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Nation Topics - US Wars and Military Action

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One year later, September 11 has certainly lived up to the early claim
of being a transformative moment, at least for Americans.

We're trying to survey all the many good ideas being tried outside the range of the Beltway pundits. So tell us about any local, state or municipal initiative in your area that you're excited about and think is worth emulating nationally.

 

A rebuttal to eight arguments put forward by proponents of an invasion of Iraq.

Why now? Why, one year after September 11, is the Bush Administration
attempting to overthrow decades of precedents and precepts of
international law, along with the best traditions of US foreign policy,
in a relentless push to war? As high-level officials try to sell the
Administration's case to the American people and the President prepares
for an appearance before the UN General Assembly, the White House
continues its attempt to restrict the debate on Iraq to details of
timing and tactics while ignoring the basic question of whether an
invasion of Iraq should be considered at all.

Elsewhere in this issue Stephen Zunes provides a detailed refutation of
the points the Administration has used to argue for war. The arguments
are debatable at best, spurious at worst--like the innuendo that Iraq is
linked to Al Qaeda (in fact, Osama bin Laden regards Saddam Hussein as
an apostate); that "containment has failed" (since the Gulf War, Iraq's
military capabilities have weakened significantly and the regime poses
little or no threat to its neighbors, who oppose invasion); or that
inspection cannot adequately determine whether Iraq is developing
weapons of mass destruction (from 1991 to 1998, inspectors destroyed
much of Iraq's stockpile of chemical and bioweapons). One could go on,
but the point is that all along, this Administration has followed the
Alice in Wonderland logic of the Queen: sentence first, verdict
later.

The White House has sought to justify the right to mount an attack by
the new Bush doctrine of pre-emption--or anticipatory self-defense. But
this country is a member of the United Nations, which was founded to
prevent wars of aggression. And under that body's charter, the United
States can use force only in response to an attack on itself, or if
approved by the Security Council. Otherwise, the Administration has no
right to take this country into war--or even to threaten the use of
force.

The Administration has found this doctrinal deviation a difficult sell
even among its closest allies and thus has begun to search for new ways
to bestow some international legitimacy on its actions. Hence the talks
with Prime Minister Tony Blair, out of which has come a plan for a
Security Council ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to meet British-American
terms unconditionally or face "severe consequences." In short, the
Administration, with British support, may have devised the perfect
pretext for war: a UN demand for the reintroduction of inspectors into
Iraq that Saddam will likely not accept. The Administration is hoping
its plan will provide enough of a UN cover to gain French, Russian and
Chinese support, or at least acquiescence.

Those who question the need or legitimacy of a war against Iraq should
not be fooled. What incentive does the Administration's commitment to
"regime change" give Iraq to readmit inspectors, especially when the
inspectors could, like the last group, use the inspections for US
espionage purposes? Washington should instead announce its support for
inspections insulated from improper influence and pledge to abide by the
UN's findings.

With the executive branch committed to war, those who morally oppose an
invasion of Iraq--because of the suffering it would inflict on US
soldiers and Iraqi civilians, because of its potential to destabilize
the region, because it would distract this country from the brokering of
an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, because a war in Iraq would
detract from the campaign against Al Qaeda and from pressing domestic
needs--have only Congress to turn to. That prospect doesn't offer much
comfort, since the Democratic leadership in the Senate appears ready to
write the Administration a resolution authorizing military action,
albeit with some conditions.

If Congress abdicates its role, it will harm not only the country but
itself. Bush's claim of the right to make pre-emptive war would give him
and future Presidents the authority to determine when a threat exists
and to take action on that threat without subjecting it to debate or to
verification by other branches of government. The principle of
Congressional oversight of the most fundamental decision government can
make--whether to send its sons and daughters into danger--will have been
entirely abandoned. And because Congress is the only arena where the
people's concerns can be aired, the structure of democracy itself will
suffer a grievous blow. Even if UN inspections find that Iraq is trying
to develop an advanced bomb program, there are ways of responding short
of war. A Congressional vote for pre-emptive assault would create a
damaging precedent, abrogate the UN charter, imperil the Constitution
and transform the President into an imperial overlord.

Write, call, act now (see the box on page 5). Americans who oppose the
war and this unconstitutional expansion of power must make their voices
heard.

In January, when George W. Bush's pollster warned that "Enron is a much
bigger story than anyone in Washington realizes," White House political
director Karl Rove informed the Republican National Committee that this
fall's election would have to be about national security rather than the
economy. Rove wasn't practicing political rocket science; he was merely
echoing the common-sense calculations of veteran Republican strategists
like Jack Pitney, who says, "If voters go to the polls with corporate
scandals at the top of their list, they're probably going to vote
Democratic. If they go [thinking about] the war on terrorism and taxes,"
Republicans have the advantage. Now, with the election that will set the
course for the second half of Bush's term less than two months away,
Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, National Security
Adviser Rice and every other Republican with a talking-head permit is
busy making the improbable case for war with Iraq.

