The YPG, FSA, US collaboration and “double standards”

(Cross-posted from here)

An increasingly popular point being made on the part of pro-FSA Tweeters is that anti-imperialists are hypocrites for embracing the YPG while maligning the FSA, despite the fact that both forces collaborate and receive aid from US forces in the region. This argument is intellectually dishonest for the following two reasons:

1.) Anti-imperialist commenters have expressed cynicism about the US’ assistance to the YPG by pointing out that it is only being done to co-opt the Syrian Kurds into the anti-Assad cause [1]. Indeed, Reuters reported a year ago that before granting them aid to fight ISIS the Western powers sought to “clarify [the Syrian Kurds’] relationship to President Bashar al-Assad” [2]. It is also perfectly reasonable to assume that the conditions attached to Western help would further compromise the PYD’s stated commitment to a progressive societal structure. One can’t help but be reminded of the US intervention in Haiti in the 1990s, in which the US military “restored” to power the progressive, democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide on the condition he abide by certain neo-liberal reforms and allow rightist thugs to be integrated into the country’s security forces [3]. It should be remembered that the US was behind much of Haiti’s right-wing unrest [4] and exploited the situation to get more progressive elements in line. There is a clear precedent for creating a proxy force and then using it to extract concessions while claiming to oppose said proxy force.

2.) The FSA is represented abroad by liberal and neoconservative expats with deep connections to both the “soft power” USAID/NED/NGO complex and the “hard power” Western defense and intelligence establishment [5]. In Syria itself, it is largely composed of reactionary Islamists who receive massive amounts of aid from the US, the Gulf States and Turkey [6]. While there are undoubtedly some activists and even armed rebels fighting Assad’s forces with noble goals in mind, it is increasingly difficult to find progressive elements at the forefront of the actual fighting. In addition to being reactionary, the FSA’s end goal of regime change in Syria serves US (and Israeli) goals by removing a relatively independent, militarily strong Arab government from power [7].

TL;DR: The US collaborates with the YPG because it hopes to co-opt it against Assad and possibly water down its progressive ideology. The US collaborates with the FSA because it is a somewhat reliable proxy army against a counter-hegemonic regime. Thus, the YPG can be supported by anti-imperialists in so far as it remains independent from US influence and designs while the FSA serves US power through-and-through.


[1] As’ad AbuKhalil, “Who will win in Kobane (`Ayn Al-`Arab)?” [m], 19 October 2014.

[2] Tom Perry, “West widens contacts with Syria’s Kurds but suspicion remains” [m], Reuters, 8 September 2014.

[3] For US coercion of Aristide into accepting neo-liberal adjustments see: William Blum, “Haiti, 1986-1994: Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” [m] in Killing Hope, 2004. For US collaboration with right-wing paramilitaries while occupying Haiti see: Allan Nairn, “Haiti under the gun: How US Intelligence has been excercising crowd control,” Nation, 8 Jan 1996. Also recommended is this entire Twitter thread I made.

[4] Blum, “Haiti, 1986-1994.” Tim Weiner, “Key Haiti leaders said to have been in the C.I.A.’s pay” [m], New York Times, 1 November 1993. Allan Nairn, “Occupation Haiti: The eagle is landing,” Nation, 3 Oct 1994. Allan Nairn, “Our man in FRAPH: Behind Haiti’s paramilitaries,” Nation, 24 Oct 1994.

[5] Charlie Skelton, “The Syrian opposition: who’s doing the talking?” [m], Guardian, 12 July 2012.

[6] David Mizner, “Don’t blame Islam: Al-Qaeda and ISIS are products of US and Saudi imperialism” [m], Jacobin, 30 January 2005.

[7] An early draft of a Pentagon planning document in the early 1990s spilled the beans on the US’ desire to “maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role,” quoted in: Patrick Tyler, “U.S. strategy plan calls for insuring no rivals develop” [m], New York Times, 8 March 2015. Recently, Israeli figures have been much more open in expressing the benefits of an Assad-free Middle East: Gilad Sharon, “Who needs Bashar Assad?” [m], YNet News, 12 May 2015. For evidence that Israel desires the Balkanization of its surrounding Arab states: Israel Shahak, The Zionist Plan for the Middle East [m], Association of Arab-American University Graduates, 1982.

