By Rahul Mahajan
After five years spent working to end the sanctions on Iraq, I find
myself in an odd position. I'm opposed to the current U.S. plans to
end the sanctions.
The new situation is fascinating. For a dozen years, every time we
in the anti-sanctions movement talked about the suffering caused by
the sanctions (well over 500,000 children under the age of five dead
and a society in ruins), the constant refrain from the Bush
administration, the Clinton administration, and the Bush
administration -- was that the suffering was not caused by sanctions
but by the regime. Once the regime is destroyed, miraculously, the
Bush administration realizes overnight that sanctions were actually
harmful and that it's necessary to remove that burden from the Iraqi
people in order to provide humanitarian aid and reconstruction.
Adding to the confusion, the two countries on the Security Council
previously most against continuation of the sanctions, France and
Russia, did an about-face and opposed the U.S. plans. Both
(especially Russia) have insisted that sanctions cannot be lifted
until U.N. weapons inspectors certify that Iraq is disarmed of
weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This is true even though Vladimir
Putin of Russia openly mocked Tony Blair about the dramatically
unconfirmed claims by "coalition" members that Iraq possessed WMD
that posed a threat to the world.
Did this administration, which tried to keep Iraqi infants from
being vaccinated for diphtheria and limited imports of streptomycin
into the country, see a blinding light on the road to Baghdad? And
did other countries suddenly decide that the deaths of Iraqi
children was, as Madeleine Albright put it in an interview in 1996,
a price worth paying and this time merely in order to uphold a
trivial legalistic argument?
Actually, it's not so confusing. The United States has moved to
consolidate control over Iraq. The talks being held by selected
members of the "Iraqi opposition" under the control of the U.S.
military are not intended to create an independent government, but
rather one which is tightly controlled by the United States just as
in Afghanistan. As in Afghanistan, the meetings are excluding entire
segments of the political spectrum. They are being done with express
disregard of calls across that spectrum for meetings to be held
under neutral U.N. auspices rather than under those of an occupying
power with clear plans for increased regional domination.
Those plans have become clear as well. The Bush administration wants
to set up permanent military bases in Iraq, making it the main
Middle East staging area for U.S. "force projection." The massive
political leverage given by this presence will be used as a club
against Iran and Syria and also to force the Palestinians to
acquiesce to the Israeli occupation through the latest "peace plan."
The administration also wants not only to open up future Iraqi
exploration to foreign corporations (with U.S. and maybe British
corporations presumably favored) but to privatize, at least in part,
the state oil companies and their currently producing wells.
All of these things can be obtained through the U.S. military
presence and the creation of what will essentially be an Iraqi
puppet government. However, some problems are the kind that can't be
solved by bombs. Existing U.N. resolutions require Security Council
approval for Iraqi oil sales and for disbursement of oil money to
pay for other goods. Other countries may be leery of buying Iraqi
oil without some clear understanding that what they're doing is
legal, so the United States cannot simply declare those resolutions
void by fiat, the way it declared war on Iraq.
The draft resolution being currently circulated would give the
United States very open, explicit control over Iraq's oil industry
and the money derived therefrom. Then, instead of being forced to
disburse USAID funds to corporations like Bechtel that are closely
tied to current and past administration figures in closed bidding
processes with no foreign corporations allowed, the United States
will be able to use Iraq's money to pay off mostly American
corporations. In the process, it will try to escape the legal
obligation it shares with the United Kingdom: since they committed
an illegal aggressive war (with no Security Council authorization)
against Iraq, they are financially responsible for the
reconstruction. Iraq should not have to pay for its own
reconstruction, especially since for years to come its oil revenues
will be barely enough to meet the basic needs of its people.
