Key Points

  • Clinton’s retaliatory strike was driven by U.S.-election, not foreign policy imperatives.
  • The results undermined key U.S. goals:
    – Saddam Hussein is politically stronger and now controls “U.S. protected” Iraqi Kurdistan.
    – International anti-Iraq coalition crumbled.
    – CIA’s anti-Baghdad rebels were exposed, routed, and killed.

When Saddam Hussein ordered his tanks and more than 40,000 troops into the Kurdish city of Irbil on August 31, 1996, he offered President Clinton an apparent “win-win,” election-season opportunity. The Clinton team moved with uncharacteristic decisiveness in launching a 2-day cruise missile blitz against Iraq.

This swift show of military muscle against Washington’s international enemy #1 defused any Dole campaign claims that Clinton lacks foreign policy vision and military experience. It also scuttled UN efforts to partially lift the oil embargo against Iraq-a move Washington had only grudgingly allowed. The anti-Iraq deployment cost over $1 billion just in fuel for the stealth bombers and B52s. But no U.S. lives were lost, the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution of support, and the military action played well in the polls. Administration officials described the response as a multilateral mission to stop Iraqi aggression and protect Kurdish human rights. The president told the nation that the operation “achieved the objectives we’ve set for it” and that Saddam Hussein was “strategically worse off than he was before.” But these assertions were far from reality.

Washington’s bombing blitz shattered the already precarious, anti-Iraq alliance that had prevailed since the 1990-91 Gulf War. It didn’t stop the movement of Iraqi ground troops in the north, and Saddam Hussein emerged largely in control of the “U.S.-protected” Kurdish zone. The U.S. strike left Iraqi employees of U.S. relief agencies unprotected, and CIA-backed Kurds abandoned to exile or death. As CIA Director John Deutch frankly admitted in congressional testimony, Saddam Hussein “has gotten stronger politically [and] there has been a growth in Arab sentiment” for the Iraqi leader.

Driven by electoral rather than strategic considerations, Clinton advisers pushed ahead with military preparations even after they learned that Iraqi troops had been invited into Irbil by one of the two main Kurdish factions. Washington claimed that UN resolutions justified its military response. But the UN disagreed; and while the U.S. kept its distance, Britain’s Security Council resolution condemning Iraq failed to muster sufficient support. As high ranking French officials bluntly told Washington, no UN resolution bars Saddam Hussein from moving ground troops into Kurdish areas within Iraq.

What the Washington Post called the “disconnect” between Iraqi troop movements in the north, and U.S. bombing raids in the south coupled with an extension of the “no-fly” zone to the outskirts of Baghdad “challenge[d] logic,” making the mission a hard sell internationally. Germany, Japan and Israel offered only belated and cautious support. Russia, France, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey–all part of the 1990-91 Gulf War coalition–refused to lend military or diplomatic support or even permit U.S. warplanes to fly over their air space. Some of Washington’s attacks were launched instead, from distant Guam-using three-quarters of a million pounds of fuel for every B52 flying from Guam to Iraq and back.

Only Britain’s conservative government publicly proclaimed full support for Washington. Yet even from Britain came strong criticism from such conservative sources as the Financial Times. U.S. analysts noted the air strikes were of little military significance since they did not penetrate Iraq’s underground command centers or do long-lasting damage to its air-defense network. Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) dismissed it as merely “a Pyrrhic victory.”

The one clear U.S. gain was in the UN’s September 1 decision to postpone a previous arrangement that allowed Iraq to begin selling a limited amount of oil to pay for food and medicine. But this, too, was a dubious achievement: The oil embargo, in place since before the Gulf War began, has severely hurt the Iraqi people but has done little to punish Iraq’s privileged and well-insulated ruling elite.

Even the U.S. Senate resolution expressed bipartisan concern about where U.S. policy goes from here in dealing with Iraq.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • U.S. demonization of Saddam Hussein has made military strikes and economic sanctions against Iraq virtually cost free at home.
  • The U.S. has armed and abandoned Iraqi Kurds while ignoring Iranian and Turkish military operations against their Kurdish minorities.
  • U.S. policy seeks to maintain U.S. hegemony over Middle East oil supplies.

