Scattered chunks of films littered the theaters this holiday season. Except for The Royal Tenenbaums, which I've told you about, there wasn't a whole movie to be found. Or, to speak more precisely, no movie except The Royal Tenenbaums gave me the impression of wholeness, by which I mean the pleasure that arises when the mind can play back and forth through a picture, discovering how the details enrich one another.
No doubt I value this pleasure so much because I've been trained, as a critic, to look for it. Surrealists, post-structuralists and the average moviegoer do not. Even so, I believe that when artists aspire to wholeness, they put into their work a kind of sustained intelligence that we might call integrity, care or love. When I claim that this quality is missing from most movies nowadays, I of course say almost nothing. Maybe a slightly higher percentage of today's films are hash, compared to the run of productions in the 1930s; but that's for the cliometricians to decide. The critic's challenge is to find some response to the present year-end Oscar contenders, when there's no object of criticism among them.
Should I solve the problem by jumping outside the film world? Then, from a safe distance, I could belabor the politics of Black Hawk Down for being simple-minded, and the politics of Iris for being absent. Many useful comments could be made on these subjects. They just wouldn't be useful to someone who already reads The Nation.
So I suppose I'll have to do what moviegoers have always done: ignore the pictures and watch the stars. I won't talk about The Majestic and Ali, Monster's Ball and A Beautiful Mind. The subjects of this column will be Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Halle Berry and Jennifer Connelly. Let me begin with Connelly, who in A Beautiful Mind has finally achieved recognition as an actress, and in so doing has given the film a large part of its merit.
As you may know, A Beautiful Mind offers a loose approximation of the story of John Nash, a highly gifted mathematician who has struggled all his life against delusions and compulsions. The film, too, suffers from some mental confusion--screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard somehow got Nash's biography mixed up with Jack and the Beanstalk--but once you get past that problem, you may appreciate the cleverness of this quasi-fairy tale. To begin with, the filmmakers have invented some briskly effective ways to suggest that Nash has a miraculous talent for pattern recognition, and that such a talent can be dangerous. Even when there's no order to be found, his mind keeps searching for one; and since the cold war provides great material for paranoia--the film begins in the late 1940s--Nash has a world of troubling data to sort. In a risk that's bold by Hollywood standards, the film presents its hero's blossoming delusions as if they were real--that is, as he would experience them. You're well into the story before you can sift the facts from the hallucinations, a process that's made compelling by Russell Crowe's performance in the lead. Awkward, shuffling, aggressive, witty, exasperating and vulnerable, he's altogether credible as someone who thinks in abstractions for a living.
But back to Connelly. She plays Alicia Larde, the woman who courts, marries and helps to rescue Nash. The filmmakers turn A Beautiful Mind into her story, almost as much as it is her husband's, and that's as it should be. Alicia is the one who gets scared witless, calls in the shrinks, strives to keep the household together and howls in the bathroom at 2 am. Connelly deserves full credit for carrying off the role.
It's a credit that's long been denied her. Although she's done some good work in smaller productions--Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream--Connelly has suffered till now from the Elizabeth Taylor syndrome. Like Taylor, she started young in show business and was quickly turned into a physical commodity, cast for her dark hair, blue eyes, smooth face and a buxom figure that she exposed very freely, arousing both sexual interest and condescension in a single gesture. The condescension came all the more quickly because Connelly, like Taylor, seems submerged in her beauty. It tends to separate her from other actors, as a rare fish is held apart in an aquarium, with the result (among other things) that she's a bad choice for comedy. Connelly can play at being amused by someone, but she isn't funny in herself--in contrast, for example, to her near-contemporary Shannon Elizabeth, a wonderfully silly person who shares her looks like a good joke.
Connelly has so far been incapable of such lightness; but she's right at home with the intensity of suffering that's called for in melodrama. Now her reputation is taking an upward turn similar to Taylor's at the time of Suddenly, Last Summer and Butterfield 8. Heaven knows, I don't want to go on to Cleopatra; but as someone who respects the tradition of melodrama, I think American cinema would be stronger if producers created more roles for Jennifer Connelly.
Having just seen Monster's Ball, I will also say the same for Halle Berry. She, too, has based her reputation on being absurdly gorgeous, with this distinction: Berry treats her looks like a loaded gun, which she can and will use. Of course, the danger varies; there was a lot of it in Bulworth but not much, somehow, in The Flintstones. Now, in Monster's Ball, the sense of risk suddenly leaps to a higher order.
Berry plays a wife and mother in a present-day Southern town--wife to a man on death row, mother to a boy who weighs 180 pounds and has not yet reached puberty. Through a series of catastrophes--or perhaps I should say wild coincidences--she eventually finds herself on the sofa late at night with Billy Bob Thornton, the racist white prison guard who led her husband to the electric chair. Grief, fatigue and booze are weighing heavily on her. She needs to wriggle free of them; everything that's still alive in her demands it. And so, in a scene that becomes a tour de force, she laughs in reminiscence about her husband, insists to herself that she's been a good mother, philosophizes starkly about the lives of black men in America and ultimately pours herself into Thornton's lap, demanding, "Make me feel good."
The screenwriters of Monster's Ball, Milo Addica and Will Rokos, might easily have based this scene on an acting-class exercise. A pair of students are assigned random emotions and must then improvise their way through them, making up the transitions as they go. What Berry does with the scene, though, has no whiff of the classroom. She doesn't just bob along on the swells and troughs of her feelings; she remembers at all times that these emotions have welled up because of the stranger next to her, this oddly quiet man to whom she addresses the whole monologue. She seems half-blind when she looks at him, but only half. She pushes against his self-possession, moment by moment; and the steadier he holds, the further she plunges in.
I wish the rest of Monster's Ball could live up to this scene. There are several fine sequences in the movie, which Marc Forster has directed with admirable restraint; but the picture is entirely too eager to flatter the audience. Monster's Ball is a machine, designed to make Billy Bob Thornton think and behave just as you believe he should. By the end, there's nothing to cut the good intentions except the memory of that smoky, greasy, overpowering scene where Halle Berry risks everything. It's almost enough.
