Arms and Spending Proliferation Biological and Chemical Weapons Blackwater Civilian Casualties Covert Ops Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing Nuclear Arms and Proliferation Terrorism Targeting the US US Intelligence US Military US Wars and Military Action US Weapons Sales Abroad War on Terrorism War Profiteering
The Path to Point B
The terrorism war begins to sag.
The perpetrator we were meant to bag
Remains at large, and wartime fervor fades.
Then Bush and all his hawkish White House aides
Drop sanctions as the way to tame Iraq
And say, "Without delay, we must attack."
If that war sags, there's still a backup plan.
It's war without delay against Iran.
And when the zest for that war, too, has faded?
That's easy: North Korea gets invaded.
But then it's hard to think of what to do.
Destroy Bahrain? Bomb France? Invade Peru?
Sparks fly in the debate over the war on terror.
I have met three hijackers in my life, and I hope I do not sound crabby and disillusioned if I add that the standard of hijacking is not what it used to be.
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
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
Doomed by the incoherence of a foreign policy defined largely by biblical notions of the struggle between good and evil, the Bush Administration thrashes about in its hunt for the devil.
This past week confirmed that the American political establishment is
not united in support of the Bush Administration's policy of forcible
"regime change" in Iraq. Odd as it may seem, the strongest expression of
doubt came from a key member of the GOP's right wing, House majority
leader Dick Armey. Expressing concern that an unprovoked attack on Iraq
would violate international law, Armey was quoted as saying that such an
attack "would not be consistent with what we have been as a nation or
what we should be as a nation." Meanwhile, Armey's colleague across the
aisle, Carl Levin, voiced the thinking of many of his fellow Democrats
when he argued that "containment of Saddam is so far working."
Armey and Levin are just two of a number of important political
actors--including several prominent senators, forces within the military
and worried figures on Wall Street--who have recently expressed qualms
about the proposed military invasion. These voices need to be amplified
and reinforced by others if the United States is to avoid a potentially
disastrous intervention in the Middle East.
Arguably the most important doubters, because only Congress is
empowered by the Constitution to declare war, are the members of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At their July 31-August 1 hearings on Iraq, chairman Joseph Biden Jr. and other committee
members--while taking pains to make clear that they, too, think Saddam
Hussein must go--emphasized that the aim of the hearings was not to
rally support for or against an invasion but rather to raise questions
and concerns. "Here we have a situation [about] which, clearly, we need
to know much more," Republican Senator Richard Lugar explained in his
opening remarks. Intense questioning of possible US moves is essential,
he added, because "the life of the country is at stake."
Another significant indication of elite concern was articles in the
New York Times and the Washington Post reporting serious
divisions within the US military and business class over the merits of
the proposed invasion. If these articles are accurate--and there is no
reason to assume otherwise--many senior military officers fear that US
intervention will produce chaos in the Middle East and lead to a costly,
dangerous and long-term American occupation of Iraq. Likewise, senior
corporate officials are said to fear a drop in consumer spending
resulting from rising oil prices, as well as a heightened risk of
None of these groups can be described as flat-out opponents of an
American invasion. Most would probably support the President--even cheer
him wildly--if US intervention was thought certain to result in a
speedy, casualty-free occupation of Baghdad and the replacement of
Saddam with a democratic, pro-Western, peace-seeking regime. The
problem, in their eyes, is that Bush can guarantee none of this. And
while readers of The Nation might wish to raise more fundamental
issues--such as whether the United States has a legal or moral right to
initiate a unilateral assault--the concerns among the country's elite
deserve widespread public attention. They can be compressed into nine
1. Why engage in a risky and potentially calamitous invasion of Iraq
when the existing strategy of "containment"--entailing no-fly zones,
sanctions, technology restraints and the deployment of US forces in
surrounding areas--not only has clearly succeeded in deterring Iraqi
adventurism for the past ten years but also in weakening Iraq's military
2. Why has the Administration found so little international support for
its proposed policy, even among our closest friends and allies (with the
possible exception of Britain's Tony Blair), and what would be the
consequences if Washington tried to act without their support and
without any international legal authority? Isn't it dangerous and unwise
for the United States to engage in an essentially unilateral attack on
3. Is the United States prepared to accept significant losses of
American lives--a strong possibility in the projected intense ground
fighting around Baghdad and other urban areas?
4. Is the United States prepared to inflict heavy losses on Iraq's
civilian population if, as expected, Saddam concentrates his military
assets in urban areas? Would this not make the United States a moral
pariah in the eyes of much of the world?
5. Wouldn't an invasion of Iraq aimed at the removal of Saddam Hussein
remove any inhibitions he might have regarding the use of chemical and
biological (and possibly nuclear) weapons, making their use more rather
than less likely?
