After less than a month in office, US president George W. Bush left no doubt about his combative attitude to Iraq: like father, like son. George W.’s approach is one of gunboat diplomacy based on the unbridled use of force without scruple. But in his so doing, it becomes hard to tell whether he is trying to solve America’s difficulties in dealing with Iraq, or unwittingly unravelling completely a policy that has already failed.
On February 16, two dozen US and British warplanes patrolling the southern ‘no-fly’ zone in Iraq rained death and destruction on a number of targets near Baghdad, resulting in the deaths of two civilians, Ghayda ‘Atshan ‘Abdullah (18) and Khalil Hamid Alwash (in his 30s), and the injury of more than 20 others, including women and children, some of them now in critical condition.
Like an unrepentant sinner still on a bender, Bush told a press-conference while on a visit to Mexico: “A routine mission was conducted to enforce the no-fly zone. And it is a mission about which I was informed, and I authorized. But I repeat, it’s a routine mission.” In Washington, the Pentagon claimed that the planes hit Iraqi air-defences inside and outside the ‘no-fly zone’ south of Baghdad. Speaking to journalists at a news-conference, US Marine lieutenant-general Gregory Newbold said that the strikes accomplished their goal, which he described as: “to degrade, disrupt the ability of the Iraqi air defences to coordinate attacks against our aircraft.” He further characterized the strikes as “essentially... a self-defence measure,” adding that the targets were picked specifically because they were not near civilians. But the images of injured women and children at al-Yarmouk Hospital in central Baghdad have given the lie to these assertions. The public relations noise coming out of Washington, though coated in the antiseptic semantics of self-defence and the moral boundaries of the use of violence, failed to wipe away the blood of the victims of America’s adventurism, and show how little regard for Arab lives there is in America’s power politics.
US and British warplanes have patrolled no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq since shortly after the end of the second Gulf war, ostensibly to ‘protect’ Shi’i Muslims in the south and a Kurdish enclave in the north from possible attacks by Baghdad forces. The zones are not specifically mandated by UN security council resolution 688, which is often referred to as the document that anchors the bombardment of the no-fly zones in international legality, yet makes no reference to a right to take over Iraqi airspace. Allied planes have regularly attacked targets in the no-fly zones since Baghdad started challenging western planes patrolling them in December 1998. But the recent strike was the first time that US and British planes have hit targets north of the 33rd parallel of latitude, which marks the edge of the southern no-fly zone some 50km south of Baghdad, since Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, when targets all over Iraq were hit in a four-day blitz. The warplanes struck their targets, four of which are between eight and 32 kilometres from Baghdad, without leaving the southern no-fly zone, using so-called “stand-off” weapons, that is long-range precision-guided weapons that zero in on targets from a distance.
Since coming to office, the Bush administration has made no bones about its intentions toward Iraq. Administration officials, many of whom were key players in the conduct of the 1990-91 Gulf war, including vice president Dick Cheney (defence secretary at the time) and secretary of state Colin Powell (then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff), have made it clear that the administration will adopt a tough line against Iraq. In its effort to justify its stance against Baghdad, the Bush administration has accused it of continuing to develop weapons of mass-destruction, violating the embargo that has been in place since shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and posing a threat to its neighbours.
By launching the strikes, the Bush administration has signalled that it will not be as ‘restrained’ in dealing with Iraq as the Clinton administration was during its last two years. The main message is that the new administration intends to get tough on Iraq, and that military adventurism is an essential component of that new-old policy. In the past ten years Iraq has become a convenient punching-bag for American presidents seeking to project a tough image.
Another component of the new policy is the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC): it is to be unleashed in a paramilitary campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Washington has recently increased its efforts to finance and train the INC, a loose coalition of anti-Saddam forces. It is noteworthy that Dr Ahmad Chalabi, a member of the six-man leadership of the INC, was at the US state department when the strikes took place. He welcomed the raids, saying: “I think this [strike] signals a serious development because Saddam must now be on-guard. The Iraqi people [are] going to get him and the United States is helping them achieve liberation and freedom.”
Only the utterly naive can accept Washington’s much-touted goal of “regime change” in Iraq at face value. The probity of such a claim founders on Washington’s reluctance to commit its own forces to the effort of displacing Saddam, the ruthlessness of Saddam’s regime that knows no limits, the weakness and fragmentation of the Iraqi opposition, and the lack of mass popular support for the US-backed INC. After a decade of an American policy aimed at containing and destabilizing Saddam Hussein’s regime, Saddam now seems more rigid than flexible, and more firmly in control than at any time since the Gulf war.
Secretary of state Powell has ordered a review of policy toward Iraq, with an emphasis on sanctions targeted more narrowly to deprive the government of military supplies, especially for weapons of mass-destruction, and to allay humanitarian concerns that food and medicine are not reaching the Iraqi people. But Powell’s strategy suffers from the same problem that has bedevilled America’s policy of containment: that of separating the civilian and military aspects. This is the problem that has undermined the UN sanctions regime against Iraq. People the world over have become increasingly concerned about the plight of ordinary Iraqis living under the sanctions, which so far have claimed the lives of more than a million people, more than half of them children under the age of 5. The humanitarian toll of the embargo has led to the erosion of international support for the sanctions as they now stand. Iraq’s relations with many Arab countries are now improving after long years of hostility. Egypt and Syria, both members of the US-led Gulf war coalition against Iraq, have concluded free-trade agreements with Baghdad. Syria and Iraq, rivals for decades, are now close to restoring full diplomatic relations. The oil pipeline between Kirkuk in northern Iraq and Banias on the Syrian coast has been repaired and is ready to reopen.
An aggressive military strategy towards Iraq requires Arab as well as international support, something which has become ever more elusive since the end of the Gulf war. Arab and international opinion has shifted away from viewing Saddam Hussein as the major destabilizing force in the Middle East. Throughout the Arab world, Washington’s stand against Iraq is seen largely as the extreme of hypocrisy and double standards. Washington’s tough stance vis-a-vis Iraq is contrasted with its unconditional support for Israel, which continues to flout more UN resolutions than any other country in the region. The US’s reluctance to lean on Israel, despite its viciousness against the intifada, has only stoked anti-American passions throughout the Arab world.
The torrent of criticism from around the world since the recent raids shows how isolated Washington has become in its efforts to exert military pressure on Iraq. Vociferously anti-US Arab countries such as Syria were not the only ones to condemn the raids: even the usually apathetic and timid Arab League considered the assaults a violation of international law, and pro-US Qatar described them as regrettable. With the election of arch-hawk Ariel Sharon as Israeli prime minister and the continuation of Israel’s suppression of the intifada, even long-time pro-American Arab and Muslim governments have begun to show signs of reluctance to cooperate against Saddam Hussein.
Russia and China, both UN security council members, are leading a chorus of international condemnation: the raids are seen by them as a threat to Middle East stability. France’s reaction gave a clear indication of the fracturing western consensus on Iraq. The French foreign ministry asked for an explanation for the air-strikes, and expressed its incomprehension and disquiet at US and British raids. France had fought with its western allies in the Gulf war and afterwards helped impose the no-fly zones. But it later started to distance itself from the US policy on Iraq and stopped helping to patrol the zones, describing the air raids as “pointless and deadly.”
Bush has inherited a legacy of failure in Iraq. Saddam Hussein has already outlasted two American presidents, with no end whatsoever in sight to his regime. Recent events show that the new administration has no new or creative ideas on how to deal with Iraq and Saddam.