The opening fifteen minutes of Ali are so good that they, too, come close to justifying the picture. In a virtuoso montage, which shows director Michael Mann at his very best, this sequence takes young Cassius Clay up to his first fight against Sonny Liston and his declaration of allegiance to the Nation of Islam. After that, you begin to notice that four screenwriters have labored over this production. Plot points are made with the galumphing literal-mindedness of Bob interviewing Ray. What's worse, these same points, from Liston I through the Foreman match in Zaire, were touched on in the 1977 film The Greatest, written by Ring Lardner Jr., directed by Tom Gries and Monte Hellman and starring (in the role of Muhammad Ali) Muhammad Ali.
Condemned in advance to being third best, after the real-life figure and the original movie incarnation, Will Smith can do little more than look good. It's what he specializes in; I've loved him for it. Here his innate cockiness takes him a long way in the role, as does his rapper's enjoyment of Ali's rhymes. So why does he keep getting upstaged by his supporting cast: Jamie Foxx, who makes something glorious of Ali's sidekick Drew "Bundini" Brown, and Jon Voight, who lives and breathes the role of Howard Cosell? The answer, I think, is that Smith does best when he floats along at a slight remove from his scenes, commenting on the action as if he might at any moment call it a day and go home. Ali makes him earnest; and earnestness, even more than the need to mimic a living figure, makes Will Smith disappear.
I wish Jim Carrey would disappear when he becomes earnest; but instead he latches into the movie like a tick, gorging on sentiment and perpetually, monstrously sucking in more. The effect is all the worse in Frank Darabont's The Majestic for the cinematography. It turns Carrey into a pastel-colored tick.
In this insufferable fantasy about good old-fashioned movies and good old-fashioned Americans, Carrey plays a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who (through a wild coincidence) loses his memory and is welcomed into a small town. It's a wonderful life, except for the FBI. I needn't point out to Nation readers how The Majestic makes a hash out of the blacklist period. (Carrey figures out, in a climactic burst of inspiration, that he can plead the First Amendment before HUAC. Gee!) What really concerns me is the demotion of this anarchic genius to the status of All-American Nothing. Carrey can play comedy like nobody else alive; so why is he pushed into melodrama?
My conclusion: American cinema is taking its actors too seriously, and its actresses not seriously enough. Happy new year.
With little public notice and no serious debate inside the party, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and his allies have hatched a plan to radically alter the schedule and character of the 2004 Democratic presidential nominating process. If the changes McAuliffe proposes are implemented--as is expected at a January 17-19 meeting of the full DNC--the role of grassroots Democrats in the nomination of their party's challenger to George W. Bush will be dramatically reduced, as will the likelihood that the Democratic nominee will run the sort of populist, people-power campaign that might actually pose a threat to Bush's re-election.
The change, for which McAuliffe gained approval in November from the DNC rules subcommittee, would create a Democratic primary and caucus calendar that permits all states to begin selecting delegates on February 3, 2004. That new start-up date would come two weeks after the Iowa caucuses and just one week after the traditional "first in the nation" New Hampshire primary. Thus, the window between New Hampshire and the next primary--five weeks in 2000--would be closed. Already, says McAuliffe, South Carolina, Michigan and Arizona Democrats have indicated they will grab early February dates, and there is talk that California--the big enchilada in Democratic delegate selection--will move its primary forward to take advantage of the opening. McAuliffe's changes will collapse the nominating process into a fast-and-furious frenzy of television advertising, tarmac-tapping photo ops and power-broker positioning that will leave little room for the on-the-ground organizing and campaigning that might allow dark horse candidates or dissenting ideas to gain any kind of traction--let alone a real role at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
"What McAuliffe is doing represents a continuation of the shift of influence inside the Democratic Party from volunteer-driven, precinct-based grassroots politics to a cadre of consultants, hacks and Washington insiders," says Mike Dolan, the veteran organizer who ran voter-registration campaigns for the California Democratic Party before serving as national field director for MTV's "Rock the Vote" initiative. "This whole process of reshaping the party to exclude people at home from the equation has been going on for years, but this really is the most serious change we've seen. And it's an incredibly disturbing shift. It will increase the power of the consultants and the fundraisers. But it will also make it a lot harder to build the enthusiasm and volunteer base a candidate needs to win in November."
McAuliffe, who is riding high after playing an important role in securing Democratic wins in November 2001 races for the Virginia and New Jersey governorships, says reforms are needed to avoid long, intraparty struggles and allow a clear focus on the task of challenging Bush. With a wide field of Democratic senators, governors, representatives and a former Vice President positioning to run in 2004, he says, "We can't be going through the spring with our guys killing each other."
McAuliffe makes no secret of his desire to have Democrats mirror the Republicans' compressed nominating schedule-- which helped front-runner Bush dispatch the more appealing John McCain in 2000. He wants his party's 2004 nominee identified by early March. Then, the nominee-in-waiting can get down to the business of fundraising and organizing a fall campaign without having to march in Chicago's St. Patrick's Day parade, visit Wisconsin's dairy farms or jostle for a position on the stage of Ohio's union halls.
One problem with McAuliffe's theory is that history suggests that Democrats who beat sitting Republican Presidents usually do so following extended nomination fights. In 1976, for instance, almost three months passed between the Iowa caucus and the point at which a majority of delegates to the Democratic National Convention had been selected. That convention nominated Jimmy Carter, who went on to beat President Gerald Ford. The next Democrat to beat a Republican President, Bill Clinton, won his party's 1992 nod after a bruising primary season that saw him fighting Jerry Brown for New York votes two months after the delegate-selection process began.