6. Are we prepared to cope with the outbreaks of anti-American protest
and violence that, in the event of a US attack on Iraq, are sure to
erupt throughout the Muslim world, jeopardizing the survival of pro-US
governments in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and further inflaming the
7. Can the fragile American economy withstand a sharp rise in oil
prices, another decline in air travel, a bulging federal deficit, a drop
in consumer confidence and other negative economic effects that can be
expected from a major war in the Middle East? And what would an invasion
mean for an even more fragile world economy and for those emerging
markets that depend on selling their exports to the United States and
that are vulnerable to rising oil prices?
8. Even if we are successful in toppling Saddam, who will govern Iraq
afterward? Will we leave the country in chaos (as we have done in
Afghanistan)? Or will we try to impose a government in the face of the
inevitable Iraqi hostility if US forces destroy what remains of Iraq's
infrastructure and kill many of its civilians?
9. Are we willing to deploy 100,000 or more American soldiers in Iraq
for ten or twenty years (at a cost of tens of billions of dollars a
year) to defend a US-imposed government and prevent the breakup of the
country into unstable Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite mini-states?
So far, the Bush Administration has not provided honest or convincing
answers to any of these questions. It is essential, then, that
concerned Americans ask their Congressional representatives to demand
answers to these (and related) questions from the White House and hold
further hearings to weigh the credibility of the Administration's
answers. It is vital that our representatives play their rightful
constitutional role in this fateful decision. The American public
clearly would welcome such moves: A recent Washington Post-ABC
News poll found that while a majority support the President at this
point, they want him to seek authorization from Congress and approval of
America's allies before going ahead. And when asked whether they would
favor a ground war if it were to produce "significant" US casualties,
support plummeted to 40 percent and opposition rose to 51 percent. If
you worry about the future of America, clip or copy these nine questions
and include them in letters to your senators and representative. In
addition, get involved locally: Help organize a teach-in, write a letter
to your newspaper, raise the subject at civic meetings.
The American Constitution at the very beginning of the Republic sought
above all to guard the country against reckless, ill-considered recourse
to war. It required a declaration of war by the legislative branch, and
gave Congress the power over appropriations even during wartime. Such
caution existed before the great effort of the twentieth century to
erect stronger barriers to war by way of international law and public
morality, and to make this resistance to war the central feature of the
United Nations charter. Consistent with this undertaking, German and
Japanese leaders who engaged in aggressive war were punished after World
War II as war criminals. The most prominent Americans at the time
declared their support for such a framework of restraint as applicable
in the future to all states, not just to the losers in a war. We all
realize that the effort to avoid war has been far from successful, but
it remains a goal widely shared by the peoples of the world and still
endorsed by every government on the planet.
And yet, here we are, poised on the slippery precipice of a pre-emptive
war, without even the benefit of meaningful public debate. The
constitutional crisis is so deep that it is not even noticed. The
unilateralism of the Bush White House is an affront to the rest of the
world, which is unanimously opposed to such an action. The Democratic
Party, even in its role as loyal opposition, should be doing its utmost
to raise the difficult questions. Instead, the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, under the chairmanship of Democratic Senator Biden, organized
two days of hearings, notable for the absence of critical voices. Such
hearings are worse than nothing, creating a forum for advocates of war,
fostering the illusion that no sensible dissent exists and thus serving
mainly to raise the war fever a degree or two. How different might the
impact of such hearings be if respected and informed critics of a
pre-emptive war, such as Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday, both
former UN coordinators of humanitarian assistance to Iraq who resigned
in protest a few years back, were given the opportunity to appear before
the senators. The media, too, have failed miserably in presenting to the
American people the downside of war with Iraq. And the citizenry has
been content to follow the White House on the warpath without demanding
to know why the lives of young Americans should be put at risk, much
less why the United States should go to war against a distant foreign
country that has never attacked us and whose people have endured the
most punishing sanctions in all of history for more than a decade.
