Where was our attention for the decade following the Gulf War in 1991? Were we so consumed by the companionable travesties of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, as well as by the Republicans’ effort to impeach Clinton? Did we fully understand the Clinton Administration’s doings in Bosnia and Kosovo? Did we properly take note of the rending of our political fabric when the Contract With (or was it on?) America was launched in 1994?
And what attention did we give to the thirteen-year campaign of sanctions and bombings of Iraq? For Barry Lando, in his useful new book Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, From Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush, sanctions were the weapon of mass destruction used against the Iraqi people to starve and reduce them to a Third World level of poverty. Lando’s work opens our eyes to one of the most tragic episodes in the lengthy, sorry history of “Western” dealings with Iraq. He offers a well-researched account of Iraq’s external (and, to a lesser extent, internal) history since the British carved that unlikely state out of the moribund Ottoman Empire in 1919. History doesn’t change much as he invokes Col. T.E. Lawrence’s well-known injunction of that moment: “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour…. We are today not far from disaster.” The British preferred Winston Churchill’s imperial ambitions. We chose Bushes, a Clinton and their respective entourages. Either way, disaster was not far behind.
Iraq floats on a sea of oil, reputedly with the world’s third-largest reserves. The Great Powers naturally have been drawn to it, but they have cared nothing for the country that might nominally exist. Churchill, Allen Dulles and the CIA, Donald Rumsfeld, our two George Bushes: All assisted the Sunni minority’s oppression of the Shiite majority; they imposed a “royal” family of dubious lineage that never really had popular support; and they financed and encouraged a ruthless dictator who (among his other crimes) most assuredly gassed his own people and tens of thousands of Iranians. The iconic image of Rumsfeld in the 1980s embracing and supporting Saddam Hussein speaks well of American complicity.
The sanctions and bombings of the 1990s are directly linked to Bush’s determination to invade Iraq in 2003 and attempt to remake it–again, in our image. History illuminates the present, and we would do well to absorb Lando’s narration.
The United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq as part of the run-up to the first Gulf War. The Security Council severed all imports and exports between Iraq and the world–from food and vaccines to hospital equipment and medical journals. Iraq imported 70 percent of its food, largely paid for by oil exports. The UN’s writ is not meaningless–not when the United States and Great Britain rigorously enforced the sanctions. And to underline for the Iraqis where the muscle was, the two powers regularly bombed the country.
We estimate between 500,00 to 1 million Iraqis died in the 1990s, a very large proportion being children. To what end? Not, Lando maintains, to destroy Saddam Hussein’s WMDs but to force him out. Bush I wisely listened to his military counselors and stopped short of occupying Iraq. His momentary good sense has inflated his reputation; make no mistake, he was passionately committed to Saddam’s overthrow–whatever the cost. On his watch, the United States encouraged revolts by the Kurds and Shiites. Then Bush abandoned both and allowed Saddam to exact a terrible revenge on both groups. Yet all the while, he insisted that there would be no “normalized relations with the United States…until Saddam Hussein is out of there.” And thus American policy took a new, more disastrous direction with Bush II’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003.