Donald Trump’s ethnic cleansing proposal and the ongoing rise of First World chauvinism

This is a terrifying time in American history. While the US has always been an imperial power that has thrived on land theft and slavery domestically and exploitation and plunder globally, the general (white) population views it as a country that has historically been put upon. According to this view, the US is a shining city on a hill that is constantly under attack internally from subversive elements posing as social reformers and externally from multilateral institutions and NGOs posing as peace makers. The reality is that both of these internal and external “enemies” have generally been utterly benign or even helpful to the US imperial project. Many domestic social reformers have been utterly co-opted by elements of the US ruling class such as George Soros’ Open Society Institute and numerous other multi-billion dollar foundations. Internationally, the UN has served to legitimize US imperialism from the Korean War to the Persian Gulf War.

In the US, the chauvinist white right does not see it this way. Their perception of the US and the world it resides in is almost the polar opposite of reality. For example, the IMF has sometimes been viewed by this crowd as a project of international do-gooders which sends hard earned US tax dollars to hostile Third World nations, sometimes as part of a shadowy scheme to enact global socialism. The reality of the IMF’s role in impoverishing the Third World and enriching the First World through extortionate debt policies and neo-liberal structural adjustment is never acknowledged. So it is today, that American oligarch and presidential candidate Donald Trump derides NAFTA as a kind of handout to Mexicom rather than the exploitative arrangement between the ruling classes of the US and Mexico that it is.

Let us be perfectly clear about this: Trump does not give a fig about combating the worst ravages of neo-liberal globalism. He is a First World chauvinist who wants us to scapegoat NAFTA’s refugees rather than NAFTA itself. His popularity is a testament to the power of both liberal propaganda portraying the US as a benevolent force in the world and right-wing hate-mongering. The American right’s position is that the US should say “no more Mr. Nice Guy” and embrace ultra-nationalism without apology. Trump also views the Iraq War as a mistake, but mostly because we did not overtly seize its oilm.

The view is that everything would be much better if the US would stop being so damn generous. Obviously, this takes liberal assumptions about the US being generous at face value. This is why liberals share some of the blame for the rise of Trump and his brand of nationalism. They have helped to create a false narrative in which America only wants what’s best for the world and only creates suffering through unintentional blunders (usually only when a Republican is in office).

Let us take a look at Trump’s immigration proposalm (if it can even be called that). He calls on Mexico to pay for a massive barrier on its border with the US to stop the flow of unauthorized immigrants. This willingly ignores the fact that Mexico is already doing a lot of the heavy-lifting in stopping the flow of desperate refugees northwardsm, at great cost to itself and the humanitarian needs of those it detains. It also assumes that Obama has been willingly slacking off on detaining and deporting immigrants, which on its face is totally laughable.

Perhaps even more ominously, Trump calls for an end to birthright citizenship. Put together with his recent statementm that all undocumented immigrants and their (potentially US-born) children “have to go,” one can reasonably describe Trump’s proposal as an incitement to ethnic cleansing. Deporting all undocumented immigrants is bad enough. Americans don’t realize that many of them came to the US under desperate circumstances created by US imperialism and have endured massive amounts of exploitation and mistreatment as a direct result of their undocumented status. Many of them contributed greatly to America’s wealth and at the very least deserve a path to citizenship if not some form of reparation for underpaid wages. US policies towards Mexico and Central America are at the root of much of the unauthorized immigration into the US so it clearly has a moral responsibility to take into account the well-being the refugees it created.

