Why is the United States at war with Iraq?footnote＊ It is a lot easier to say what are not the reasons for us intervention in the Gulf than to provide a fully satisfactory account of its presence there. According to the Bush administration, the usa is fighting Iraq because Saddam Hussein is a ruthless tyrant who has carried out an unjust invasion of Kuwait. In the pompous rhetoric of the President’s State of the Union address, ‘What is at stake is. . .a new world order—where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind: peace and security, freedom and the rule of law. . .Saddam Hussein’s unprovoked invasion. . .will not stand.’ It is important to take the administration’s rhetoric seriously, because what might be called its empirical premisses are, in one respect, obviously correct. Saddam Hussein is a ruthless tyrant and his invasion of Kuwait must be condemned. Popular support in the usa for the administration’s war is based, to an important degree, on the perceived nature of the Iraqi regime and, above all, the injustice of his invasion. For this reason, the
The war with Iraq is not at all like that with Vietnam. The Vietnamese were fighting for self-determination against us neocolonialism. That is obviously not the position of Iraq, which has sought to secure for itself something of a hegemonic position in the region. In general, the us Left must rid itself of the long-held but debilitating illusion that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. This could not be less true in the present case, for the Iraqi regime’s accomplishments include the systematic physical extermination of virtually the entire Iraqi Left.
More positively, if the us Left is to take advantage of the present conjuncture to begin to rebuild itself and acquire a mass base after more than a decade of precipitate decline, it must associate itself systematically and unambiguously with the defence of democratic rights. In the present case, this means opposing the forceful imposition of one regime on another people (which does not, of course, mean ignoring the repressive character of the Kuwaiti and Saudi regimes). The failure of much of the us Left to stand unambiguously for the right of self-determination has in too many cases allowed right-wing forces to assume to themselves the mantle of leadership in the struggle for national rights. The most recent case of this was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, about which much of the Left was ambiguous—or, worse, sided with the Soviet Union in the name of ‘progress’ against Islamic reaction. Unfortunately, of course, the Soviet invasion, as well as the apologies of much of the us Left for it, only helped solidify the association of national oppression with the Left, and the association of leadership in the struggle for national liberation with the Right, thereby strengthening the Islamic reactionaries throughout the region and discrediting the Left.
Of course, while conceding the odious nature of Saddam’s regime and its violation of democratic rights, the peace movement must go on to expose the extreme hypocrisy of the administration’s putatively moral justification for its war against Iraq. It can accomplish this by bringing out the sharp contrast between the Government’s ostensible concern with aggression and human rights in the case of Kuwait and the reality of its own past practice and that of its allies—especially toward Iraq itself. This is the way to begin to persuade a broader public of the systematically imperialist character of us foreign policy, and the unconcern of this policy for human rights where their assertion stands in the way of American interests.
That the us intervention has nothing to do with its stated aims of opposing tyranny and expansionism is most obvious from the very recent history of the usa’s relationship with Iraq itself. Right up to the day of its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq was a close ally of the United States. When Iraq first invaded Iran, the usa symptomatically failed to denounce its aggression, and simply called for negotiations to settle the outstanding differences between the parties. Somewhat later Ronald Reagan ordered the ‘tilt’ in the Middle East toward Iraq, and as a result the usa, as well as the other Western powers—along with the Soviet Union—gave Iraq massive material, especially military, aid throughout the 1980s. This aid was proffered despite the repressiveness of Saddam’s domestic rule, well-documented in the reports of international human-rights organizations. It was given, what’s more, despite the widely accepted fact that during this period the Iraqi regime was carrying out the mass murder of some 45,000 Kurds, a non-Arab national minority within its territory. Indeed, the us administration opposed the effort to pass an international resolution condemning Iraq for deploying chemical weapons against the Kurds, as well as against its external enemies. At the same time, the us State Department made sure to have Iraq removed from its list of ‘terrorist nations’.
The reason for this support for Iraq is obvious, and directly undercuts the argument that the usa is today fighting Iraq because it has carried out an unjust invasion. The United States backed Iraq precisely to support its unprovoked invasion of, and war against, the usa’s (then) hated enemy, Iran. The Iran–Iraq war dragged on for eight years, ending only in 1988. It involved Iraq’s extensive use of poison gas and vicious attacks against civilians. In total, the war brought over one million Iranian and Iraqi deaths. In its later stages the us Navy directly intervened in support of Iraq in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, us experts, while supplying Iraq with satellite intelligence photographs of Iran, were directly working with Saddam to implement the military strategy that allowed Iraq to stave off defeat in the war’s final stages. In addition, the us government went to great lengths to help Iraq secure private credit, notably by guaranteeing a loan of some $3 billion from the Banca Nazionale de Lavoro in Atlanta. Right up to the night of 2 August, us arms dealers were sending the most modern and lethal weaponry to Saddam, sanctioned and encouraged to do so by the us government.
The idea that the United States is worried about invasions, or stands in any vaguely principled way against authoritarian regimes and for human rights, or for the right of nations to self-determination, is a cruel joke, belied by the unending succession of direct armed interventions by the usa since World War II—in Greece, Korea, Guatemala, Iran, Lebanon, Cuba, Santo Domingo, Vietnam, Southern Africa, Grenada, Panama and so on. There is no point in discussing the recent history of us intervention in Central America; us support for death-squad regimes, which over the decade have killed some 50,000 in El Salvador, and perhaps 150,000 in Guatemala, as well as its ‘low intensity’ Contra war against Nicaragua, is all too notorious. Still, it may help further to place the war against Iraq in its proper context to point out that at virtually the same moment, in the middle of January, that the us government began its bombing of Baghdad in the name of freedom, it was releasing millions of dollars in aid to the effectively fascist Arena government in El Salvador. Nor is there reason to discuss at any length the outlaw invasion of Panama, which produced several thousand civilian casualties, or the mining of Managua harbour in Nicaragua—both condemned by the World Court. It may, however, be a useful exercise to note briefly in passing that the un General Assembly condemned the invasion of Panama as unlawful, and to imagine what the us reaction would have been had it been bombed by some third nation seeking to enforce the un resolution.