This fundamental violation of the rights of the Iraqi people is
being done in the name of the immediate crisis faced. Yet the way
that the sanctions work is not the way they used to. Most imports
are automatically approved without any requirement for deliberation
by the Sanctions Committee. Furthermore, the biggest bureaucratic
delays were created by deliberate U.S. understaffing, so that there
were never enough people to review all the proposed contracts (see
Joy Gordon's article "Cool War: Economic Sanctions as a Weapon of
Mass Destruction, Harper's, November 2002). Finally, all members of
the Security Council have indicated willingness to cooperate in
expediting the release of all goods required for immediate needs. In
the long run, the sanctions must be lifted because they impose a
highly inefficient foreign control of the Iraqi economy, causing the
collapse of local economic activity and requiring money that should
be spent internally to be spent on foreign corporations; in the
short run, there is no compelling reason to lift them in the absence
of a legitimate Iraqi government that has the right to make choices
about how Iraq's oil wealth is to be used for the benefit of the
Iraqi people, not for U.S. corporate boondoggles and plans for
military-based political domination.
France and Russia are opposing this move (France rather weakly), not
because of any genuine concern about WMD, but for two reasons.
First, the venal one: they don't want to be completely shut out of
any lucrative postwar contracts and certainly want to hang on to oil
concession deals signed with the previous Iraqi regime. Second, a
reason that activists in the United States and elsewhere should
support fully: they don't want to retroactively legitimize U.S.
aggression and thus contribute further to its more and more openly
imperial role in the world.
In fact, overt subordination of the United Nations to the United
States is a central part of the Bush administration agenda. It has
served notice that the U.N. has no role in anything "important" not
in weapons inspections, in the Iraqi political process, in major
reconstruction decisions, nor in peacekeeping (where a multinational
"coalition of the willing" is being assembled). Instead, as George
Bush said, the "vital role" of the U.N. is easily defined: "That
means food. That means medicine. That means aid." Or, as Richard
Perle said even more openly, in an op-ed shortly after the war began
titled "Thank God for the death of the U.N.," "The 'good works' part
will survive, the low-risk peacekeeping bureaucracies will remain,
the chatterbox on the Hudson will continue to bleat." No longer
content with a system where nominally the U.N. is the ultimate
authority but the United States dominates it by coercion and
bribery, the Bush administration wants explicit recognition that the
U.N. should play only the roles allowed to it by the United States.
An example from history helps to illuminate the fundamental
principle regarding the sanctions. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in
August 1990, one of the first things it did was try to set up a
puppet regime composed of Kuwaitis to rule the country as a
satellite of Iraq. It would actually have withdrawn most of its army
had that regime gotten any international recognition. Instead, the
sanctions that were levied at U.S. insistence embargoed not only
Iraq's oil sales but Kuwait's. Kuwaiti oil was not to be sold so
that an illegitimate regime could not plunder Kuwait's oil wealth
for the benefit of the Iraqi government. Those sanctions were
indefensible for reasons that don't apply today, including the
almost complete termination of food imports into Iraq (although food
was technically allowed under UN Security Council Resolution 666, in
practice virtually none got in). The principle, however, was sound.
Today, the United States is willing to (partially) withdraw after it
installs its own puppet regime (one that will presumably have more
independence than the one Iraq tried to install, but will still be
subservient to U.S. dictates). It also wants to plunder Iraq's oil
wealth for its own political purposes and for the benefit of U.S.
corporations. This is reason enough to keep the sanctions on until
there is a legitimate Iraqi government. This can only happen if U.S.
and other "coalition" forces withdraw, there is a multinational U.N.
peacekeeping force with no participation from any of the aggressor
nations, and the Iraqis are given a genuine chance to exercise their
right to self-determination.
Rahul Mahajan is a founding member of the Nowar Collective. His
latest book is "Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and
Palace Being Renovated for U.S. Occupation,
May 9, 2003
["Washington and London sent a letter to the council president
recognizing their responsibilities and obligations under
international law 'as occupying powers.'
"Under the proposal, the 12-month initial authorisation would be
automatically renewed unless the Security Council decided otherwise.
Since the United States and Britain have veto power in the council,
they could block any attempt to get them to leave Iraq . . ."--"US and Britain seek to limit UN role in Iraq,"
Associated Press, May 9, 2003]