Ten years ago, I was among the thousands of Seattle residents who took to the streets on a cold wet winter night to march among the dark empty office buildings of downtown Seattle and scream and shout against American military intervention in the Gulf. A decade had passed and those of us who opposed the war are left with many of the same questions that prompted us to protest against the slaughter that was ultimately unleashed on the Iraqi people.
For all the tough Pentagon talk about nailing Sadam, it should surprise no one that Sadam remains the paramount dictator in Baghdad. Under American law, he was given specific immunity as a president. Other Iraqis, both civilian and military, were not so fortunate. They had no immunity from the wrath of the American led assault to safeguard the flow oil to the West and Japan.
Until the bombs actually started dropping in front of CNN cameras, Americans were divided on whether or not to intervene. Whatever the difference of opinions were before the war, the vast majority of Americans, on both sides of the fence, understood that our “national interests” were about oil first, Israel second and all other issues a distant third.
True enough, the invasion of Kuwait was a breach of sovereignty. And such breaches should not be taken lightly. Successive American administrations have never been consistently for or against invasions. Rather, they have insisted on the exclusive right to approve them. The high principle here is what we might call registered breaches of sovereignty versus unregistered ones.
Saddam Hussein must learn a stern lesson from his ten-year ordeal. If you want to invade a neighboring country, you must first apply for permission at the State Department and have it endorsed by the CIA. For certain invasions, it is the other way around. It sort of depends on the invasion. In either case, there are pre-invasion protocols and procedures that must be followed. Otherwise, you end up with the demolition of your army, an international embargo on your hands and a permanent United States Marines garrison on your borders.
Now, Sadam knew the rules. Indeed, he had followed them to the letter before getting the go-ahead for his invasion of Iran in 1980. Two years later, Alexander Haig issued a “green light” permit for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It was a limited-mile certificate. When Israel went beyond the 25-mile allowance and laid siege to Beirut, the Reagan administration got miffed and fired Haig. That must have shown the Israelis that the United States was very serious about limited mileage invasions. Inspite of the incredible destruction unleashed by that campaign, which culminated in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, Israel continued to receive billions of dollars in American aid.
Even Syria’s late president, Hafez Assad, followed protocol before invading Lebanon in 1976. He applied to the Arab League and got a wink and a nod from both Israel and the United States. It is not clear whether this particular permit explicitly included the two-month bombardment of Tel-el-Zatter, a Palestinian refugee camp. But the American government did not object.
In 1967, Israel was awarded the ultimate permit: a border expansion certificate to rezone the Middle East. Thirty-three years later, the IDF continues to administer a brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, they have annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan heights. For all their trouble making, the Israelis have even managed to get generous annual post-invasion military occupation subsidies from the United States.
A decade after the Gulf War, anyone familiar with the nature of the absolute monarchies and dictatorships, must also realize that democratic institutions and freedom were not at stake in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia or Iraq. That is not why we continue an embargo designed to torment, humiliate and starve twenty three million Iraqis. The El Sabah family should not be confused with Princess Di.
Yet it is hard to find a single utterance by an American official calling for the right of the Arab people in the gulf region to vote for their leadership. Indeed, the Middle East is the only region in the world where America does not actively promote democratic institutions. The State Department has decided that Arab people are not worthy of the right to vote. It’s the culture, they say. “Stability” is more important than political, social and economic reforms. For all the talk about a volatile region, the last coup d’etat in the Arab Middle East was during the Nixon administration, when Qaddafi deposed the Sanousi in Libya. The Middle East is not only stable, it is stagnant.
Lest anyone forget the antics of the Kuwaiti Ambassador’s daughter, human rights violations were not the motivation behind the war to get Sadam out of Kuwait. It was just part of the public relations campaign to promote the Gulf War. Modern wars need to be marketed and the Kuwaitis and Saudis hired the very best PR consultants. It did not hurt that CNN was always available to broadcast any tape from the Pentagon or the State department. Ted Turner put Hearst to shame as a master war propagandist. He had the American public enjoying and applauding the sanitized carnage. Indeed the most disturbing memory of the war, was how a large majority of Americans enjoyed it. CNN can sugar coat anything, even the bombing of civilian shelters.
Ask a Palestinian or a Kurd about how the USA responds to complaints of gross violations of their rights as human beings. Human rights are yet another issue that American governments have never been really for or against. It all depends on the “type” of human that had their rights violated. Middle Eastern people are viewed by the cynics at the State Department as nothing but incidental props on some giant Risk board that floats on oil. Their rights or legitimate aspirations are rarely a consideration in the formulation of policy.
Neither can it be clearly demonstrated that the Gulf War was only about oil. The 1980 Iraqi invasion of Iran also jeopardized the world’s oil supply. No one considered an arms embargo to stop the bloodshed that cost an estimated million Iraqi and Iranian lives. Not the Americans. Not the Russians. Not the French nor the British. The list goes on. Without a constant re-supply of advanced weaponry, both sides would have lost steam after a few months. The carnage went on for eight murderous years. But alas, the prevailing sentiment was “let them kill each other, the longer it lasts, the better.”
American intervention in the Gulf was not about high principles of international law or the struggle for freedom and liberty. Neither was it about pure economic interests or safeguarding human rights. More likely, it was about the need to demonstrate that America would remain the dominant power in the region and that no invasions should occur without a valid State Department permit.
It should be obvious by now that Sadam has not missed a single meal since the embargo started. The Iraqi people have been the ones to bear the burden of Sadam’s sins and so many of them have died due to lack of food or medication. Perhaps Iraqis with a full stomach will have a better chance to confront Sadam’s regime. It is time to end the sanctions and use some other tactics to force Sadam to step aside.
The average man in the streets of the Middle East has come to believe that America is out to destroy the very social fabric of Iraq and to give the Israelis all the rope they need to hang the Palestinians. They see a United States government that does whatever is necessary to prop up the kings, princes and dictators of the Middle East. They compare how quick the United States was to respond to Sadam with the casual pace they took before they bothered to stop the slaughter in Bosnia. It is now official that the American government has turned a blind eye to Russian excesses in Chechnya.
The conclusion they arrive at is that those Americans who administer foreign policy have an agenda that includes a large element of religious bigotry. To paraphrase John D Rockafeller “These things have no place in America. But I can testify to their existence.”
Sadam is alive and well. His country is shattered but he seems to have a high tolerance for the sufferings of other Iraqis, so long as he endures and prospers. He has endured because our government wanted him to endure. Without him, they would have to explain why Kuwait is the only country that was ever liberated by America and allowed to revert to an absolute monarchy.