A serious state-by-state fight for the party nod can force the eventual nominee to build grassroots networks in key states that withstand the media assaults of the fall; just think how things would have gone if Al Gore had developed better on-the-ground operations in states with solid labor bases, like Missouri, West Virginia and Ohio--any one of which could have provided the Electoral College votes needed to render Florida's recount inconsequential. Instead of recognizing the advantage Democrats gain when they tend the grassroots, however, former candidate Brown says McAuliffe appears to be steering the party toward a model that mirrors Republican approaches. "The process is evolving and it's changing so that it will be even harder to tell Democrats from Republicans," Brown says. "This means the Democrats will be defined more than ever by money and the centralized, Washington-based establishment that trades in money. The trajectory the party is on is not toward greater democracy, not toward more involvement at the grassroots. Rather, the trajectory will make it harder for the local to influence the national. A historic democratic influence on the process is being wiped out, and with it will go a lot of energy Democratic nominees have been able to rely on in the past."
Brown touches on another problem with McAuliffe's approach. In a party already badly warped by the influence of special-interest money and fundraising demands, the new schedule will greatly expand the influence of big money--and of Washington insiders like veteran fundraiser McAuliffe, who can move that money into accounts of "acceptable," if not particularly progressive, candidates. "Everyone agrees the financial demands on candidates will be even higher than in the past, given the breakneck pace at which the contests will unfold," explains Washington Post columnist David Broder.
That bodes well for the best-known candidates with the strongest fundraising networks, like former Vice President Al Gore and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, and also for well-heeled senators like Massachusetts' John Kerry and North Carolina's John Edwards. But low-budget, issue-driven campaigns, like those imagined by Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Ohio or outgoing Vermont Governor Howard Dean, will be even more difficult to mount. That, says former Democratic National Committee chairman Fred Harris, is bad news for the party and for progressive politics in America. "If you tighten up all the primaries at the start, it will limit the serious choices for Democrats to those candidates who are well-known or well-financed, or both. That takes away the range of choices, it makes the process less exciting and, ultimately, less connected to the grassroots," says Harris, a former senator and 1976 candidate for the presidency. "This really is a move in the wrong direction. The Democratic Party, to win, needs to be more democratic--not less."
The regulations proposed to implement George W. Bush's order establishing military commissions for the trial of "international terrorists" are mere window dressing and will not cure the fatal defects of the order. They provide the accused with so little protection as to raise a suspicion that they are made primarily to disarm the critics.
The fundamental problem is that the proposed system, including all its "judicial" elements, still lies entirely within the military chain of command and subordinate to the President, who is the ultimate authority over every aspect of the proceedings. But independent impartial judges who are not beholden to any side are the indispensable bedrock of any credible system of justice. They must be the ones to make the basic decisions or at least to review them. Without such a tribunal to monitor them, the various "protections" provided by the proposed regulations--the presumption of innocence, guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, even outside counsel--mean little or nothing.
This is not a novel insight. Congress and the military have recognized how indispensable an independent judiciary is to a meaningful system of justice: Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, verdicts are not final until they have been reviewed by a civilian Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. The provision of an appeal mechanism, especially in cases as politically and internationally sensitive as these, thus adds nothing to the fairness of the process--it merely insures that the final decision will be made by higher-ranking military officers who are still subject to military and presidential control.
White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, aware of these shortcomings, has sought to reassure doubters by noting that habeas corpus review will be available. But the order itself, which the regulations are only supposed to implement, expressly prohibits recourse to any court, as he well knows. For this reason, he was careful to describe the review as just a check on the jurisdiction of the tribunal, that is, whether the commission has the legal authority to try the particular accused. But review of a tribunal's jurisdiction does not touch on any substantive or procedural aspect of a proceeding, such as apprehension, detention, pretrial procedure, trial, evidentiary rulings, verdict or the sentence.
Moreover, as noted, the order specifically mandates that the ultimate authority is the President. Since the initial decision to apprehend someone is also the President's, and since everyone in the decision-making process, including the prosecutor, is subordinate to the President as the Commander in Chief, the police, prosecutor, some defense counsel, judge and jury are all rolled into one entity subject to one man--the antithesis of a just system. And given the rigidity of the military hierarchy and the natural desire of military personnel for promotion, who would challenge a judgment of their Commander in Chief that there is reason to believe someone is guilty of international terrorism and must be taken into custody--even if, as in so many instances, the action is as much for political reasons as for national security?
Compounding the difficulty is the absence of any real limit on what evidence may be admitted. The tribunal still may admit single, double and triple hearsay, affidavits, opinion and other dubious evidence. None of this can be effectively tested by cross-examination, especially since some of this evidence can be kept secret from the accused and his lawyers.
The decision to open up the proceedings to public view looks good, but it is only conditional--they may be closed if evidence that the tribunal considers worthy of secrecy is to be admitted. We have learned to our dismay how quick government officials are to classify information, even when it is already in the public domain. This Administration is particularly secretive, as shown by Bush's order holding back presidential papers from public release, as well as the refusal to reveal any information about the 1,000-plus detainees held since September 11. Moreover, the usual reason for secrecy is that disclosure will reveal methods and sources. But reliance on sources often involves very subjective judgments based on inaccurate or untrustworthy information. Yet it is just this kind of evidence that is most likely to be kept secret.
These are not tribunals worthy of a nation governed by law. And we don't need them. In the past eight years we have convicted twenty-six terrorists for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and other cases in ordinary criminal trials and without revealing any secrets. The Administration realizes this, for it has decided to try the alleged "twentieth hijacker," Zacarias Moussaoui, in the criminal justice system.
The problem with these proposals is not that some people will never be satisfied--it is that the demands of justice have not been satisfied.
So Rudy is the person of the year.
We join the world in offering a cheer
To him--a man, some thought, was sent by heaven
To guide us through the shock of 9/11.
At certain times, it now must be conceded,
A paranoid control freak's just what's needed.
Talk about rebuilding New York, and sooner or later someone will pipe up that out of crisis comes opportunity. It depends on where you stand. Right now what poor and working-class New Yorkers have got is crisis, and unless a force of historic proportion develops to shift the course of things, what will follow is more of the same.