Rove's sly strategy appears to be working. On September 4, the day
Congress returned from its summer break, the Dow Jones average plunged
355 points. Yet the next morning's headlines talked about how Bush would
"put the case for action in Iraq to key lawmakers." Whether Bush
actually believes that the war he's promoting is necessary--or even
marketable--there's no question that Republican prospects are aided by
the fact that he's talking about Saddam Hussein rather than Enron,
WorldCom, Harken, Halliburton, deficits, layoffs and 401(k)atastrophes.
There is, however, some question as to why Democrats are allowing Rove's
scenario to play out so smoothly. Along with those questions comes the
fear that unless the supposed party of opposition finds its voice soon,
Democrats could squander opportunities not only to stop a senseless and
unnecessary war but also to hold the Senate and wrest control of the
House from the right in November.

So far, however, most of the coherent Congressional challenges to the
Bush strategy have been initiated by Republicans worried about the
threat a war would pose to the domestic economy (House majority leader
Dick Armey) or who actually listen to the State Department (Jim Leach, a
key player on the House International Relations Committee). While Bush
and Rove have had trouble keeping their GOP comrades in line, they've
had more luck with Democrats. Only a handful of Democrats, like
Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich, have echoed Armey's blunt
criticisms of the rush to war. A few more have chimed in with practical
arguments against the Administration line, a view perhaps best expressed
by Martin Sabo of Minnesota, who says that "to move into a country and
say we're going to topple the government and take over the
government--and I think inherent in that is also 'run it'--is not
something we have ever proved very capable of doing."

But House Democratic opposition has been muddled by the fact that
minority leader Dick Gephardt has positioned himself as an enthusiastic
backer of "regime change" in Iraq. One senior member of his caucus says,
"You can pin most of the blame on Gephardt. If he hadn't been so
enthusiastic about going to war when the Bush people brought this up in
the first place, I think they would have backed off." Acknowledging that
Gephardt's position could make it difficult to hold off a House vote in
October, Kucinich says, "I think it could all come down to how Daschle
handles the issue."

Senate majority leader Tom Daschle is not doing Bush as many favors as
Gephardt--Daschle at least says Congress needs more information. But the
Senate's leader has yet to echo likely 2004 Democratic presidential
candidate Senator John Kerry's suggestion that a policy of containment
would be sufficient to manage any threat posed by Iraq, let alone to
express the steady skepticism of Senate Armed Services Committee chair
Carl Levin, who left a meeting at which Rumsfeld tried to make the case
for war and said, "I don't think [the Administration] added anything."

Daschle's caution is rooted in his concern that a misstep on issues of
war and patriotism could jeopardize his continued leadership of the
Senate. It's a legitimate worry; his one-seat majority could well be
endangered if flag-waving appeals take hold--as they have before--in
Senate battleground states like Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Georgia,
North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Daschle's own South Dakota.
But Daschle's caution is not making things easier for Democrats in those
states. It has simply left him playing Karl Rove's game when he should
be saying what most Americans know: that in the absence of any credible
evidence of an immediate and quantifiable threat from Iraq, Congress
should not get bogged down in this issue. Moving aggressively to shift
the focus from Iraq to corporate wrongdoing and economic instability
would be smart politics for Daschle and the Democrats. More important,
calling the President's bluff on Iraq would slow the rush toward a
senseless war while freeing Congress to debate genuine threats to
America.

George W. Bush's decision to "involve" the United Nations in his plans
to attack Iraq does not indicate a conversion to multilateralism on the
road to Baghdad. Washington's continuing campaign to neutralize the
International Criminal Court and its disdain for the Kyoto Protocol are
only part of the evidence that this would at best be a very expedient
multilateralism.

There are sound pragmatic political considerations behind the shift to
the UN track. The President's father and James Baker have almost
certainly reminded him that it was Security Council Resolution 678
mandating military action to expel Iraq from Kuwait that was crucial to
winning the bare majority for a war powers resolution on Capitol Hill.
And even Tony Blair, assailed internally by opposition from his own
party and public, and externally by his European colleagues, now wants
some form of UN blessing--or excuse--for the crusade against Baghdad.