Trump’s policies go even further than this. It would lead to a scenario in which people who were born in America and worked and lived in America for their entire existence would face detention and deportation. There is a clear example of this type of policy in the Dominican Republic at this very moment. In the DR, a 2013 court ruling “denied children of Haitian migrants their birth certificates, identity documents, and stripped them of their nationalitym.” Over the past couple months, the DR has engaged in a massive campaign of deportationsm of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent which has resulted in a predictable humanitarian crisism. Some US commentators have labeled this (correctly) a form of ethnic cleansingm. If the US were to start detaining and deporting US-born residents as “illegal immigrants” on a massive scale similar to what the DR is doing right now, or what the US itself did in the 1950sm, it should also be described as ethnic cleansing. What other phrase would be more accurate?

I’m sure some will tell me that using a phrase associated with some of the worst crimes against humanity in history to describe a “mere immigration enforcement” operation is beyond the pale. But what is actually beyond the pale is that Trump’s proposal for ethnic cleansing is so popular among the US population. It is an abomination that 6,000 human beings have suffered agonizing deaths while attempting to get into the US over the past two decades. Compounding this injury is the insult that the US is perceived as “coddling” undocumented immigrants when the opposite is the truth. A liberal reluctance to describe the Vietnam War as a campaign of mass murderm has opened space for right-wing revisionists to proclaim that the US military was too “soft” in that war and that the rules of engagement somehow hampered an easy victory. Let us not have the same hesitation. Ethnic cleansing is not a matter of “reasonable policy debate,” it is a war crime and should be discussed as such.

Wealthy whites want the feds to subsidize their segregated enclaves

A recent article from The Hill (“Obama making bid to diversify wealthy neighborhoods“) is setting off waves of predictable outrage across social media and the right-wing blogosphere. The article concerns a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rule scheduled to be released soon that will use federal grant money as an incentive to get certain municipalities to allow affordable housing in their communities. The article quotes Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) stating that the Obama administration “shouldn’t be holding hostage grant monies aimed at community improvement based on its unrealistic utopian ideas of what every community should resemble.” Anyone who has any knowledge of the federal government’s previous role in subsidizing predominantly white suburbs should find this line of reasoning to be particularly disingenuous. The fact is that if certain cities are really that resistant to changing their zoning regulations to allow for lower-income housing then why don’t they Go Galt and reject HUD grants altogether? I mean really, show us what that supposed economic self-sufficiency is all about.

Housing discrimination in the US has a long and sordid history, of course. The 1968 Fair Housing Act has been consistently sabotaged and under-enforced by both reactionaries like Nixon and liberals like Clinton. Upper-class whites still use intimidation, threats and violence to keep “undesirables” from living among them. One example of this can be found in the 95% white city of New Berlin, Wisconsin. Here’s how Courthouse News (27 June 2011) described it:

A Wisconsin city in the most segregated region in the nation buckled to racist pressure and shut down an affordable housing project, federal prosecutors say. New Berlin has no affordable housing for general occupancy or families – just for seniors – and truckled to fears that affordable housing would draw minorities to the city, which is 95 percent white, according to a Fair Housing complaint.

The city approved a 180-unit project, but “Immediately afterward, and over the next several weeks, city officials received numerous emails, calls, and other communications from residents of New Berlin, the large majority of whom voiced opposition to the … project. Some of the opposition was based in part on fear that the prospective tenants would be African American or minority. The Mayor, Aldermen, Plan Commissioners, and staff at DCD were aware that community opposition was based in part on race,” according to the complaint.

“The communications they received over several weeks contained express and implied racial terms that were derogatory and based on stereotypes of African American residents. These communications referenced ‘n****rs,’ ‘white flight,’ ‘crime,’ ‘drugs,’ ‘gangs,’ ‘families with 10 or 15 kids,’ of needing ‘to get a gun,’ of ‘slums,’ of not wanting New Berlin to turn into ‘Milwaukee,’ of moving to New Berlin ‘to get away from the poor people,’ of not wanting to provide housing to people ‘who work but do not live here.'”

New Berlin Mayor Jack Chiovatero initially supported the project, but was worn down by being called a “n****r lover,” having his property vandalized and a failed recall effort against him. The pressures upon Chiovatero were revealed in an email he sent to a friend, indicating that he condemned racism, but found himself surrounded by it.