Taking the crisis part first, it's well-known that New York has lost 95,000 jobs since September 11, less well-known that it lost 75,000 in the twelve months prior, and that even in boom times 1.5 million people, most of them with jobs, were turning to soup kitchens. Now those kitchens have had to turn people away for lack of food, and grassroots community agencies, to which for at least ten years government has outsourced a whole range of human services, are themselves against the wall. This past autumn Mayor Giuliani ordered every city department other than fire, police and the board of education to cut its budget by 15 percent, meaning nonprofit groups with city contracts took a similar cut. Governor Pataki froze state money at a cost to nonprofits of more than $200 million. Meanwhile, foundations warned they'd make fewer grants, smaller grants, their capital having been clobbered on the stock market. And in fashioning end-of-year appeals, every group strove to connect to 9/11, because that's the trigger for charitable giving. September 11 relief funds are bulging with $1.1 billion. There's so much cash available for grief counseling that the big charities are fairly begging to give it away, but for tackling the material sources of grief-as-everyday-life among people who can claim no direct link to the twin towers--that's trickier.
At the Good Old Lower East Side, a tenants' rights and neighborhood preservation organization, we are looking at a worst-case loss of $200,000 out of our $500,000 annual budget. Meanwhile, the work goes on--only now we worry because one of our organizers has had asthma attacks from the air downtown while at housing court, because a lot of people we work with are depressed and scared, because the supposed era of good feeling ushered in by the tragedy hasn't stopped landlord harassment or evictions, because gentrification steams forward in the Lower East Side, because low-income people never just have housing problems; they have employment problems and health problems and family problems and immigration problems, and all of those are getting worse. From our counterparts in other groups, in areas from children's rights to prisoners' rights, we hear the same story of too little money and too much need. Drug and alcohol abuse is up, domestic violence is up, homelessness is way up (30,000 adults and children in city shelters, an all-time high). In December some 30,000 New York City recipients of public assistance hit federal time limits for welfare; in 2002 19,000 more will lose their benefits, left to compete with 95,000 displaced workers for jobs and services that are barely there.
One has to be a keen shopper for silver linings to see opportunity in all this, but for the past months, in a variety of venues, groups like ours have been meeting with legal services agencies, immigrant groups, unions, community activists, progressive politicians, economic policy analysts and others to discuss a people's agenda for rebuilding. For years politicians have been pronouncing on the value of work; now the state's commitment to work, but also to a living, must be tested. And if there are to be tax incentives to private companies, there must be a return in jobs, environmental safety, an expanded economic infrastructure--transportation, housing, communications, health, education. People are asking, Can we think of rebuilding that enhances all of New York's boroughs? Can we look at those holes where the towers stood and boldly imagine a different city, a better city? And can we mobilize an army to fight for that vision?
Even in the best of times that would be difficult. Now there's recession, and unless some major revenue sources are tapped, State Senator Eric Schneiderman says, "we're looking at something that makes the New York fiscal crisis of the 1970s look like a picnic in Coney Island." Only a fraction of the $20 billion that Bush promised to the city in September has materialized. The state and city are both running many billions of dollars in deficits; when the governor and mayor come out with their budgets in January and February, they are likely to strike at every social program, the better to impress Washington with their resolve to shoot the wounded. Again, the nonprofit service contractors, which are small and diffuse but account for about 15 percent of the city's budget, will be an attractive target. So will the city's civilian work force, already shrunk by 20 percent since 1993.
Schneiderman, for one, is calling for a freeze on about $4 billion in state tax cuts scheduled to go into effect in 2002; for reinstatement of the city's commuter tax; for repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws, which, he says, would save the state hundreds of millions a year. There are other ideas, including exacting sacrifices from the top 10 percent of New York's population, who doubled their wealth in the boom, and from city property holders, whose average tax rate has been frozen for ten years. The point is for New York's social justice forces to be organized, ready to struggle for every dollar and demand every good. Some of the bigger unions are saying they might want to give Mayor Mike Bloomberg a "honeymoon." Some in the media are still flogging the idea that there's a "new" New York, more generous, more one-for-all. It's the same New York, just worse. Only the rich have opportunity by right. The rest of us have to fight for it.
Killing Sanctions in Iraq
New Haven, Conn.
David Cortright's "A Hard Look at Iraq Sanctions" [Dec. 3] was a slick attempt to defend a ten-year war against innocent civilians. Cortright charges that the number of dead is commonly overestimated by critics of sanctions, usually alleged to be a million. He claims the most reliable studies estimate that the number of Iraqi children under 5 who died is actually 350,000. Curiously, he makes no attempt to estimate the number of children over 5 who perished, or the elderly who died of malnutrition or the sick adults finished off by lack of medicine. If Cortright is correct and critics (who base their figures on UN and NGO studies) are wrong, that's wonderful news indeed. Hundreds of thousands presumed dead are still alive. But why is he doing The James Rubin, figuring out every which way to blame the Iraqis for what is being done to them?
He says the sanctions would have ended if Iraq had been more accommodating to the arms inspectors. Rubbish. Presidents Bush and Clinton both swore the sanctions would not end until Saddam Hussein was removed from power. Cortright also faults Iraq for not agreeing to "oil for food" sooner. I'm no defender of the tyrant and war criminal Saddam, but it was a hard call. Any Iraqi leader would try to protect oil, the country's only natural resource. Has Iraq been treated fairly in the five years since "oil for food"? $44 billion in oil has been sold, but only $13.3 billion worth of goods has been delivered to the Iraqi government.
Quoting a figure of $10 billion in oil revenue for the last half of 2000, Cortright claims that "Baghdad has more than sufficient money to address continuing humanitarian needs." That's a downright falsehood. Iraq doesn't get a dime. All the money for the oil sales goes into a UN-controlled account in New York. Iraq arranges contracts for goods, but it gets only the goods that the United States allows to be imported. The $13.3 billion is for five years, less than $3 billion a year. Compare that to 1989, before sanctions, when Iraq's imports were $11 billion for that year alone.
