The Gulf Slaughter Revisited

— The Editors

“ONE CRIME AGAINST Humanity Deserves Another” may not be the latest catchy campaign slogan from the Clinton campaign team, but to quote the Pres, it’s actions and not words that count. The re-tightening of economic sanctions, which have already killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children – as Stanley Heller documents in his article in this issue of Against the Current – are calculated to help ensure Clinton’s re-election, even though they failed to accomplish as much for his predecessor George Bush.

It seems brutally symbolic, somehow, that the re-bombing of Iraq coincided with the U.S. military’s admission that it had exposed at least 15,000 of its own troops to poisonous chemicals while blowing up Iraqi weapons facilities – after years of denying the very existence of Gulf War Syndrome had prevented adequate diagnosis and treatment.

We don’t mean to suggest that Clinton staged the Saddam Hussein-backed coup in the Kurdish zone of northern Iraq. An incumbent president ahead by twenty points didn’t need to invent an international crisis. But given the opportunity to strike an Official Enemy, this most cynical of politicians exploited it – in a manner perfectly consistent with his practices of destroying welfare, trampling immigrants, abolishing death row appeals and outlawing gay marriage. Abroad as at home, it’s on the crushed bones of those who can’t fight back that Clinton constructs his Bridge to the Twenty-First Century.

Whether any deeper meaning should be read into the latest U.S. punitive bombing of Iraq will remain obscure until the present wretched presidential election is over. For the present we will raise only a few salient issues, and questions.

Unlike the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf slaughter of 1990–91, the conflicts in Iraqi Kurdistan posed no material threat to imperial stability. To defend Kuwait and the other oil-drenched Gulf kingdoms, the United States assembled the full might of the NATO alliance which had been created to fight a rival superpower.

In contrast, no oil routes were threatened by intra-Kurdish fighting or Iraqi military intervention inside Iraqi boundaries. This, obviously, is why there is no “international coalition” to be assembled this time. (Hence the absurdity of Bob Dole’s desperate attempt to condemn Clinton for “weak leadership,” and James Baker’s lament that the administration “lost the coalition” – the Republicans simply cannot hide the fact that their policies are identical.)

Strategically speaking, U.S. imperialism could have safely responded as it did in 1991, after the war, when Saddam Hussein launched much larger massacres against Kurds and Shia Arabs in the south-by shrugging its shoulders.

Indeed the second point is that, from the perspective of Saddam’s victims, a shrug of the shoulders was exactly the U.S. response on this occasion. It was incredibly obvious that hitting installations in the south of Iraq, and expanding the no-fly zone to the outskirts of Baghdad, could have no impact on operations in the north. The outcome is tragic, but utterly predictable, for those Kurds and other Iraqi oppositionists who actually believed the United States’ promises to protect them.

Third, the nature of those broken commitments make a murky picture. By many accounts, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was deeply involved in a project in northern Iraq to forge an anti-Saddam coalition from the forces of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Iraqi National Congress. From the end of the Gulf War, however, it’s been clear that the strategic priority of U.S. imperialism was to keep Iraq shattered and poor, but unified.

Destroying the Saddam regime would risk the fragmentation of the Iraqi state, possibly leading to occupations of Iraqi territory by Turkey and Iran. Thus in the final U.S. assault of the Gulf War, tens of thousands of Iraqi conscript troops were blown to pieces or buried alive on the road to Basra, but the Republican Guards and the military security corps left intact, to crush Kurdish and Shia popular revolts.

Why, then, an attempt to overthrow Saddam five years later? Did the CIA foolishly believe that the regime’s demise was imminent and that it could assemble friendly forces to take advantage when it fell? Even more foolishly, did it believe it could overthrow the regime with the politically weak force of its own creation, the Iraqi National Congress, and two Kurdish nationalist parties which have been bitterly divided for over a quarter century? The full motivation of this CIA operation and its apparent debacle remain to be clarified.

Fourth, a number of bigger, although speculative, questions are also posed. It’s quite possible that the U.S. bombing represents only an election-campaign example of something that Clinton fired Dr. Jocelyn Elders for mentioning in public. Yet there may be larger implications.

In recent months, for example, Iraq had seemed to recede from the top of the Official Enemies active target list, while Iran and Libya had moved up. Is it possible that in bombing Iraq, Washington actually intends to demonstrate to Iran the consequences of defying U.S. wishes? This suggestion is speculative, but Clinton had just signed a bill attempting to impose U.S. sanctions on international corporations investing in Iran or Libya.

Against the opposition of almost all the United States’ major allies and trading partners, this legislation, even more than the notorious Helms-Burton law against trade with Cuba, risks exposing U.S. political isolation rather than showing “strong leadership.” (As for Helms-Burton itself, only after November will we know whether Clinton’s signing it represents pure electoral opportunism-or a serious effort to impose U.S. discipline on other major political and economic powers.)

For the present, socialists must stress three points above all:

  1. Our opposition to all U.S. intervention in the Gulf and in the internal conflicts in Iraq or any other country.
  2. Our demand for the immediate lifting of the sanctions against Iraq.
  3. Our solidarity with the struggles of the Kurdish people for their human rights, and their national right of self- determination, within the prison-house-of-peoples states of the region, particularly Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Like the Palestinians, the Kurds are a living indictment of an oppressive and destructive political order. Until their rights are fully respected, talk of democracy and peace is a hollow sham.

ATC 65, November–December 1996