This is not just a procedural demand that we respect the Constitution as
we decide upon recourse to war--the most serious decision any society
can make, not only for itself but for its adversary. It is also, in this
instance, a substantive matter of the greatest weight. The United States
is without doubt the world leader at this point, and its behavior with
respect to war and law is likely to cast a long shadow across the
future. To go legitimately to war in the world that currently exists can
be based on three types of considerations: international law
(self-defense as set forth in Article 51 backed by a UN mandate, as in
the Gulf War), international morality (humanitarian intervention to
prevent genocide or ethnic cleansing) and necessity (the survival and
fundamental interests of a state are genuinely threatened and not really
covered by international law, as arguably was the case in the war in
With respect to Iraq, there is no pretense that international law
supports such a war and little claim that the brutality of the Iraqi
regime creates a foundation for humanitarian intervention. The
Administration's argument for war rests on the necessity argument, the
alleged risk posed by Iraqi acquisition of weapons of mass destruction,
and the prospect that such weapons would be made available to Al Qaeda
for future use against the United States. Such a risk, to the scant
extent that it exists, can be addressed much more successfully by
relying on deterrence and containment (which worked against the far more
menacing Soviet Union for decades) than by aggressive warmaking. All the
evidence going back to the Iran/Iraq War and the Gulf War shows that
Saddam Hussein responds to pressure and threat and is not inclined to
risk self-destruction. Indeed, if America attacks and if Iraq truly
possesses weapons of mass destruction, the feared risks are likely to
materialize as Iraq and Saddam confront defeat and humiliation, and have
little left to lose.
A real public debate is needed not only to revitalize representative
democracy but to head off an unnecessary war likely to bring widespread
death and destruction as well as heighten regional dangers of economic
and political instability, encourage future anti-American terrorism and
give rise to a US isolationism that this time is not of its own
We must ask why the open American system is so closed in this instance.
How can we explain this unsavory rush to judgment, when so many lives
are at stake? What is now wrong with our system, with the vigilance of
our citizenry, that such a course of action can be embarked upon without
even evoking criticism in high places, much less mass opposition in the
I don't know if it's some childhood image left over from Victory at
Sea or from a book of pictures my uncle brought back from the
service, but when I think about the war in the Pacific, I see pink
cumulus clouds piled high, one upon another, on the decks of aircraft
carriers. It's not the iconic image of violent battle that usually represents the war, but my imagination seems to be
telling me that the iconic images aren't the whole story, that serenity
and beauty coexisted alongside the bloodshed and were a large part of
the day-to-day reality of the war.
It's for similar reasons that I think the nitty-gritty details of life
near Ground Zero as presented in one of the first theatrical responses
to 9/11, comic monologist Reno's Rebel Without a Pause, appeal to
me so. They provide relief from the media's iconic packaging, which has
been beamed at us ever since the attack on the Trade Towers and the
(rarely mentioned) Pentagon attack.
With a deluge of energy, Reno, who lived near the towers from 1981,
relates what it was like in lower Manhattan "that gorgeous day." She
recreates the clicking sound, like the noise an old machine gun would
make, that was the sound of the floors collapsing into one another. She
exhibits dismay at the total absence of Conelrad and the Emergency
Defense System. ("Maybe this wasn't enough of an emergency.") She
tells a story about finding her ATM emptied out at 9 am and the bank
refusing to open its doors so customers could get their money.
But mostly it's the human reactions to catastrophe that are so
wonderful, so wildly hilarious. The rumors that the terrorists are holed
up with machetes in a macrobiotic restaurant on Prince Street; people
rushing home to have their televisions validate what they'd just seen
with their own eyes; and what Reno calls the "hierarchical bragging
rights of pain and knowledge"--New Yorkers one-upping each other over
what they knew and what they'd suffered.
Reno's warnings about changes in constitutional protections make for a
very disturbing second half of her monologue, though she herself doesn't
seem to fear the new spy agency powers: She gives voice to her every
political thought, no matter how out there it is. She points out how
cheaply reporters have been won over by chummy Don Rumsfeld, and she
contemplates Henry Kissinger being arrested for war crimes. Reno even
suggests that Florida be allowed to float down to Uruguay, "where all
the other fascists are."
She also reveals some interesting facts, like ones you find in this
magazine but not in the major media. For instance, Hamid Karzai, the new
president of Afghanistan, used to work for Unocal. And this from Frank
Lindh, who saw the show the night before I did: FBI agents treated his
son kindly because even they knew "he was a hapless kid."
After a while, I began feeling the tingle of what I hope was just my own
paranoia (although as I learned the last time--when Watergate lanced the
Nixonian pustule--paranoia can be a very accurate predictor of reality).
Reno talks about what is being done to our civil liberties in the
context of Christian fundamentalist influence on this Administration. At
342 pages, the USA Patriot Act, she suggests, wasn't written in the days
after 9/11, and the Padilla case has clearly crossed the line of
innocent until proven guilty. She builds a picture of how really
extremist the Bush people are and how far to the right the President has
taken the country. So far, in fact, that Colin Powell is the "Communist
of this Administration."
Such points may be made with laughter, but Reno brings a fierceness to
her criticisms and an urgency to her concerns about the current
Administration that we are only beginning to see in the big world, and
then over financial wheeler-dealering and privilege, not civil liberties
and constitutional guarantees.