U.S. strikes against Iraq play well at home because of Washington’s success at simplistically reducing the crisis to charges that Saddam Hussein is a terrorist and Iraq is a rogue state. “The demonization may be aimed at the leaders,” says Princeton University professor Richard Falk, “but the victim of the demonization is the whole society.”

Operation Desert Storm destroyed Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, and the crippling UN economic sanctions that followed have brought enormous human costs in malnutrition, and escalating infant and child mortality rates. A new report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) estimates that 567,000 Iraqi children have died as a consequence of sanctions. Further, CESR’s policy director wrote in the Washington Post, “sick and starving children fill hospital wards in a country where child obesity used to be a common problem. Because hospitals lack basic medicines and supplies, doctors are forced to play God on a daily basis, deciding who must die and who will get a chance to live.”

For years, the U.S. armed and financed Kurdish uprisings against Iraq only to abandon the Kurds when political alliances shifted. In the early 1970s, the U.S. joined Iran to foment such an anti-Baghdad revolt. But in 1975, when the Shah of Iran signed a peace agreement with Iraq, the Kurds were abandoned. After the Gulf War, the U.S. again encouraged the Iraqi Kurds to rise up against Baghdad–and then refused support when Saddam Hussein struck back. As a result, tens of thousands of Kurds poured over the Turkish border seeking safety.

The U.S. and its allies then established a protected “no-fly-zone” for the Iraqi Kurds. The CIA then armed and financed Iraqi rebels collected in an unstable coalition that soon disintegrated into internecine battles. In August 1996, one Kurdish faction suddenly invited Iraq’s military to help defeat its Iranian-backed rivals. CIA operatives quickly pulled out, leaving their Kurdish agents behind. At least100 were killed, while hundreds of relief workers and others face arrest or desperate exile. Yet the Kurdish invitation gave Iraq’s army a legitimacy in the region it had lacked for six years or more.

The U.S. has been inconsistent in its policy towards the Kurds. While decrying human rights violations against Iraq’s Kurds, Washington has turned a blind eye towards Turkey’s anti-Kurdish repression, and toward both Ankara’s and Tehran’s incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan. Many in the Arab world, the Christian Science Monitor noted, “see an American double standard: Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein attacks the Kurds and is flogged with 44 cruise missiles, while Turkey receives a nod of assent.”

Washington’s armed actions are intended, administration officials argue, to protect Arab oil as well as Iraqi Kurds. Clinton used his recent air strikes in southern Iraq to warn Saddam Hussein not to move against oil fields in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia–even though Baghdad has made no such moves since the end of the Gulf War.Washington consistently backs Israel’s efforts toward Middle East supremacy, despite its violations of international law, while seeking to undermine the regional roles of both Iran and Iraq through a policy of dual containment. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Washington viewed Iran as the more formidable threat, and so tilted towards Iraq, sharing intelligence with Baghdad while covertly selling arms to both sides. U.S.-Iraqi collaboration continued after the war but ended abruptly in August 1990, when Iraqi troops invaded and occupied neighboring Kuwait.

“Washington’s problem is not with Saddam Hussein per se,” observed University of Massachusetts political scientist Naseer Aruri, “but primarily with Iraq’s potential as an independent regional power, which might someday try to opt for strategic deterrence vis a vis Israel, and which might also challenge America’s custodianship over Arab oil in the future.”

Arab states in the region have long suspected that Washington’s real intention is to break up Iraq. This prospect has generated deep fears in the region that Iran will come out the winner, and that the sovereignty of other Arab states might also be at risk. Although some Arabs would like to see the demise of the Iraqi regime, they do not equate that with the disintegration of Iraq.

The international coalition against Iraq has always been weak. African and Latin American countries on the Security Council accepted the UN resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq only in return for U.S. bribes of Saudi oil, debt relief, IMF and World Bank loans, and new military aid. China dropped its veto in return for post-Tienanmen diplomatic reintegration and new development aid. And Washington punished Yemen’s “no” vote with the complete cut off of aid.