The lowering of the death rate in the Kurdish areas is Cortright's final charge. He admits that northern Iraq is favored in aid and resources, but omits the fact that oil and other goods are smuggled back and forth to Turkey with a knowing wink by the sanctions authorities. He also fails to mention that the damage to infrastructure by UN bombing in 1991 was far less in the Kurdish north. In 1999 when Unicef did the study that showed differing mortality rates north and south, it explicitly refused to blame Iraqi officials for those differences.
Cortright charges mismanagement by Iraq while he is silent about US policy that uses the very importing of goods to Iraq to further torture the people. Jesuit priest G. Simon Harak, a frequent visitor to Iraq, described how insulin would be allowed in, but syringes would be banned. Iraq would have to use precious resources to refrigerate the medicine in hopes it could someday be used. This mismatching has gone on for years. It's deliberate.
Cortright praises the "smart sanctions" approach that would allow everything into Iraq except "dual-use items"--anything that could remotely be of military value. The "dual-use excuse" has been used all along to deprive Iraq of a range of items: ambulances, chemicals to purify water, even nitroglycerine tablets.
In December 2001, when at least 350,000 innocent lives have been snuffed out, when thousands more will be the "collateral damage" of the coming "war of liberation," the last thing we need in The Nation is a thinly disguised defense of US Iraq policy.
Middle East Crisis Committee
David Cortright is certainly right to argue that "changing American policy in Iraq is an urgent priority." Whether the actual number of Iraqi children under 5 who have died is now 350,000 or 500,000, the numbers are horrifying.
But Cortright's prescription, to improve the so-called smart sanctions, is misguided. Smart sanctions are about the United States, Britain and the United Nations shifting blame, not about ending the effects of the embargo for ordinary Iraqis. After ten years of hearing from Clinton and Blair & Co. that they "have no quarrel with the Iraqi people" and that the sanctions are designed to target the regime, not civilians, we are supposed to believe that the sanctions will now (does this sound familiar?) target the regime and not the people. But under the proposed smart sanctions, the United States will be able to use its power in the UN to block essential goods by citing "dual use" concerns. And the economy will continue to suffer. Tinkering with sanctions isn't the solution. Ending them is.
As for disarming Iraq, that can be achieved only in the context of regional disarmament and US disarmament. It's a bit hard to explain why Iraq must open its doors to weapons inspectors when the Bush Administration just told the world that US chemical and biological weapons facilities can't be inspected by international monitors because it might compromise "industrial secrets."
Editor, Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War
Northampton, Mass.; Amherst, Mass.
Exactly what is David Cortright trying to tell us--and why must The Nation contribute to the horrifying debate about accurate numbers of civilian deaths? By focusing narrowly on the number of deaths, Cortright ignores the overall health and nutritional status of children and ordinary citizens in Iraq. All surveys since the beginning of the embargo have essentially told the same story: severe malnutrition in hospitals, malnourished children and undernourished adults in the towns, ever-changing food prices, increased mortality and a general breakdown in the whole fabric of society.
Economic sanctions are designed to produce deprivation and poverty. Poverty is the key cause of malnutrition on a global basis; poverty induced by sanctions will function no differently. The world community, represented by the United Nations, has known about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iraq since the early 1990s. Yet the UN has, under US and British pressure, enforced this sanctions policy despite overwhelming evidence that it is responsible for the increased level of human suffering in that country. Speculation that Saddam Hussein could end this crisis does not excuse the UN, the United States or Britain from their international responsibilities for upholding human rights. Sanctions are purported to be a humane alternative to war. As they function in Iraq, they are not humane. They are lethal and they target the already poor and vulnerable.
Northampton Committee to Lift the Sanctions and Stop the Bombing in Iraq
Team leader for four UN Food and Nutrition Missions in Iraq
David Cortright questions the normally accepted numbers of deaths attributed to the sanctions, specifically those derived from the 1995 study by the Food and Agricultural Organization, which asserted that sanctions were responsible for the deaths of 567,000 Iraqi children. He then cites the "two most reliable scientific studies on sanctions in Iraq" to challenge the FAO study: one by Richard Garfield, and another by Mohamed Ali and Iqbal Shah in The Lancet. Unfortunately for Cortright, these two studies contradict each other. The Garfield study asserts that from 1990 to March 1998, there were 228,000 excess deaths of children under 5, as opposed to the FAO claim of 567,000. The "Ali and Shah study," as Cortright titled it--used as evidence of Iraqi mismanagement--is actually a published account of Unicef's mortality data, which is the basis for the calculated half-million death toll. (Ali headed a Unicef team of consultants in Iraq, Shah reviewed the survey report, and both wrote the Lancet article.) This Unicef report is entirely independent of the 1995 FAO report.
Cortright is correct in stating that "as we work to change US policy and relieve the pain of the Iraqi people, it is important that we use accurate figures.... The more credible we are, the more effective we will be." Perhaps Cortright should take his own advice.
Author of several articles on the Iraqi sanctions, most recently in the November Z magazine
Washington, D.C.; New York City
Despite the lack of any serious evidence of Iraqi involvement in the September 11 attacks, the Bush Administration is continuing to escalate threats of expanding the "war against terrorism" to Iraq. So David Cortright's choice of moment to urge the Administration to impose "smart sanctions" on Iraq has serious consequences. By opening with references to statements about the deadly impact of the Iraq sanctions made by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Cortright adroitly delegitimizes all other critics of US Iraq policy by linking them to the two most demonized leaders in the world. Cortright is right that many in Washington have made their careers arguing that anti-sanctions campaigners have exaggerated the numbers of deaths; he is wrong in claiming that this argument is anything more than a pretext for maintaining a failed and deadly sanctions policy.
The debate over numbers of civilian Iraqis killed by sanctions is a red herring. If the goal was to discredit the debate over numbers as horrifyingly irrelevant, Cortright's response should be simple: "We don't know for sure how many hundreds of thousands of children have been killed; we do know that even 1,000 is too many. And we know that the debate is a spurious effort at denial and deflection." But instead, Cortright contests the most often cited UN numbers in great detail, attempting to replace them with lower figures asserted in some other studies. However careful his language, what implication can be drawn other than the notion that economic sanctions are somehow more acceptable if "only" 250,000 children, rather than the half-million whose deaths Madeleine Albright memorably found "worth it," have been killed?
