As the Bush administration beats its chest --- louder one day, softer the next --- it's necessary to remember the US is already at war with Iraq.
US and allied British forces have been launching air attacks against Iraq for years, especially since 1998. The Reuters news service reported a typical attack July 19: Iraqi government sources said the air strike killed five civilians and wounded 17 others. The Florida-based US Central Command said the attack was launched against a military target "in response to recent Iraqi hostile acts."
Whatever happened during that particular attack, the pattern of US aggression is clear. A Washington Post report two summers ago cited an Iraqi estimate that "about 300 Iraqis have been killed and more than 800 wounded by US and British retaliatory attacks in the 18 months since President Saddam Hussein ordered his antiaircraft batteries to fire on allied warplanes enforcing 'no-fly' zones in northern and southern Iraq." The paper noted that around 200 of those killed were reportedly civilians "caught in the wrong place at the wrong time," and that the numbers were "substantiated in part by a UN survey that examined some incidents independently and accepted Iraqi reports on others," as well as the paper's own "interviews and observations."
Often lost in the shuffle is the fact that the "no-fly" zones are illegal. Ostensibly designed to protect Iraqi Kurds and Shi'ite Muslims, the zones are "not authorised by the UN and... are not specifically sanctioned by any Security Council resolution," as a BBC backgrounder says with understatement. (Nor is the humanitarian justification very convincing. In the 1980s, notwithstanding Saddam's gassing of Kurds in Halabja, the US supported the dictator's war against Iran with tactical advice and a billion-dollar loan.)
Some leading Republican hawks --- including former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and US Representative Dick Armey --- have been saying, take it slow. But Bush seems to want blood, and quick.
On August 15, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice summed up: "We certainly do not have the luxury of doing nothing; we believe the case for regime change is very powerful."
"Regime change" is the reigning euphemism for imperial intervention. But what form would intervention take? One set of options is called the "Afghan model." This would entail doing what the US has done in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance --- enlist one group of indigenous thugs to displace another.
Another option is a massive air-ground attack. Washington leaks put the invasion force at 250,000, with US casualties as high as 5,000. Iraqi casualties get barely a footnote, but they'd inevitably be high. According to Phyllis Bennis, an analyst with the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, a full US attack would kill 10,000 Iraqis in short order. Further damage to the Iraqi infrastructure, she writes, would lead to "perhaps hundreds of thousands of more civilian deaths." (Compare what US economic sanctions already have wrought: The United Nations Children's Fund has estimated 4,500 children per month die from preventable diseases, malnutrition, and other ills that the sanctions cause or exacerbate.)
In a recent briefing for Foreign Policy in Focus, a "Think Tank Without Walls," Middle East analyst Stephen Zunes gives a nightmare war scenario. "US forces," he writes, "would have to march on Baghdad, a city of over five million people, virtually alone... Invading forces would be faced with bitter, house-to-house fighting in a country larger than South Vietnam. Iraqis, who may have had little stomach to fight to maintain their country's conquest of Kuwait, would be far more willing to sacrifice themselves to resist a foreign, Western invader. To minimize American casualties in the face of such stiff resistance, the US would likely engage in heavy bombing of Iraqi residential neighborhoods, resulting in high civilian casualties."
The scenario looks crazy. But craziness has been elevated to policy, and there's a deep psychopathology in the White House today. Take the "chickenhawk" syndrome, which allows men who haven't experienced war to think they're John Wayne. Bush was a stateside Air Guardsman. Vice President Dick Cheney took Vietnam-era student deferments. Paul Wolfowitz, whose official biography mentions a "third tour of duty in the Pentagon," was a longterm Vietnam-era student, too. And Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld was a Navy flyboy during the peacetime years of the late 1950s. (Rumsfeld also served as an emissary to Iraq in the early 1980s, when the US was coddling Saddam.)
But back to geopolitics.
Rochester Institute of Technology history professor Nabil Kaylani sees big trouble ahead, at home as well as abroad. The Bush strategy, he says, is like "playing Russian Roulette with the stability of the Middle East, and the stability of the economy."
"It's so volatile, anything can happen," says Kaylani, a Syrian by birth. "I am thinking about a major regional war or a revolutionary situation in the Middle East, Iranian-style," he says.
But if US plans succeed, on Bush's terms? "If they can conquer and subdue Iraq --- and Iraq has the [world's] second largest oil reserves --- then they'll change the whole landscape," says Kaylani. "With Israel and Turkey," he says, "the US would lord it over the whole region." He says he's especially concerned about what might happen in Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and other countries.
"The entire world disagrees with us," says Kaylani. With the exception of Israel, he says, not a single country has endorsed the US plan to attack Iraq. Kaylani says this raises another question: If Iraq does possess weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam Hussein uses these to attack Israel, what will be the latter's response? (Israel has a large nuclear arsenal, and to the east, both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons.)
Apart from the strategic questions, some moral and legal issues still nag. University of Illinois law professor Francis Boyle, an expert on international law, says Bush and company are offering thin justifications, or worse. Take the matter of a "pre-emptive attack," absent any clear and immediate danger. "The Nazis made this argument at Nuremberg, that they made a pre-emptive attack on Norway to prevent a British attack [there]," says Boyle. The Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, he says, rejected this and the very doctrine of pre-emptive attack.
So where to go from here? Reviving arms inspections makes sense, but this must be done right. Saddam Hussein must cooperate. But the US must not use the inspections as a cover for espionage, as happened in the past. Moreover, there needs to be a regional approach. Writes Stephen Zunes: "To maintain credibility in curbing Iraqi threats to peace and stability, the US must support arms control and UN Security Council resolutions throughout the region rather than singling out Iraq." This implies addressing the Israeli-Palestinian question fairly, ending Turkey's harsh treatment of its Kurdish population, and so forth.
Phyllis Bennis supplies additional context: "A new military assault," she writes, "will [maintain] the current exclusion of weapons inspectors from Iraq for the foreseeable future." Bennis suggests lifting the economic sanctions while tightening military-related sanctions. Then she mentions the worthy goal of UN Security Council resolution 687, which should resonate in Washington and other capitals as much as in Baghdad --- "a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction."