that if the Iraqis have offered "access everywhere," as Mr. Blix put it, and if hundreds of inspections have turned up nothing, it might be because Saddam Hussein has no weapons of mass destruction. Could it not be that the inspectors have found nothing — even after we told them where to look — because there is nothing to find? Mr. Hussein says he has destroyed the weapons; we say he hasn't. This is precisely the argument the inspectors were sent in to settle, but now that nothing has turned up, we say it is only because the Iraqis are deceiving us.

What more are the Iraqis supposed to do? Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld talk as though they will not be satisfied until Mr. Hussein's people lead inspectors to piles of chemical and biological weapons and say, "Here they are." But the Americans would certainly insist that was proof Iraq couldn't be trusted, that they had hidden weapons so well the inspectors couldn't find them and that they must therefore be disarmed by force.

The war party claims there are many reasons to be suspicious of the 11,807-page declaration the Iraqis submitted to the Security Council on December 7; the document was supposed to describe every detail of Baghdad's weapons programs and prove that every forbidden bacterium, chemical, and artillery shell had been destroyed. Oddly, the U.S. government has released only a deeply censored version that is missing thousands of pages, so we cannot see for ourselves what the Iraqis' sins are supposed to be. But why are the alleged gaps in the document more important than what the inspectors can or cannot find on the ground? As a practical matter, how are the Iraqis supposed to provide documentary proof of what happened to every trace of several major weapons programs?

Iraq has been working on chemical and biological weapons for decades. It used some of them in the war with Iran. We destroyed some of them during the Gulf War. The first group of UN inspectors destroyed more, and we and the British regularly bomb targets in the northern and southern "no-fly" zones. Iraq is a Third World country that has been under severe economic sanctions for more than a decade. Is it realistic to expect it to have complete records of the development, manufacture, and disposition of every forbidden weapon? America is a developed country; we have not been at war; we have not suffered economic sanctions or regular bombings. And yet the FBI recently confessed it doesn't know what happened to hundreds of weapons and dozens of laptop computers full of sensitive information. Even with the best will in the world, could our armed forces give an accounting of the kind we are demanding from Iraq?

Let us step back and reflect on the reasons our rulers have given for war. First, although Iraq certainly does not have nuclear weapons, it may have biological or chemical weapons. However, India, Pakistan, China, Israel, and probably even North Korea certainly do have nuclear weapons, but we have no plans to attack them.

Second, Iraq is said to be a threat to the United States. In fact, Iraq has no weapons that can reach the United States, nor has Saddam Hussein ever expressed the intention or desire to attack us. Our country has faced far worse threats in the past without waging preemptive war. Invading a country simply because we don't like its leader or because it might do something unpleasant has never been a justification for war, either in our own history or in international law. At the same time, Saddam Hussein knows he would face instant and massive retaliation if any assault on American interests could be traced to him.

Third, Iraq has used poison gas against Iran and against Kurdish Iraqis. That was back in the 1980s, and at the time Washington quietly encouraged it because Iraq was fighting Iran, which the United States considered an enemy. Donald Rumsfeld himself met Saddam Hussein in 1983, gave him a warm handshake, and wished him success against Iran. We can hardly justify war today for past actions we ignored when they occurred.

Fourth, Saddam Hussein has killed thousands of his own people. No doubt he has, but he is hardly unique. Furthermore, he would explain that he killed Iraqis who were in insurrection against his government and who wanted to carve out independent states for themselves. This, as I recall, was the same explanation offered by Abraham Lincoln for why he had to kill 300,000 Confederates. In insisting that the United States was indivisible, he declared the Southerners — whom he killed in such large numbers — to be "his own people."

Fifth, Saddam Hussein is said to be a threat to his neighbors. If he is a threat, why is every one of his six immediate neighbors, including Kuwait, which he invaded, and Iran, with which he fought a war, opposed to our invasion? As I will note below, there is only one country in the region that considers Mr. Hussein a threat, and that one is not a neighbor.

Finally, the attacks of Sept. 11 are said to have "changed everything." Whatever reasons Saddam Hussein may have to dislike the United States, there is no evidence he had anything to do with the attacks. Indeed, as a secular ruler of an Islamic country, he is the kind of man Osama bin Laden despises. It is strange justice to punish Saddam Hussein for the actions of his enemy.

Having exhausted the official — and unconvincing — reasons for war with Iraq, we must investigate the unstated reasons for invasion and "regime change." Many people have suggested oil is the real motive, since we are running out of it at home, and Iraq's reserves are second only to those of Saudi Arabia. But would the United States really invade a sovereign country to steal its natural resources? Sadly, there may be some substance to that sordid theory.

According to a January 10 article in Newsday, the Pentagon is quietly considering how to spend Iraq's oil revenue to support the costs of an occupation, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would run $12 billion to $48 billion a year. The article quotes an unnamed Pentagon source: "There are people in the White House who take the position that it's all the spoils of war. We [the United States] take all the oil money until there is a new democratic government [in Iraq]." The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments is reported to have presented a report on December 13 to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz recommending that the cost of occupying and governing Iraq should come out of that country's oil revenue.

