The United States is, once again, waging war against Iraq. For the fifth time in eight years, it has determined to “solve” the problem of Saddam Hussein once and for all by bombing his country—once again attacking civilian infrastructure targets that are essential not to Hussein, but to the citizens unfortunate enough to suffer under his regime.
Yet as militarily pointless, staggeringly expensive, and morally reprehensible as this latest attack is, the newest casualty is not halfway around the world. It is our own democracy, and the willingness of the American public to believe and trust in our elected political leadership.
On a November day in 1963, many say, the idealism of a generation died in Dallas. On December 16, 1998, the cynicism of a generation was cast in cement. Regardless of how Americans view the threat (or lack of it) posed by Saddam Hussein, and the appropriateness of military strikes in response, there is virtually unanimous suspicion that the timing of the raids, coming on the eve of a scheduled House vote on the impeachment of the Commander-in-Chief, was not a coincidence.
This insult to the intelligence of Americans comes in a week in which House Republicans not only pressed ahead with impeachment proceedings against the clear sentiments of a majority of Americans, but claimed they were doing it because the public was too stupid to truly understand the situation. The combined effect, of contempt for the public by Republican and Democrat alike, leaves a bitter taste—a sense that what we think absolutely does not matter to our political leaders. That will be remembered long after Saddam Hussein is a historical footnote.
Is the timing of these raids a calculated attempt by Bill Clinton to buy time or rally Congressional support against his impeachment—at the expense of Iraqi civilians—or is it a coincidence?
To believe that it is a coincidence, one must believe that the U.N. report on Iraqi weapons inspection intransigence is so dire that not only is military action necessary, but that in order to be effective, the action must be taken immediately and bilaterally by the U.S. and Britain.
This is not implausible. The United Nations is the world’s most impartial judge of what constitutes a threat to international security, and the report essentially gives up hope that Hussein will ever cooperate with efforts to keep his country from developing weapons of mass destruction. If a punitive raid is to happen, it must happen soon if it is to keep Saddam from acting to protect vulnerable targets. If it is to happen soon, it must happen immediately so as not to fall across Ramadan, the Islamic holy days, and thus further inflame our strained relations with Arab allies. And the United States long ago assumed for itself the lead role in all military actions against Iraq.
This is the logic that Bill Clinton is trying to sell. The problem here is the salesman. The whole country now knows that Bill Clinton is a liar, about matters large and small, matters of the heart and of state. Moreover, only last August, Clinton lied about a military attack. The U.S. was caught in a flat-footed lie regarding an alleged chemical weapons plant in the Sudan. That military attack, like the one this week, came at a key time in the escalation of impeachment proceedings. The sense that Clinton is lying, and abusing his power for personal political advantage, accumulates.
There is truth in both sides. Saddam is a monster—and Bill Clinton is lying. But there was nothing to gain militarily by launching Operation Desert Fox on the day before impeachment rather than a day or two later—or next week (News flash: The Islamic world already hates us, they just respect our guns and money), or next month.
In deciding to launch his attack when he did, Bill Clinton made a calculated decision that the enormous cynicism that it would generate toward not just him but politicians in general was of no great consequence. The targets the U.S. is bombing include infrastructure targets (e.g., bridges, water treatment plants) that can’t be moved or hidden anyway. The United States explicitly says it is trying to destroy Iraq’s future potential to make weapons of mass destruction. Any genuine military targets are—just like in each past exercise where we’ve bombed or threatened to bomb Iraq—well-hidden and virtually impossible to locate. In essence, the U.S. attacks are strictly punitive and have little military value; they are trying to locate a very small needle in a very large haystack.
But who is America actually punishing? Not Saddam; he’s weathered far worse and stayed in power, and he’s repeatedly demonstrated that staying in power, even at the expense of his own citizens’ blood, is his main objective. No, the U.S., once again, is killing Iraqi civilians. It’s working overtime to decimate infrastructure, to further strengthen the impact of sanctions in aggravating famine, lack of medical supplies and safe drinking water, and the like. The poor and middle classes of Iraq have found themselves for eight long years at the brutal end of wars being waged against them by both Saddam Hussein and by the United States.
We can do little about the war being waged by Saddam, and it’s not appreciably worse than the wars being waged on citizens by countless Third World despots who remain warm friends of Washington. (In all of these cases, as in Iraq, supporting genuinely democratic movements rather than violent thugs or counter-thugs would be a helpful start.) We must do something about the war being waged by the United States—a war that, between the 1991 Persian Gulf massacre and the impact of subsequent U.S.-led sanctions, has killed perhaps two million Iraqis, almost all of them civilians and conscripts, and at least half a million of them children. The U.S. obsession with Saddam, whose removal has been the political Holy Grail of two presidents, ranks as one of the great war crimes of a notably bloody century.
It is no apology for the behavior of Saddam Hussein to state that the U.S. has no right to destroy his country; and that those of us who live here have a special responsibility to oppose the attack. We need to put an end to it, before it gets worse. Bill Clinton is being impeached for the wrong reason.