The other significant fallacy is Cortright's claim that a few incremental amendments to the existing sanctions regime would solve the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. In fact, the billions of dollars required to even begin rehabilitating Iraq's shattered infrastructure will be available only through massive investment in the oil sector. That means lifting, not just tinkering with, economic sanctions. Because even if the prohibition on private-sector oil investment was lifted, no oil company would risk massive outlays knowing that Washington and the Security Council might change their minds and prevent the repatriation of profits. The kind of multibillion-dollar outlays needed to rebuild Iraq's water, electrical, telecommunications, health and other bombed-out infrastructure will be available only when sanctions are lifted.
The only smart thing to do with economic sanctions now is to end them--not to further discredit those who have been fighting to do just that (see Bennis and Halliday's full rebuttal at www.thenation.com).
Institute for Policy Studies
Former UN assistant secretary-general and humanitarian coordinator in Iraq
Bennis and Halliday have requested space on our site for the publication of a longer letter regarding David Cortright's Dec. 3 article. This follows Cortright's reply, below.
I'm glad my article has stirred debate about sanctions in Iraq. Such a debate is especially critical now, as Phyllis Bennis and Denis Halliday note, because of the increasing danger of a new US war against Iraq.
With my critics, I have long opposed US military attacks and have urged the lifting of sanctions on civilians. As I said in the article and have written elsewhere, the United States is primarily responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq because of its policies of military aggression and unrelenting sanctions. I have demonstrated and lobbied to change these policies, and I am actively working now to prevent a new war.
But I also support nuclear disarmament and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. I oppose such weapons for the US or any other government--including Iraq, which used chemical weapons in the 1980s and was and may still be actively developing nuclear weapons. The UN disarmament mandate, accepted by Iraq in 1991, is a legitimate and important step toward strengthening international norms against the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. It has reinforced the trend toward more intrusive on-site inspections, which are necessary to guarantee disarmament. To abandon this mandate, especially after so much progress toward Iraqi disarmament was achieved during the 1990s, would be a setback to global nonproliferation efforts.
Acknowledging Iraq's obligation to disarm is also important because the rationale for US military action, if it comes, is likely to be the threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. That threat is unknown right now, because of the end of UN inspections three years ago, and no doubt has been greatly exaggerated by the war lobby to stir up fear. But we cannot ignore the possibility of that threat, or the tremendous hold it has on public opinion. We need to espouse an alternative policy that contains Iraq's military ambitions but avoids harm to innocent civilians.
Smart sanctions point in that direction. They would lift all restrictions on civilian imports. The review of dual-use items (which the United States has indeed abused) would be limited to a specific Goods Review List, which the Security Council is now considering. The only sanctions remaining would be the embargo on military imports. The continuing arms embargo should then be broadened, as Anthony Arnove rightly argues, into a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, as specified in paragraph 14 of the original Gulf War cease-fire resolution. The fact that disarmament ultimately must be global is not a reason for discounting progress in particular countries or regions.
Paragraph 22 of the cease-fire resolution also requires the Security Council to lift sanctions once Iraq complies with the UN disarmament mandate. If Iraq permits UN inspectors to complete their work, all sanctions must be lifted. Reiterating this obligation is necessary to provide an inducement for Iraqi cooperation. Without such assurance, Iraq faces the prospect of unending sanctions and is left with no recourse but to resist.
In this regard Stanley Heller is right to criticize my overstatement that sanctions could have been lifted long ago if Iraq had accepted UN demands. As George Lopez and I noted in The Sanctions Decade, Iraq has complied with many of the UN's requirements. Instead of responding to these partial concessions with an easing of pressure, however, the United States has hijacked UN policy and asserted that sanctions will remain until Saddam Hussein goes. This regime-change policy is the single biggest obstacle to the lifting of sanctions. On the other hand, if the government of Iraq had cooperated with rather than obstructed UN weapons inspectors, it would have been more difficult for the United States to justify its policy.
Heller says it is a falsehood that Iraq has the means to meet its humanitarian needs, but he ignores the quote from Kofi Annan that Iraq is indeed in a position to address the nutritional and health conditions of the Iraqi people. More than 70 percent of Iraq's considerable oil income can be used for the purchase of humanitarian goods. Total oil revenues in 2000 were approximately $18 billion, of which more than $13 billion was available for civilian imports. This compares favorably with the $11 billion in total imports in 1989.
Claudia Lefko and Peter Pellet correctly note that the world community knew early in the 1990s of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. This is precisely why the Security Council proposed the oil-for-food program in 1991. If Iraq had accepted the plan then rather than five years later, much suffering could have been avoided.
The Garfield and Ali/Shah studies are complementary, not contradictory as Jeff Lindemyer asserts. Garfield's recent estimate of 350,000 deaths is based directly on the Ali/Shah study. The latter was indeed commissioned by Unicef, but the authors did not publish an estimate of 500,000 deaths.
Bennis and Halliday make the most important point: that whatever the numbers, they are far too high. No level of preventable death among children is acceptable. My critics and I differ over the best way to end this humanitarian nightmare, but we share a common commitment to easing civilian suffering and preventing a war that would compound and intensify Iraq's misery. Let us work together toward these urgent priorities.
Washington, D.C.; New York City
The Bush Administration's rapidly escalating threats of expanding the "war against terrorism" to Iraq are pushing the eleven-year-long US-Iraq sanctions and bombing-based conflict to newly dangerous levels. Despite the lack of any serious evidence of Iraqi involvement in the September 11 attacks, the exploitation of already wide-spread government and media-created anti-Iraq sentiment among the American public makes the possibility of a new US assault a serious danger.
