While public attention has recently been on the commemoration of the first anniversary of the attacks of September 11 last year, the major subject of political debate has been neither the war against terrorism nor events in Afghanistan, but George W. Bush’s fierce lobbying for his planned escalation of war on Iraq. American officials have been on numerous visits to other countries, pressuring governments to toe the American line, and Bush has held meetings with other heads of state, and spoken to others by telephone, to try to convince them of the US’s case.
As Crescent went to press, he was due to address the UN General Assembly on September 12, to demand international support for his plans for Iraq, warning that the US would act unilaterally if the UN Security Council does not pass a resolution setting a deadline for the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq. On September 10 French president Jacques Chirac proposed a two-step process for Security Council approval by which Iraq would be given a deadline to accept unconditional weapons inspections, failing which the UN would approve US military action.
The Bush administration’s determination to act against Iraq is well established, with senior officials having stated that their objective would remain “regime change” even if Iraq complied with all its demands. After a year of virtually unquestioning international support for America’s “war against terror”, however, Bush has found his plans for Iraq meeting unexpected resistance. The fact that he is going to the UN to justify the attack is itself a sign of this, for Washington had long maintained that it did not need any authorization to act against Saddam Hussein. At the same time that Bush and his lieutenant, British prime minister Tony Blair, are demanding that Saddam accept his obligation under international law to submit to the UN Security Council, they have promised to act unilaterally if the UN does not provide them with the authority they are demanding.
Even while going through the motions of proper procedure at the UN, the US has been laying the groundwork for its war. On September 5 nearly 100 US and British aircraft carried out the largest operation against Iraq since 1998. Their target was an airfield close to the Jordanian border. Although the Pentagon claimed to be acting in self-defence, the operation was widely recognised as a rehearsal for the type of operation that would be launched in the run-up to war. It consisted of ground attacks by nine US F15 Strike Eagles and three British Tornado aircraft, supported by fighter electronic surveillance aircraft.
At the same time, the Pentagon confirmed that heavy armour, munitions and other equipment was being taken out of storage in the US bases in Qatar and being transported to Kuwait for “forward deployment.” On September 11 US Central Command confirmed that it was transferring 600 headquarters staff to Qatar for a “training exercise”. During the US’s war on Iraq in 1990-91, the US campaign was headed from a headquarters in Saudi Arabia. Sources unofficially confirmed that the “exercise” could be converted to an operation if needed.
Despite the Americans’ aggressiveness, Bush has found little support for this war even among key Western allies. While Blair has been as obedient as ever, France and China have both opposed any military action, and Vladimir Putin has said that he is “unconvinced” by the US’s reasons. These are the three members of the Security Council with the power to veto the US’s plans. Many other countries have also voiced opposition to the plans, including Canada, Germany and virtually all countries in the Middle East. Many of the US’s regional allies have, however, little choice but to cooperate, even while publicly opposing the war, because of their political, economic and security dependence on the US.
Bush’s main excuse for attacking is that Iraq is developing weapons of mass-destruction (nuclear, biological and chemical weapons) that pose a threat to the “civilized” world. Washington has also accused Iraq of vague links with Usama bin Ladin and al-Qa’ida, to tie its plans to the “war against terror”, and of oppressing Iraq’s people, to make its plans seem altruistic. Few people are convinced by any of this, however. All major studies agree that Iraq is years from having useable nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
In an incident that would have been highly embarrassing had the West’s much-vaunted “free press” made more of it, Bush was caught openly lying about his evidence against Iraq after a meeting with Tony Blair in Washington on September 7. Bush used a 1998 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency as evidence that at that time, almost three years ago, Iraq had been six months from developing nuclear weapons. It soon emerged, however, that the report said nothing of the kind; what it actually said was that in 1990, before the US war on Iraq, and before the intensive UN weapons inspections that followed, Iraq had been 6 to 24 months from nuclear capability.
The report also said that “based on all information available to date ... the IAEA has found no indication of Iraq having achieved its program goal of producing nuclear weapons or of Iraq having retained a physical capability for the production of weapon-useable nuclear material or having clandestinely obtained such material.”
Informed sources in the West are highly sceptical of all Washington’s claims. In August, the Washington-based think-tank Foreign Policy in Focus (PFIF) published a detailed report called Seven Reasons to Oppose a US Invasion of Iraq. These were: 1. that a war against Iraq would be illegal; 2. that the US’s regional allies oppose one; 3. that there is no evidence linking Iraq to Usama bin Ladin or any other terrorist group; 4. that there is no proof that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction; 5. that Iraq no longer poses any military threat to its neighbours; 6. there are still non-military options available; and 7. that defeating Iraq would be militarily difficult.
The report also points out that “Although Iraq’s potential for developing weapons of mass destruction should not be totally discounted, Saddam Hussein’s refusal to allow UN inspectors to return and his lack of full cooperation prior to their departure do not mean he is hiding something... More likely, the Iraqi opposition to the inspections program is based on Washington’s abuse of UNSCOM for intelligence gathering operations and represents a desperate effort by Saddam Hussein to increase his standing with Arab nationalism by defying Western efforts to intrude on Iraqi sovereignty.”
These realities are unlikely, however, to seriously delay the war against Iraq. Nor is the UN likely to do so, despite words of warning from leaders of senior Western countries and UN secretary general Kofi Annan, who will also address the General Assembly on September 12. Speaking to the BBC on September 11, Annan said that “when one is trying to deal with a broader threat to international peace and security, there is no alternative but to go through the [Security] Council... It is only the Council that can provide the unique legitimacy that one needs to be able to act.”
Rather than a warning to the US of the consequences should it act without UN approval, this is an appeal to the US not to undermine and marginalise the UN by demonstrating more openly than ever before its ability to disregard the UN. This shows that the UN, supposedly the highest international political body, is in fact a junior partner in its dealings with the US. Annan’s words are not a warning that international procedures and law must be followed; they are a plea that the UN’s irrelevance should not be totally exposed, and that it can be useful to the US, given the opportunity. The threat that the US will act unilaterally if necessary is a warning to the UN that it will be rendered obsolete should it refuse to toe the American line.
In view of the widespread opposition to Bush’s plans, it now seems that Washington has decided to slow down its march to war in order to take some UN legitimacy on board. Some version of Chirac’s proposals is likely to be approved, giving Iraq an ultimatum: allow weapons inspectors in unconditionally or face attack. This may well be little more than a token in order to legitimise the US’s predetermined path; the UN can, for example, impose terms for the inspections that make it impossible for Iraq to accept them, such as insisting that US troops to accompany the inspectors. And even if the UN does grant Iraq more space than that, and Iraq does genuinely attempt to reach a settlement to avert American attack, as it may well try to do, Washington will almost certainly manipulate the process in order to ensure it can go to war, as it is determined to do, anyway.