According to the complaint, Chiovatero wrote: “I am a prisoner in my own home. I have spent several hours a day last week listening and replying to concerned citizens. … I was asked NOT to attend two functions this weekend for fear it would distract and cause havoc by my presence. Our City is filled with prejudice and bigoted people who with very few facts are making this project into something evil and degrading. … New Berlin is not ready, nor may never be, for a project like this. Unfortunately, I will be doing whatever is in my power to end this project, it will result in lawsuits and making New Berlin a community of bigots.”

It is worth noting that while lawsuits would be used in some of the most extreme cases, the tool of choice would still be a threat to deny cities HUD grants. One can’t help but wonder why so many of these reactionaries cheered on governors who turned down Medicaid funding but whine and moan about having local governments lose federal funds for their policy of keeping lower-income families and people of color out. Just kidding, it’s fairly obvious: Medicaid helps poor people while HUD subsidies to lily-white enclaves keep the American conservative dream alive.

The “warrior class” and our narrow national discourse surrounding the military

The LA Times has a moderately interesting piece today about the supposed “separation” of members of the US military and their families from the rest of the US population. The following points are made:

  • “Less than one-half of 1% of the U.S. population is in the armed services today–the lowest rate since World War II”
  • “As many as 80% of those who serve come from a family in which a parent or sibling is also in the military”
  • “[Service members and their families] often live in relative isolation — behind the gates of military installations such as Ft. Bragg or in the deeply military communities like Fayetteville, N.C., that surround them”
  • “49% of the 1.3 million active-duty service members in the U.S. are concentrated in just five states”

Some notable excerpts include the following:

“I am well-aware that many Americans, especially our elite classes, consider the military a bit like a guard dog,” said Lt. Col. Remi M. Hajjar, a professor of behavioral sciences and leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“They are very thankful for our protection, but they probably wouldn’t want to have it as a neighbor,” he said. “And they certainly are not going to influence or inspire their own kids to join that pack of Rottweilers to protect America.”

Yet only a 65-mile drive north of Ft. Bragg, in the college town of Carrboro near Durham, the military is a universe away. Many there have no connection save for the brief moment of gratitude and embarrassment they feel when they see a man in uniform at the airport, missing a leg.

“We glorify the military in this country in a way that’s really weird,” said Eric Harmeling, 21, a Carrboro-area resident who often argues with his father, a politically conservative minister, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s like the Roman legions…. It’s like we’re being told to kneel down and worship our heroes.”

“So many people give you lip service and offer fake sympathy. Their sons and daughters aren’t in the military, so it’s not their war. It’s something that happens to other people,” said Phillip Ruiz, 46, a former Army staff sergeant in Tennessee who was wounded twice during three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Douglas Pearce, a former Army lieutenant who fought in Afghanistan and is now a marriage and family counselor in Nashville, said civilians seem to think they “can assuage their guilt with five seconds in the airport.”

“What they’re saying is, ‘I’m glad you served so that I didn’t have to, and my kids won’t have to.'”

A 2013 survey by three West Point professors found that the estrangement between the military and civilian worlds is especially pronounced among young people. Many civilians born between 1980 and 2000 “want no part of military life and want it separate from civilian life,” according to sociologist Morten G. Ender, one of the study’s authors.

On the other side, military recruits in that age range had become “anti-civilian in some ways,” the survey found.

“I am irritated by the apathy, lack of patriotic fervor, and generally anti-military and anti-American sentiment” of other students, an unidentified 20-year-old ROTC cadet told the authors. “I often wonder if my forefathers were as filled with disgust and anger when they thought of the people they were fighting to protect as I am.”

So we are presented with a social divide between the supposed “warrior class” and the rest of us. We are presented with some of the same cliches about a civilian population that knows little about sacrifice and takes the men and women who fight on their behalf for granted. Yet the article overwhelmingly buys into the notion that the US military’s main focus is on defending “us”–the American people–and moral objections to going overseas to kill people in order to preserve American global dominance (which is the real reason for most US military expeditions these days) are non-existent.