So what form will the Administration's use or abuse of the UN take?
There is little or no chance of a Security Council resolution
authorizing invasion to effect a change of regime. While Russia, China
and France have all told Iraq it should admit weapons inspectors, none
of them can countenance explicit support for an enforced removal of the
Iraqi government, which would go against one of the most fundamental
principles in the UN Charter. Instead, diplomats on the Security Council
anticipate a US-inspired resolution setting a deadline--most speak of
four weeks--for Baghdad to admit inspectors unconditionally, probably
warning of "severe consequences" if it does not. The Administration's
nightmare would be Saddam having a belated moment of rationality and
allowing the inspectors in, but it's reasonably confident that Baghdad
will oblige by refusing.

The Administration's confidence seems to be justified. Iraq's current
ambivalent gestures--wanting Hans Blix, head of UNMOVIC, the inspection
unit, to come for talks but still declaring its refusal to admit his
inspectors--is exasperating even some of Iraq's best friends, while the
refusal to admit inspectors for the past two years has eroded the little
support it had from other countries. The Security Council set up UNMOVIC
in 1999 in response to criticisms made about its predecessor, UNSCOM. A
later resolution, 1382, represented the high-water mark of sanity for
the Bush Administration, since it actually mandated the end of sanctions
after the inspectors had completed their timetabled examination and
certification that Iraq was not producing weapons of mass destruction.
In supporting the resolution, Colin Powell went much further than the
Clinton Administration in offering what was termed "light at the end of
the tunnel"--an end to sanctions in return for compliance with
resolutions, rather than the regime change demanded by Clinton's UN
ambassador, Madeleine Albright. UNMOVIC's new inspectors have also been
carefully insulated from the allegations of undue Anglo-American
influence that dogged their predecessors.

It is against this background that the Administration is working hard to
make sure that there is no veto by France, Russia or China--and no doubt
the US determination that Muslim separatists in the west of China are
"terrorists" has helped mollify Chinese opposition. Even French
President Jacques Chirac in his recent statements is moving toward
acceptance of some kind of UN authorization for coercing Iraqi
compliance, while Putin's US-friendly stance suggests that Russian
opposition will be muted.

But even if Washington heads off vetoes, it still needs nine yes votes
to win--and Syria is certain to vote against. For political legitimacy
the British and Americans must win by more than a bare majority, which
is why a diplomat representing one of the ten elected members on the
Security Council said, "We're expecting to feel the grip on our
testicles any day soon"--the traditional US route to hearts and minds in
international forums, and no more so than with this Administration. In
the end, it is likely that Washington will get its deadline, since the
vote will be on Iraqi compliance, not "regime change"--although in a
last act as friends of Iraq the Russians may negotiate a slightly longer
deadline.

Once the United States has its deadline and if Iraq plays into its hands
by defying the UN, then Washington has at least two options. One, which
seems increasingly likely as US diplomacy gets to work on the council
members, is a resolution that in some euphemistic measure calls down
"severe consequences" on Saddam's head if he fails to comply with a
demand to accept inspectors. The alternative would be a simple
determination that Iraq has failed to comply, after which the United
States and Britain will claim authority from the original Gulf War
resolutions to use military means to enforce the inspection and
disarmament demanded by the resolutions.

In both cases, it allows the Administration to shift some of the blame
for "warmongering" onto the UN, as a duty of the global community rather
than as US aggression. Internationally, it transforms what would have
been a flagrant breach of international law--the unilateral overthrow of
a sovereign government--into a move to assert UN authority, the
consequence of which may be the downfall of a little-loved dictator.

Ariel Sharon may yet rescue Saddam Hussein with more assaults on
Palestinians, allowing the Arabs to contrast starkly the different
outcomes of egregious defiance of the United Nations by Israel and Iraq.
Or Iraq's president may yet decide that survival with inspectors is
preferable to martyrdom surrounded by half-finished projects for mass
military mayhem. But it is a reasonable supposition that shooting will
begin in some form sooner or later. And if Bush has his way on Capitol
Hill, sooner than the November elections.

How would people be discussing the issue of "regime change" in Iraq if the question were not being forced upon them by the Administration?

Kurds want Saddam Hussein gone but are wary about joining a US-led attack.

It is suddenly de rigueur for US officials to say, "Saddam
Hussein gassed his own people." They are evidently referring to the
Iraqi military's use of chemical weapons in the Iraqi Kurdistan town of
Halabja in March 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War, and then in the area
controlled by the Teheran-backed Kurdish insurgents after the
cease-fire in August.

Since Baghdad's deployment of chemical arms in war as well as peace was
known at the time, the question is: What did the US government do about
it then? Nothing. Worse, so strong was the hold of the pro-Iraq lobby on
the Republican administration of President Ronald Reagan, it succeeded
in getting the White House to frustrate the Senate's attempt to penalize
Baghdad for violating the Geneva Protocol on Chemical Weapons, which it
had signed. This led Saddam to believe that Washington was firmly on his
side--a conclusion that paved the way for his invasion of Kuwait and the
1991 Gulf War, the full consequences of which have yet to play
themselves out.

