Despite major developments in the politicking over Iraq during the past two weeks, there can be no doubt that the US remains as determined as ever to go to war against Saddam Hussein at the earliest possible opportunity, with the avowed intention of replacing his regime with one that will be more amenable to Western interests in the region.
In a major change of tack on September 12, US president George W. Bush went to the UN to demand that it rubber-stamp its plans for Iraq, threatening to make the world body irrelevant should it fail to accept Washington’s diktat. In a fiery speech to the UN General Assembly, Bush presented the Iraqi regime as the world’s greatest threat to peace and security, and implicitly demanded that the UN Security Council adopt a resolution ordering Iraq to allow weapons inspectors to reenter the country within a matter of weeks, and give them unrestricted access to all Iraqi installations of any kind. Such a resolution would sanction, in advance, the use of military force against Iraq should Washington consider that Iraq is failing to comply.
The wheels of the UN turn slowly, however, even though French president Jacque Chirac had prepared a draft resolution along those lines even before Bush’s speech. Saddam Hussein used the delay to call Bush’s bluff. After a few resolutely defiant statements, he said on September 16 that he would permit the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq for the first time since 1998, in order to avert war and to show that he has nothing to hide. He then invited UN representatives to meet with Iraqi officials to discuss the logistics of the UN inspections.
This Iraqi response apparently threw the Americans off balance, even though it should not have been unexpected. The American response was a flurry of contradictory statements from different officials: to accuse Saddam Hussein of attempting to undermine the UN; to repeat that their objective was to enforce the UN’s writ and the rule of international law; to confirm that their objective is "regime change" and not just the destruction of its weapons of mass destruction; and effectively to by-pass the UN should the UN not accept Washington’s orders.
Washington’s anger was understandable; but it may have proved its own worst enemy in terms of international politicking. Saddam Hussein’s response was precisely what they most feared: that he would use the UN and the issue of inspections to muddy the waters and provide those Western states who were nervous of permitting the US unlimited sanction to act with the grounds to delay its plans.
Saddam’s task was made much easier, however, by the arrogant and bullying tone of Bush’s speech, which angered and alienated even many of his allies, in Russia, France and Germany for example. The contradiction in Bush’s position was blatant, even brazen: Saddam Hussein had to be punished and overthrown because he was flouting the rule of international law and the authority of the UN; and if the UN refused to act as Bush saw fit, the US would go right ahead despite the UN’s opposition. The reality that it is the US that is the rogue state refusing to accept UN authority was too obvious to be ignored, except by the British government of Tony Blair, always the US’s loyallest lapdog.
The substance of Bush’s speech was not unexpected, and the US’s allies had prepared their positive response to it in advance (see Crescent International, September 16-30). It was Bush’s tone that caused waves and inflamed opposition to the US position.
The grounds that Bush presented for demanding that the UN authorise the overthrow of Saddam Hussein were also greeted with incredulity by most non-American commentators. Until his speech to the UN, the US’s overall position had to be gleaned from disparate and contradictory statements by different officials at different times. At the UN Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein is a modern-day Hitler, representing "exactly the kind of aggressive threat that the United Nations was born to confront."
This is a version of reality that few outside America recognize. Far from being an imperialist and expansionist power, Iraq is plainly nothing more than an impoverished and defeated former ally that was broken in war and has been devastated by more than a decade of economic sanctions. In 1989-1990, a few years after it had been all but defeated by Islamic Iran, despite having the support of both superpowers, Iraq was similarly portrayed to the world as a major military power threatening world peace, in order to justify America’s attack on it (and its convenient occupation of the Arabian peninsula in the process). More than a decade later the characterization is even more ludicrous.
Then, Iraq had at least invaded and occupied part of Kuwait (which was hardly a great military feat); the threat it supposedly posed to Saudi Arabia was later exposed as American propaganda. This time, no-one in the region except Israel even claims to feel threatened by it, and even informed Israeli commentators admit that there is no substance behind Saddam Hussein’s anti-Israeli rhetoric.
The West’s claim that Saddam Hussein is amassing weapons of mass destruction with which to threaten world peace is similarly hollow. In his speech to the UN, Bush provided no evidence of Iraq’s alleged build-up of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, apparently believing that a confident assertion of his claims was sufficient to support his demands. The previous day, senior US intelligence officials admitted that the government had failed to compile a new national intelligence estimate of Iraq’s nuclear, biological or chemical weapons capacities. The last cross-agency analysis was over two years ago. Critics in the US accused the government of not being able to prepare a fresh one because there was insufficient convincing evidence to be published as a comprehensive case to support the government’s claims.
Instead, the administration, then and subsequently, has preferred to support its claims with selective quotes from the reports of other agencies. On several occasions Bush and his officials have been guilty of exaggerating and misrepresenting the evidence they were presenting. As reported in the last issue of Crescent, one particularly embarrassing incident took place after Bush’s meeting with Tony Blair in Washington on September 7. In a press conference, 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 what the report 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.
Although Washington has been able to avoid presenting any comprehensive account of the evidence against Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair was forced to publish a dossier of supposed evidence when British Members of Parliament demanded a debate on Iraq. This dossier, called "Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government", was published at 8 am on the morning of September 24, giving MPs only 3 hours to study its 16 pages, before it was to be debated at 11 am.
Although the British government claims that it presents irrefutable evidence of Saddam Hussein’s evil, critics of the government dismissed it as a "weapon of mass deception", pointing out that it was based largely on out-of-date information, unsupportable extrapolations and deductions, and intelligence provided by self-interested and unreliable allies such as the Iraqi National Congress. Even then, in the words of Independent columnist Robert Fisk, it consisted largely of such phrases as "almost certainly", "appears", "probably" and "if". Interestingly, it claimed to incorporate evidence provided by the US, while Bush hailed it as confirming the evidence held by the US.
The fact that few people believe the US claims will, however, not prevent them going to war when the time is right. Iraq’s people will pay a high price for America’s regional interests.