Social Action:
The Crisis Over Iraq
Guest editorial by Gerald Mercer.


This editorial was printed in the February 2003 edition of Social Action.
Reproduced by permission.
The Crisis Over Iraq.As Social Action goes to press, military action by the United States and its allies is likely late in March if Saddam Hussein fails to comply with United Nations resolutions to disarm.
In 1999, the 19 nations of NATO, led by the US, used military force to end the "ethnic cleansing" of the province of Kosovo by Serbian forces. Serb forces withdrew, ultimately Slobodan Milosovic, Yugoslavia's president, was brought before an international court, Yugoslavia has a new government and Kosovo is now under UN administration. NATO had gone to the assistance of Kosovo's Muslims, primarily for humanitarian reasons, and its actions did not have the sanction of the UN.
That recent example should be borne in mind in examining the present crisis over Iraq, although obviously the two cases differ. After the Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi forces which had invaded Kuwait were ejected by an international coalition led by the US, but there was no march on Baghdad. However, Saddam Hussein's regime was required to disarm, and give up its biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs. UN inspections were begun to supervise that process, and no less than 17 binding UN resolutions have been passed requiring Iraq to comply.
The process of disarmament, which in 1991 was expected to take only a short time, is still incomplete. In 1998 Iraq expelled the inspectors. They have now returned, but only under the real threat of military force by Britain and the US.
Ask yourself the question, why has Saddam Hussein refused disarmament, when compliance would have meant the end of the sanctions regime that impoverishes his people? Instead of a quiet life, he has chosen to refuse. It is reasonable to conclude he wishes to use the weapons, perhaps against his own people (which he has done before), perhaps against neighbours, perhaps to assist terrorists. The ultimate responsibility for this crisis lies with him.
Two broad choicesThe current debate about Iraq revolves around two broad choices. One is to use military force, or the threat of force, to disarm Iraq and to remove Saddam Hussein's regime. The other is to attempt to resolve the issue by diplomacy. Many who advocate this view point to the superior morality of peaceful resolution. On the other side of the argument, some American rhetoric has been coloured with phrases of moral righteousness. None of this, from either side, is helpful.
For moral certainties are rather hard to find. Neither choice is wholly good, nor wholly bad. Both involve serious consequences, and both are risky. The problem is to determine the least bad of the two. On making this assessment, people of goodwill will differ.
The case against military action would be more persuasive if its advocates could suggest some practical way of getting Saddam & Co to stand down. But everything seems to have been tried, including an offer of safe haven in another country. Meanwhile, the no-war policy has at least three major consequences. It condemns the Iraqi people to further suffering under Saddam's regime. It increases the problem of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And it seriously increases the threats to world peace.
The case for military action is being argued in the UN on the grounds of Saddam's failure to comply with a series of resolutions to disarm, over a period of twelve years. There are other issues worth considering.
From the humanitarian point of view, the choice is not between peace and war, for peace does not exist in Iraq, a violent society run by a despotic regime. Saddam Hussein is estimated to be responsible for the deaths of between 1.2 and 1.5 million people, in war or repression. Four million Iraqis are in exile. Around 1.3 million serve in the security forces, the police and the military. The first group include state-sanctioned rapists, the job description being "violators of women's honour". Others torture children to reveal their parents' opposition to the regime. This is a regime that has used poison gas against its own people.
The risks of military action include the risk that Hussein will respond with weapons of mass destruction. There is also the possibility that civilians will be deliberately placed in harm's way by the regime. But a successful outcome will relieve death and suffering, and conceivably create a just peace. Given the disparity in military strength, it is probable that the military action will be brief. But there is no certainty of that. In the aftermath, there is plenty of room for concern about the US plans for reconstructing the country, given that it has left many things undone in Afghanistan.
Weapons proliferationSince the end of the Cold War, the US in co-operation with Russia, has acted in a number of ways to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world. Both the US and Russia have reduced the numbers in their respective arsenals. And the US has offered assistance to Russia, and other states of the former Soviet Union, to help secure weapons, nuclear and chemical material, and to re-employ in peaceful work scientists formerly engaged in weapons production.
This work to help secure peace, is largely unpublicised. It now has the financial support of Japan and a number of European nations. But not all the weapons, or the material for weapons, or the scientists can be said to be secure, and a lot more work needs to be done to keep them out of the hands of irresponsible regimes (rogue states) or terrorists. That puts Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in context. But if the world community cannot make Iraq comply, then the chances of keeping WMDs from Iraq or elsewhere out of irresponsible hands become that much harder.
Messianic terrorist groups, of which al-Qaeda is the most important, have been around for a decade or so, and have demonstrated their capacity for the mass murder of innocent people. In his evidence to the UN Security Council, US Secretary of State Colin Powell demonstrated a current connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq, although it didn't seem to qualify as a reason for military action. No one can say that Hussein will not give WMDs to a terrorist group in future. But so far, he does not appear to have done so.
Strategic reasonsIraq does not exist in a vacuum. Its neighbours include Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which detest Saddam. Both countries have poor records on human rights, but nothing like the scale of Iraq.
Saudi Arabia is the home of the Wahhabi sect of Islam which is the main ideological basis for Islamic extremists. Money from individuals and groups within Saudi Arabia has been used to fund terrorism. Under pressure from the US, the Saudi authorities are now moving to staunch the flow of money. They are also said to be considering some form of democracy at local levels of society. What can be done about Wahhabi ideology is a problem for Islam, and a huge problem at that.
In Iran, there is tension between the reformers, with the support of student demonstrators, and the conservative mullahs. Iran is a major sponsor of Middle East terrorism, yet there are signs that it is moving towards some accommodation with the West.
Now suppose that the US and its allies back down: they decline to liberate the people of Iraq and destroy Hussein's WMDs. It will be immediately apparent that the world's super power is lacking in resolve and credibility. What will Saddam Hussein do then? And what conclusions will be drawn by the Saudi royal family, and the mullahs of Iran?
And last but by no means least, what effect will this have in North Korea, where the bizarre Stalinist regime of Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader, suddenly threatens South Korea and Japan, with possible nuclear weapons, and certain conventional ones?
The recent admission by North Korea that it has violated the 1994 nuclear agreements is a worrying development. The resolution of the North Korean problem, hopefully by peaceful means, depends on many things, including the attitude of China and Russia, who retain some influence there. But the central factor is the credibility of the US. North Korea has made its own contribution to the witches' brew of the Middle East, selling missile technology to a number of countries, including Iran. It has sponsored terrorist attacks against South Korea and Japan.
If America shows that it has the determination to disarm Iraq, then North Korea is also obliged to consider that it too, could face the military power of the US. That may bring it to the negotiating table.
The phrase "axis of evil", linking Iraq, Iran and North Korea, probably overstated the case. But what happens in Iraq will influence the outcome in North Korea.

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Copyright 2003 Gerald Mercer, Social Action