If people object to the US military, the implication is that they are classicists of a sort. Deep down, all these weak-kneed liberals acknowledge the necessity of the US military but don’t feel any real connection to them or even look down upon them. I am sure that this is true in many cases. But the article neglects to give a voice to those who would identify the false premise underlying the entire spectacle of American Troop worship: that the military is primarily there to protect us. In the current global reality the American homeland is safer then it has ever been from any type of direct military assault. The military serves as a means of upholding a global system of capitalism in which the US has the last say. Regimes and political movements that fight for an alternative system of economic development are systematically isolated, sabotaged and assaulted (e.g. Vietnam, Cuba and Nicaragua) As we see now, even counter-hegemonic regimes and movements that do not pose a direct threat to global capitalism but to US dominance of global capitalism find themselves under attack as well (e.g. Iraq, Libya, Ukraine and Syria).

The article also totally ignores the suffering US military interventions induce on foreign populations and any related ethical dimensions to this. It doesn’t even acknowledge those inconvenient feelings of guilt US soldiers and veterans often have about killing and injuring people. It’s bad enough the article doesn’t address the ethical objections to starting and fighting US-waged wars, it’s inexcusable that it doesn’t even address the brutal means the US fights its wars.

Pieces like this are misleading in that they portray a cultural divide where there should be a moral one. I have no doubt there are liberal elitists who look down upon US soldiers for all the wrong reasons while benefiting from the US’ global dominance enabled by the military. But there are also those who recognize the US military as both the main tool for US-led imperialism and plunder and a killing machine that utilizes massive, brute force on behalf of US capital.

New development in Libya arms trafficking case

Last November I covered the story of Marc Turi, an arms dealer who was indicted for allegedly lying on his export license application. He is accused of declaring Qatar to be the “end user” of his weapons when he intended for them to end up in the hands of anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya. Turi’s defense has utilized the public authority defense, alleging that he was part of a covert operation to arm the Libyan rebels in 2011.

In a filing by Turi’s defense team from a couple of weeks ago requesting the disclosure of certain grand jury materials, an incident before the grand jury in which the prosecution silenced a retired CIA officer is cited. The retired officer, David Manners, served as the CIA’s station chief in both Prague, Czechoslovakia and Amman, Jordan. During his grand jury testimony on 2 July 2013, he “began to explain covert arms transfers to the grand jury, believing it to be germane to the Government’s line of questioning.” In his own words:

I was abruptly interrupted by the attorney for the United States who told me to stop speaking because I was not asked a question. Near the conclusion of my testimony, a member of the grand jury asked whether the United States Government, either directly or indirectly, supplied weapons to the Libyan Transitional National Council. I began answering the grand juror’s question affirmatively, but was again abruptly interrupted by the same Assistant United States Attorney who said something to the effect of “You don’t know that.” But I do “know that.” It was then, and remains now, my opinion that the United States did participate, directly or indirectly, in the supply of weapons to the Libyan Transitional National Council.

According to the defense’s filing, this conduct on the part of the prosecution may enable a dismissal of the indictment. It cites a case in which it was ruled that charges may be dismissed when “[prosecutorial] misconduct has significantly infringed upon the grand jury’s ability to exercise its independent judgment.”

The case may appear bizarre since the US government seemingly has little incentive to railroad its own covert arms dealers. But when read in context with a New York Times article from 5 December 2012:

Mr. Turi said he believed that United States officials had shut down his proposed arms pipeline because he was getting in the way of the Obama administration’s dealings with Qatar. The Qataris, he complained, imposed no controls on who got the weapons. “They just handed them out like candy,” he said.

Beyond the neocons: Those assigning blame for Iraq War must consider role played by liberal multilateralists and realists

For many who look with horror at the carnage visited upon Iraq since the US invasion in March 2003, there seems to be a fixation on neoconservatives that often times appears deflective. Of course, it is perfectly reasonable to look at the role played by neoconservative ideology and its promotion of unilateral military action against purported “rogue states” and agitation to unparalleled US domination of global affairs. At the same time, the resulting analysis should not obscure or minimize the role played by other prominent ideologies among the US diplomatic establishment in greasing the skids for the US invasion.