The US war against Iraq, still characterized by crippling economic sanctions imposed in the name of the United Nations and continual low-level military strikes, has emerged as the linchpin of the Administration's debate over the future of foreign policy. That debate pits the ideologues grouped around Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, against the Secretary of State Colin Powell-led pragmatists. And while Washington policy-makers and pundits ruminate, the UN Security Council's December 27 compromise on extending the "Oil for Food" program in Iraq prolongs the still-simmering debate over so-called "smart sanctions" to replace the current "dumb" sanctions regime in place since 1990.
It is in this highly volatile and dangerous context that David Cortright took to the pages of The Nation to argue for a new "smart sanctions" regime. He predicates his analysis on the hardly novel idea that peace and religious groups opposed to sanctions must recognize that "the more credible we are, the more effective we will be." The problem is, Cortright's misleading and sometimes disingenuous argument ends up agreeing with Administration or other critics that the anti-sanctions case is not credible, and accepting the legitimacy of continuing the US effort to strangle the Iraqi people, albeit by slightly amended methods.
By opening with Osama bin Laden's statements about the deadly impact of the Iraq sanctions, and data on loss of life indicated by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (and endorsed by the UN and others), Cortright adroitly delegitimizes all other critics of US Iraq policy by linking them to the two most US/UK demonized leaders in the world. He is right in stating that many in Washington have made their careers arguing that anti-sanctions campaigners have exaggerated the numbers; but he is wrong in claiming that this argument is anything more than a pretext for maintaining a failed sanctions policy. If Cortright's goal was to appropriately discredit the debate over numbers--is it really 567,000 total children or 227,000 children under five killed by sanctions?--as horrifyingly irrelevant, his statement should have been simple. "We don't know precisely how many hundreds of thousands of children have been killed; we do know that even one thousand, let alone a hundred thousand, and certainly let alone several hundreds of thousands, are way too many. And the debate is a spurious effort at denial and deflection." Instead, Cortright contests the often-cited UN numbers in misleading detail, seeking to legitimize instead lower figures calculated by private sources. However careful his language, what implication can be drawn other than that economic sanctions are somehow acceptable if "only" 250,000 children, rather than the half a million whose deaths Madeleine Albright memorably deemed "worth it," have been killed?
He then goes on to claim that "sanctions could have been suspended years ago if Baghdad had been more cooperative with UN weapons inspectors." Such a claim negates the success of UNSCOM's early years, regardless of whether Iraqi compliance was eager or reluctant, when hundreds of thousands of tons of munitions, and all manufacturing and production capacity in Iraq (for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons) were destroyed. And, even more relevant, has Cortright forgotten the myriad of US commitments to keep sanctions in place regardless of such Iraqi cooperation and compliance? James Baker said in 1991 "we are not interested in seeing a relaxation of sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power." In spring 1997 Madeleine Albright announced "we do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted." And President Bill Clinton, later that same year, said that "the sanctions will be there until the end of time or as long as he [Saddam Hussein] lasts."
In discussing the impact of economic sanctions on the Iraqi infrastructure, Cortright admits that most of the civilian deaths are in fact linked to sanctions, recognizing that "comprehensive trade sanctions compounded the effects of the war, making it difficult to rebuild and adding new horrors of hunger and malnutrition." In doing so he seems tacitly to acknowledge the linkage between the damage done by US bombing of Iraq's civilian
infrastructure in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions, the child death rates (as reported by UNICEF) from water-borne diseases, and the way that sanctions prevent the repair and reconstruction of that infrastructure.
But he undermines that recognition by claiming that the UN Oil for Food program now includes "broader economic assistance and the rebuilding of infrastructure," as if the program was an international aid program. In fact, he even criticizes Iraq for continuing "to obstruct and undermine" what Cortright calls "the aid program." Iraqis know--though many Americans may not--that the oil for food program is not an aid program at all, but simply a mechanism for insuring UN control of Iraq's own oil revenues. The program allows the UN to control the spending of Iraqi oil revenue, first taking off the top some 30--35 percent for overhead and compensation payments, now mainly to the Kuwaiti royal family, Israel, and US oil companies. There is virtually NO international aid going into Iraq, with the exception of a few small and under-funded NGO projects. Calling Oil for Food an "aid" program doesn't make it so.
Cortright is right in recognizing that under the program, "oil exports are regulated, not prohibited." But large-scale investment in the oil sector, the kind of investment required to pay for the serious rebuilding of the water, electrical, telecommunications and other bombed-out infrastructures, IS prohibited. And even if the current prohibition on international private investment in Iraqi oil was lifted, no oil company worth its stockholders would risk multi-billion investment in an Iraqi economy subject to the whims of Security Council [read: US and UK] shut-down.
Cortright claims the Oil for Food program "was a bona fide effort by the Security Council to relieve humanitarian suffering. If the government of Iraq had accepted the program when it was first proposed, much of the suffering that occurred in the intervening years could have been avoided." While some Council members from Europe and the global South may indeed have been concerned about the crisis facing Iraqi civilians, the overriding concern, particularly of the Council's most powerful members, was one of bad propaganda. Oil for Food was a sophisticated effort at spin control. And from its origins, it was understood and explicitly stated that it was never designed to repair Iraq's shredded economic and social fabric, but simply to prevent even further deterioration and loss of human life. As for Iraq's initial rejection of the program, the early version offered would have provided less than $2 billion per year, of which 30 percent would be diverted to the UN Compensation Committee and another 5 percent designated for UN overhead costs. Considerations of sovereignty aside, that would not provide enough to even keep a population of 22 million people alive, let alone healthy, and it certainly would have denied any possibility of rehabilitating even part of the civilian infrastructure. Iraq would have remained forbidden to rebuild its infrastructure or its economy.