If the U.S. government is openly considering so unsavory and openly imperialist uses for a conquered country's resources, what else might it be considering privately? At the very least, American oilmen take it for granted that a "new" Iraq would cancel its current petroleum contracts with Russia's Lukoil and France's TotalFinaElf — worth tens of billions of dollars — and offer them to American companies. At the same time, however, oilmen do not like war, oil wells in flames, and instability of supply. American oil companies themselves cannot be considered influential voices urging the country on to war.

There is another unsettling and understated motive for war: Israel wants it. Last summer, in words he may now regret, former NATO supreme commander Wesley Clark explained the thinking behind an invasion, and the British paper The Guardian quoted him on August 21: "Those who favor this attack now tell you candidly and privately that it is probably true that Saddam Hussein is no threat to the United States. But they are afraid at some point he might decide if he had a nuclear weapon to use it against Israel." Israel, and its supporters in the United States, would be happy to see Iraq a smoking ruin.

According to a Los Angeles Times article of December 1, 2002, a 1996 report from an Israeli think tank to then-incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that "removing Saddam from power" was "an important Israeli strategic objective." Since that time, three of the authors of that report have become important figures in the Bush administration: Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board; Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense; and David Wurmser, special assistant in the State Department. It apparently arouses no notice in government circles when Jews who have written policy papers on Israel's strategic objectives join an American administration — and proceed to push the same objectives.

Just four days after the September 11 attacks, at an important meeting with the President to discuss how to respond, Mr. Wolfowitz argued that the real threat to America did not come from Afghanistan or al Qaeda but from Saddam Hussein, and that Iraq should be our real target (Time Magazine, January 19, 2003). Mr. Wolfowitz has very close ties to Israel, so it is hardly a coincidence that he should urge a course of action that promotes Israel's strategic interests.

There is a very large and perhaps decisive contingent of Jews among the Americans who are calling for war, not just in government but also in the press. Virtually every Jewish commentator, including Charles Krauthammer, Norman Podhoretz, William Safire, Morton Kondracke, Don Feder, Ben Wattenberg, and Mona Charen, is calling for war as loudly as possible. Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, who has always had a reputation as a dove, has suddenly announced himself a warhawk, too.

As early as October 29, 2001, William Kristol and Robert Kagan — also Jews — wrote in The Weekly Standard that the war in Afghanistan was "but an opening battle" in a war against Islam that will "spread and engulf a number of countries." They looked forward to American-imposed "regime change" in Syria, Iran, Egypt, Libya, and Saudi Arabia in addition to Iraq — in short, in any Middle Eastern country hostile to Israel. What they and many other influential American Jews appear to want is for the United States to fight as many wars as necessary in order to make the Middle East safe for Israel.

Saddam Hussein has indeed expressed a desire to destroy the Jewish state, and during the Gulf War he lobbed a few Scud missiles at Israel. American Jews make no secret of their love of Israel, and it is easy to understand why they want Mr. Hussein crushed. However, it is not America's job to make the world safe for Israel, or if it is, someone should plainly explain why. American Jews, who have great influence in this country, appear to be pushing our country in directions that suit Israel's interests rather than those of the United States.

Even if Americans are undaunted by the thought of unleashing aggressive war on a country that does not threaten us, they might consider the economic consequences of an invasion. An attack on Iraq could send oil prices as high as $40 a barrel. Our economy, already struggling, could sink into recession, dragging other countries down with it. State and federal deficits, already worrisome, could reach dangerous levels.

There is also the prospect of terrorism. The United States supports Israel in what the vast majority of the world's countries see as a cruel occupation of Palestinian territory. If we now invade a country that is not a threat to us but is a threat to Israel, and then divert Iraqi oil revenue into our own pockets while we continue to write checks to Israel, we will give millions of Muslims who already hate us reasons to hate us all the more. There is no telling in what gruesome and imaginative ways they may seek revenge. We are supposed to be in a war against terrorism, but an invasion of Iraq would be a war that invited terrorism.

There is also the very serious danger of squandering whatever goodwill is left to America around the world. If the United States, perhaps alongside Britain, goes to war over the objections of every other country in the world, we will build up resentments even among countries we have always considered close friends.

For all these reasons I strongly oppose what my country is preparing to do. I am ashamed of its arrogant demands on Iraq, its determination to make war without proof of Iraqi misbehavior, its readiness to serve Israel's interests rather than its own, and its willingness, if need be, to plunge the world into recession if that is what it takes to overthrow a regime that has done it no harm. There are few things America has ever done that were so bullying and arrogant, and I fear for our future if this war sets an American precedent for imperial warmaking, contempt for world opinion, and the inability to distinguish our own interests from those of others. Ω

January 23, 2003

A related article by Mr. Blythe.

Gilbert Blythe is the pen name of a Washington-area journalist.


Published in 2003 by WTM Enterprises.

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