Iraq Bombings: Foreign Policy by Catharsis

The air strikes against suburban Baghdad this past week continue and escalate the failed policies of the Clinton administration.

Enforcing the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq was the justification for the bombing. But the targets of Friday evening’s attacks were well outside the no-fly zones, and therefore had credible defensive rationale. The bombing was yet another example of foreign policy by catharsis—an expression of anger and frustration against a recalcitrant dictator that may make the U.S. feel good and help a president’s standing in public opinion polls, but actually accomplishes little.

Neither the United Nations nor any other international body established the no-fly zones the U.S. seeks to enforce. They were unilaterally declared by the United States and Great Britain in 1991 and have no precedent in international law. Despite their dubious legality, however, the no-fly zones initially received widespread support as a means of curbing the Iraqi government’s savage repression of its Kurdish and Shi’ite communities. During that spring, thousands of civilians had died in assaults by Iraqi helicopter gun ships and other aircraft in the now-protected areas.

International support for the no-fly zones has diminished dramatically, however, as they have evolved from an emergency humanitarian measure to an excuse for the U.S. and Britain to launch repeated air strikes against this impoverished country of 22 million people. Initially, the U.S. military presence was in place to challenge Iraqi encroachments into the proscribed airspace. Later the U.S. escalated its projection of military power to include assaults on anti-aircraft batteries that fired at allied aircraft enforcing the zone. It was escalated still further when anti-aircraft batteries were attacked simply for locking their radar onto allied aircraft, even without firing. The next escalation came when the Clinton administration ordered attacks against radar installations and other military targets within the no-fly zone, even when these targets were unrelated to alleged Iraqi threats against U.S. aircraft. Now, the new Bush administration has escalated things still further, targeting radar and command-and-control installations well beyond the no-fly zone.

The Bush administration’s propensity for Orwellian language was demonstrated when Marine Lt. General Gregory Newbold, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, justified the air strikes as a necessary response to Iraqis “aggression.” The Iraqi government has certainly engaged in acts of aggression in the past, such as its invasion of Iran in 1980 and its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Yet this may be the first time in history that the use of radar to track foreign military aircraft encroaching within a country’s internationally recognized airspace has been declared an act of aggression.

Despite efforts by the administrations of both parties, echoed by media pundits, to portray the ongoing low-level air war as putting pressure on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator has not been harmed. However, scores of Iraqi civilians and hundreds of unwilling Iraqi conscripts have been killed in these air attacks, which have averaged several times a week over the past three years.

Indeed, the bombing raids have enabled Saddam to portray himself not as the bully and tyrant that he is, but as a victim and martyr of a vengeful and hypocritical West. Not only has this enhanced his standing among ordinary Iraqis but also among millions of Arabs and others throughout the third world as well. This opposition to the U.S. bombings and sanctions extend to Washington’s closest Arab allies, whom the U.S. claims it is defending against potential Iraqi aggression. China, Russia, and France, among other countries, have also criticized the U.S. attacks.

Although widely condemned throughout the world, the aggressive and counterproductive U.S. policy toward Iraq has met with widespread and enthusiastic support by elected officials of both parties in America. Indeed, the strong support for Friday’s bombing by leading congressional Democrats will no doubt embolden the Republican administration to engage in further military actions regardless of their dangerous legal, moral, or political implications.