Cortright blithely claims that "oil revenues during the last six months of 2000 reached nearly $10 billion. This is hardly what one would call an oil embargo." No one ever said it was an oil embargo. It isn't. It's a trade, investment, intellectual, educational, scientific, social, cultural and communications embargo. Ten billion dollars in oil revenue translates into significantly less than half of that in goods and services actually reaching Iraq. Cortright ignores that much of the total revenues even within the limits of the oil for food program are unavailable largely to Iraq because of U.S and UK holds on contracts needing approval by the UN Contracts (661) Committee in which Washington holds a veto. In the entire six years of the Oil for Food program, over $44 billion worth of Iraqi oil has been sold. But of that huge-sounding amount, only about $16 billion has reached the 22 million Iraqis.
Why? Cortright himself acknowledges that "funds are still controlled through the UN escrow account, with a nearly 30 percent deduction for war reparations and UN costs." The official compensation fund deduction has recently been reduced from 30 to 25 percent, but there is also 5 percent in overhead costs paid to the UN (including the costs of the new still undeployed arms inspection agency UNMOVIC approved in December 1999). And as of November 2001, according to the Secretary-General's report, there are currently $4.2 billion in contracts for various civilian goods held up by US (occasionally UK) veto, and $3.5 billion sitting in the UN escrow account in Paris waiting to be disbursed.
But despite that clearly desperate scenario, Cortright still claims that "Baghdad has more than sufficient money to address continuing humanitarian needs." His source for this assertion is UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's statement that "the Government of Iraq is indeed in a position to address the nutritional and health concerns of the Iraqi people." The Secretary-General's unwillingness to directly contradict Washington may well have led him to speak of "addressing" such problems rather than actually "solving" them. But significantly more important is the unassailable fact that nutrition and health are not the only humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people. Such a claim would ignore that the basic requirements of education, employment, housing, repair of the social fabric, rebuilding of electrical generating capacity, water and sanitation infrastructure, freeing up the economy, reestablishing normal international commercial and communications links, etc., are also essential for the recovery and well-being of the people of Iraq.
In a similar vein, Cortright examines the on-going disparity between conditions in the Kurdish North where the Oil for Food distribution is UN-administered, and the government-controlled Center-South of Iraq. He does go further than most US officials are willing to go in acknowledging the real reasons for the comparatively better living conditions in the North. Northern Iraqis get 22 percent higher per capita income from the Oil for Food funds, the North has most of Iraq's rain-based agriculture, there is significant cross-border trading with Turkey in the North, there are numerous private European relief agencies. Those factors have led to a modest difference between North and Center-South. Infant/child mortality is only some 5 percent less than in the Center-South, for example. But then, inexplicably and without any citation or source, Cortright goes on to claim that "these differences alone do not explain the stark contrast in the mortality rates. The tens of thousands of excess deaths in the south-center, compared to the similarly sanctioned [sic] but UN-administered north, are also the result of Baghdad's failure to accept and properly manage the UN humanitarian relief effort." Given his recognition of the specific differences facing Iraqis living in the two zones (above), Cortright should realize that Iraqi Kurds are not, in fact, "similarly sanctioned"--although like everyone in Iraq they do suffer greatly.
Even more significantly, he provides no facts to back the claim of "Baghdad's failure to properly manage the program," a claim that flies in the face of reports of the Secretary-General plus consistent evidence provided from all former and current directors of the Oil For Food program. From Denis Halliday (one of the authors of this article) and his successor, Hans von Sponeck, both of whom resigned their posts in protest of the continuing impact of sanctions despite the Oil for Food program, to the current director Tun Miyat, every director has recognized that Iraq's management of the program was perfectly proper. The problems in the program stem not from Iraq mismanagement, but from its UN-imposed constraints that prevent restoration of a working economy
Cortright proposes a number of improvements to the "smart sanctions" proposal brought to the UN by Washington and London earlier this year. Some of his ideas appear superficially useful, such as allowing foreign investment, eliminating restrictions on non-oil exports, or allowing a cash component in center-south, but in reality not so. The bottom line remains that until Iraq regains control of its oil reserves and revenues so that it can negotiate large-scale investment with whatever oil companies it chooses, the rebuilding of the once-modern economy and country and its once-cosmopolitan, once-educated and once-healthy urban population, remains out of reach. As long as the US-orchestrated escrow account, combined with UN politics and bureaucracy, controls Iraq's economy, the smartest sanctions remain way too dumb, missing their alleged targets like American "smart" bombs.
Cortright concludes that "Despite the evidence of Baghdad's shared responsibility for the ongoing crisis, sanctions opponents have continued to direct their ire exclusively at the United States and Britain." This demonization of those who oppose sanctions-driven genocide is simply not accurate; there is plenty of blame to go around, and most anti-sanctions campaigners have no hesitation to say so, including both of the assistant secretaries-general who resigned and both authors of this article. Baghdad is responsible for plenty of problems; it is a regime as repressive now as it was throughout the 1980s when it was backed financially, politically and militarily by Washington. But the Iraqi regime is not responsible for the deaths from hunger and disease of hundreds of thousands of its citizens--that responsibility lies with the US-dominated UN Security Council.
And sadly, that responsibility lies overwhelmingly with our government, and the anti-sanctions movement is right in keeping our focus there. Cortright himself, despite his apparent belief that no one in Washington pays attention to the anti-sanctions movement, admits that the United States and the United Kingdom developed their smart sanctions plan specifically "to parry this criticism." For those who see Baghdad's responsibility for the overall crisis as more central, what possible justification can there be for Washington to further punish the beleaguered people of Iraq whom it professes to care about, those who are forced to live under that regime? One would expect such justifications to arise from ignorance or malice--from the White House, the Pentagon or State Department apologists. One would have hoped that long-time peace activists such as David Cortright would know better.
Some version of smart sanctions may have been appropriate for the UN back in 1990; after more than a decade of devastatingly dumb sanctions, it's simply too little and too late, and Iraq is too badly devastated, for such proposals. Military sanctions as defined in paragraph 14 of Resolution 687, aiming at creating a weapons of mass destruction-free zone throughout the Middle East (including but not limited to Iraq), should continue. But the only smart thing to do with economic sanctions now is to end them--not attempt to discredit those who have been fighting to do just that.
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