Washington’s recent unilateral military attack against Iraq removed whatever remained of this thin veneer of multilateralism. The U.S. has since increased its military presence in the region from 23,000 to 33,000, dispatched sophisticated warplanes including “stealth” fighters to Bahrain and Kuwait, and moved in a second aircraft carrier battle group. But none of Washington’s tools have succeeded in removing, or even seriously weakening, Iraq’s ruling elite.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • Protect Kurdish cultural autonomy and civil rights throughout the region
  • Reduce U.S. dependence on oil, and increase research into renewable energy resources.
  • End the demonization of Iraq. Work to strengthen Saddam Hussein’s democratic opponents and to rehabilitate the Iraqi people.
  • Pursue genuinely multilateral strategies and, for humanitarian reasons, end the oil embargo.

The U.S. must break with the misdirected objectives of past policies and forge a new set of policies that are based on: a consistency of concern toward the Kurds; a rational environmentally driven policy with respect to Middle East oil; and a humanitarian concern for the twice-victimized Iraqi people.

Toward the Kurds

U.S. policy toward the Kurds should be unhitched from its campaign against Saddam Hussein. Washington should consistently support Kurdish human rights and cultural identity in Turkey, Iran, and elsewhere as well as in Iraq. Aggression anywhere against Kurdish minorities should be even-handedly condemned, and humanitarian support should be provided to Kurds forced into exile. The U.S. should work through the UN to establish an international agreement protecting the Kurds.

Regarding Oil

U.S. officials warn that reopening Iraq’s oil markets, even under the UN’s restricted oil-for-food plan, will flood the market and cause a drop in oil prices. But protecting the megaprofits of Saudi and Kuwaiti princes does not justify either unilateral U.S. military moves or continuing the crippling economic embargo against Iraq.

Only 9% of U.S. oil imports come from the Middle East. Yet even this percentage is deemed critical because the U.S. economy is overly dependent on oil imports. Without developing alternative, renewable sources of energy, the U.S. Business and Industrial Council Educational Foundation warns: “We will needlessly prolong our dependence on Gulf oil. And, by default, war fighting in this ever-dangerous region will remain the heart of U.S. energy strategy.” Global security and stability will be enhanced by lessening our dependence on oil.

Toward Iraq

U.S. demonization of Iraq must end since Saddam Hussein’s military regime is a major human rights violator, the stringent arms embargo and international monitoring of nuclear and other nonconventional facilities should continue. Yet Iraq is not the military powerhouse it once was. The Gulf War and the subsequent UN monitoring and weapons destruction programs have brought Iraq’s million-man military machine down to an estimated 300,000 poorly equipped troops. The army is, according to the Christian Science Monitor, “a shell of its former self.”

Humanitarian concerns should play a major part in shaping future U.S.-Iraq policy. A good first step would be lifting the crippling economic embargo to allow Iraq’s hungry and sanctions-weary populace to import vital food and medicines.

Washington should state publicly that it supports the territorial integrity of Iraq. This will help quiet Arab fears that the U.S. seeks to dismember Iraq and will facilitate renewed dialogue between Washington and others in the Middle East over how to deal with Iraq. The U.S. must also take responsibility for reining in Israel’s destabilizing moves, which perpetuate Tel Aviv’s occupations and undermine the chances for regional peace. As Shibley Telhami, Director of Cornell’s Near East Studies Program, wrote in the Washington Post, “The biggest threat to Israel in the future is the terrorism that comes from regional instability, not conventional Iraqi military capabilities.”

U.S. policy should be to give political backing to those brave Iraqi voices, Kurdish, Shi’ite or Sunni, committed to broad based democratic reform. Policy proposals to train teams to assassinate Saddam Hussein or to foment a military coup should be rejected. Instead, Washington should help strengthen independent, nonmilitary voices and offer assistance to international and Iraqi NGOs supporting humanitarian projects inside the country. The goal should be to work toward restructuring Iraq’s shattered civil society, maintaining the integrity of Iraqi sovereignty, and rebuilding the war-devastated nation.

U.S. policy should be genuinely multilateral in approach, based on consultation with our allies and others in the region, with the goal of developing a truly global consensus on Iraq. Past claims of multilateral Iraqi policy have merely been thin veneers covering U.S. diplomatic and economic armtwisting. U.S. superpower status should ensure a strengthened commitment to international, as well as internal, democracy in Washington’s dealings with countries around the world.

Written by Phyllis Bennis, IPS Fellow