During the five years following October 1983, Iraq used 100,000
munitions, containing chiefly mustard gas, which produces blisters first
on the skin and then inside the lungs, and nerve gas, which attacks the
nervous system, but also cyanide gas. From the initial use of such
agents in extremis to repel Iranian offensives, the Iraqis went on to
deploy them extensively as a vital element of their assaults in the
spring and summer of 1988 to retake lost territories. At the time, even
as the US government had knowledge of these attacks, it provided
intelligence and planning assistance to the Iraqi army, according to an
August 18 front-page report by Patrick Tyler in the New York Times.

Iraq's use of poison gases to regain the Fao Peninsula, captured by Iran
in early 1986, was so blatant that the United Nations Security Council
could no longer accept Baghdad's routine denials. After examining 700
Iranian casualties, the UN team of experts concluded that Iraq used
mustard and nerve gases on many occasions.

Yet, instead of condemning Iraq unequivocally for its actions, the
Security Council, dominated by Washington and Moscow, both of them
pro-Baghdad, balanced its condemnation of Iraq with its disapproval of
"the prolongation of the conflict" by Iran, which had refused to agree
to a cease-fire until the Council named Iraq the aggressor (which
America got around to doing in 1998!).

Contrary to its proclamations of neutrality, Washington had all along
been pro-Iraq. It lost little time in supplying Baghdad with
intelligence gathered by the Saudi-owned but Pentagon-operated AWACS
(Airborne Warning and Control Systems) flying in the region. This tilt
became an embrace after the re-election of Reagan as president in
November 1984, when Iraq and America re-established diplomatic ties.

From mid-1986, assisted by the Pentagon, which secretly seconded its Air
Force officers to work with their Iraqi counterparts, Iraq improved its
accuracy in targeting, hitting Iran's bridges, factories and power
plants relentlessly, and extending its air strikes to the Iranian oil
terminals in the Lower Gulf. Under the rubric of escorting Kuwaiti oil
tankers, the Pentagon built up an armada in the gulf, which clashed with
the puny Iranian navy and destroyed two Iranian offshore oil platforms
in the Lower Gulf in retaliation for an Iranian missile attack on a
US-flagged super-tanker docked in Kuwaiti waters.

It was against this backdrop that Iraq began striking Teheran with its
upgraded Scud ground-to-ground missiles in late February 1988. To
recapture Halabja, a town of 70,000 about fifteen miles from the border,
from Iran and its Kurdish allies, who had seized it in March, the Iraqi
Air Force attacked it with poison gas bombs, killing 3,200 to 5,000
civilians. The images of men, women and children frozen in instant
death, relayed by the Iranian media, shocked the world. Yet no
condemnation came from Washington.

It was only when, following the truce with Teheran in August, Saddam
made extensive use of chemical agents to retake 4,000 square miles
controlled by the Kurdish rebels that the Security Council decided to
send a team to determine if Iraq had deployed chemical arms. Baghdad
refused to cooperate.

But instead of pressing Baghdad to reverse its stance, or face an
immediate ban on the sale of US military equipment and advanced
technology to Iraq by the revival of the Senate's bill, US Secretary of
State George Shultz chose merely to say that interviews with the Kurdish
refugees in Turkey, and "other sources" (which remained obscure),
pointed toward Baghdad's using chemical weapons. These two elements did
not add up to "conclusive" proof. Such was the verdict of Shultz's
British counterpart, Sir Geoffrey Howe. "If conclusive evidence is
obtained, then punitive measures against Iraq have not been ruled out,"
he said. But neither he nor Shultz is known to have made a further
attempt to get at the truth. Baghdad went unpunished.

That is where the matter rested for fourteen years--until "gassing his
own people" became a catchy slogan to demonize Saddam in the popular
American imagination.

Blogs

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October 24, 2013

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September 13, 2013

Obama makes his case for intervention in Syria.

September 11, 2013

The president can and should explain the necessity of negotiation in the pursuit of a “just peace.”

September 10, 2013

Will President Obama’s prime-time address tonight signal a real shift in the White House’s Syria policy?

September 10, 2013

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) will propose a diplomacy and accountability amendment.

September 10, 2013

When it comes to Syria, why should we trust President Obama? After all, he clearly doesn’t trust us.

September 9, 2013

The history of American militarism informs the administration’s schizophrenic posturing on Syria. 

September 6, 2013

The ambassador to the UN acknowledged that there are valid questions about military strikes, but her speech was short on convincing answers. 

September 6, 2013

Senators float bill that would demand Assad sign Chemical Weapons Convention treaty.

September 6, 2013