You will walk away from Reno with a clear sense that the changes aren't
minor, and they won't fall only on bad guys and enemies. It's a real
turning point: Democracy is up for grabs.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe's free summer show, Mr. Smith Goes to
Obscuristan, likewise treats the aftermath of 9/11. In it,
Condoleezza Rice (Velina Brown) and Dick Cheney (Cheney lookalike Ed
Holmes) seek to sell the Bush presidency as an Administration that cares
about democracy, not profits, and so devise a plan to send 9/11
firefighter Jeff Smith (the always wonderful Michael Gene Sullivan) to
oversee the first free election in the Central Asian, formerly Soviet,
republic of Obscuristan. The winner of this contest is certain to be
warlord and privatizer Automaht Regurgitov (Victor Toman), since he is
the only candidate. That is, until the oppositionist Ralif Nadir (Amos
Glick) throws his hat into the ring, arguing that "people should vote
their hearts, not their fears." (Of course, had one or two percent of
Florida's Nader voters forsworn that advice, the Mime Troupe wouldn't
have a Bush Administration to satirize.)
(Or would they?)
Smith, who has been kept ignorant by outfits like SNN, the Selective
News Network, believes America wants freedom for everyone. He is,
however, disillusioned when it becomes clear that there is oil in
Obscuristan and that the Administration's real interest is that
Regurgitov win, since he will insure the atmosphere necessary for US
investment. Smith then sets out to prove that the ordinary American
doesn't want to screw Obscuristan over, and by the end of the day
rescues Nadir, who was kidnapped and branded a terrorist. He also helps
bring an SNN reporter and the US ambassador over to the side of a fair
shake for Obscuristan.
The Mime Troupe hits many of the right points: that energy sources are a
major factor in our involvement in Central Asia, for instance, and that
much of the weaponry in the area was originally supplied by the CIA. And
they raise questions about just how free our own elections are. Given
that, I was left pondering why Mr. Smith seemed so tepid and not
particularly funny compared with Rebel Without a Pause. It's
doubly strange given that the Mime Troupe brought in the usually very
funny monologist, independent filmmaker and former Nation intern
Josh Kornbluth (Red Diaper Baby and Haiku Tunnel) to help
write the script.
The difference is, I think, that Reno articulates things you hadn't
thought about, or says things you may have thought a lot about, but in
ways that create the old shock of recognition. As when she says, "The
people of Missouri were so worried about Ashcroft making decisions, they
voted for the dead guy."
There are moments like that in Mr. Smith. Barbara Bush (Ed Holmes
again, this time in a gray wig and pearls) explains the rules of the oil
game to George W., and the whole facade of her Betty Crockerdom smacks
right up against her tough capitalist intelligence. This is a Barbara
Bush who says, "Never send a member of the working class to do an
aristocrat's job." But such moments are rare. For the most part, the
Mime Troupe's most incisive statements, such as "Only an American would
confuse a fixed election with a real one" or "Welcome to democratic
nations like Saudi Arabia who protect human rights," simply restate our
perceptions or are so bitterly ironic that a lot of the laughter I heard
Given that the source of the satire is Capra's populist classic, Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington, I think the Mime Troupe missed a real
opportunity to have us question ourselves by asking, Who is Mr. Smith
and what is he about? In the mythos of Mime Troupe plays, the ordinary
American is decent and fair, and in every respect there's a lot of
daylight between him and the ruling class, and therefore between us and
what our government does in our name. The Mime Troupe believes that like
Jeff Smith, the ordinary American has been kept in ignorance by the
media, and that if he only knew what was really going on, he would rise
up and change things.
That conveniently ignores the fact that ordinary Americans are of many
minds, and that many of us do understand that our comfort is based on
the deprivation (and worse) of people in other parts of the world. So
then, you have to ask whether we feel we can't do anything about it or
whether we don't want to. How much is the ordinary American willing to
give up to see people elsewhere get a larger slice of the pie?
And what is the usefulness of a mythos of unquestioned fairness and
decency, and in this play, as in other Mime Troupe efforts, of a sellout
who regains her soul and of a decisive victory over the people's
enemies? It's positive, but does it send us out of the park feeling
hopeful and intent on action? Or do we feel that a lot of what we
witnessed was too simple and fantastic?
The appeal in Mr. Smith is ultimately to idealism, to looking out
for the other guy and doing the right thing. Reno, on the other hand,
talks about self-interest: that we are losing our rights and that some
of us were slaughtered. "The [US] government," she says, "created the
mujahedeen that came to my town and killed us." That seems a much
stronger motive for action.
Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan will be performed through Labor Day
in various Northern California locales (415-285-1717 or www.sfmt.org).
Rebel Without a Pause played a week at the Brava Theater Center
in San Francisco in June and went on to an extended run at the Lion
Theater on 42nd Street in New York City.