The Blame The Neocons Only narrative tends to focus on a cabal-like group of figureheads who are commonly associated with the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Individuals who would later go on to serve high positions in the administration that invaded Iraq–such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton–all signed an open letter to President Clinton on behalf of PNAC that urged a harder line against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Focusing on these groups and individuals is useful when determining why the administration of George W. Bush felt it had the right to launch a full-scale military invasion of Iraq explicitly against the wishes of the UN and many of the US’ largest allies. What it fails to fully account for is the reason relations with Iraq had deteriorated so severely that regime change through overwhelming unilateral force was even a consideration, let alone a preferred course of action.

The administration of George HW Bush was overwhelmingly realist in its orientation towards foreign policy. In its approach to Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait, it made much fanfare of its  multilateralism in building a large coalition and seeking UN approval for military action. In Bush’s January 1991 national address announcing the start of the Persian Gulf War, he declared that: “we have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a new world order–a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations […] an order in which a credible United Nations can use its peacekeeping role to fulfill the promise and vision of the U.N.’s founders.” Such an appeal to international cooperation makes it easy to contrast his presidency favorably with that of his son. But it would be incredibly misleading to suggest that his administration’s policy towards Saddam Hussein’s regime–before and after the Gulf War–was based on international consensus. In word and deed, the presidency of Bush 41 planted the seeds for Bush 43’s invasion.

Consider the fact that Saddam Hussein’s numerous offers of a conditional withdraw from Kuwait were immediately rebuffed or ignored. The official stance of the US following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was that it would be unacceptable if Hussein managed to gain “even a scintilla of profit–a Kuwaiti island or minor border adjustments” from the crisis. The US also rejected any role fellow Arab states could play in mediating the dispute between the Iraqi regime and Kuwait’s rulers. The Bush administration stubbornly refused Saddam Hussein any “face-saving way of getting out of Kuwait” up to the time the first bombs fell.

As William Blum has pointed out, Iraq had very real grievances against Kuwait and other Gulf monarchies:

[The Gulf War] had its origins in the brutal 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran.  Iraq charged that while it was locked in battle, Kuwait was engaged in stealing $2.4 billion of oil from the Rumaila oil field that ran beneath the vaguely-defined Iraq-Kuwait border and was claimed in its entirety by Iraq; that Kuwait had built military and other structures on Iraqi territory; and worst of all, that immediately after the war ended, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates began to exceed the production quotas established by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), flooding the oil market, and driving prices down.  Iraq was heavily strapped and deeply in debt because of the long war, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein declared this policy was an increasing threat to his country – “economic war”, he called it, pointing out that Iraq lost a billion dollars a year for each drop of one dollar in the oil price. Besides compensation for these losses, Hussein insisted on possession of the two Gulf islands which blocked Iraq’s access to the Gulf as well as undisputed ownership of the Rumaila oilfield.

Career US diplomat James Atkins has gone as far as saying that “our nightmare in the last days was that Saddam would withdraw, then we wouldn’t be able to go forward with our grand plans to destroy Iraq and the infrastructure.” Fortunately for the US military establishment, Iraqi forces remained in Kuwait past the deadline set by the UN Security Council and the US could proceed to destroy Iraq’s military and civilian infrastructure without reproach.

The Persian Gulf War succeeded in forcing Iraqi forces to leave Kuwait and also in decimating Iraq’s highly advanced civilian infrastructure. A report by a UN fact-finding mission from March 1991 stated plainly that “nothing that we had seen or read had quite prepared us for the particular form of devastation which has now befallen the country” and that the “near-apocalyptic results” of the war had sent Iraq into a “pre-industrial age.” The war aggravated the problems caused by comprehensive UN sanctions, which were previously imposed following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

The report noted that the price of basic goods skyrocketed by 1,000% and that government provided rations were running desperately low. Since Iraq had typically imported about 70% of its food needs, the sanctions had an extremely detrimental effect on civilian population’s ability to get adequate nutrition. Domestic food production through agriculture and livestock were further degraded. Farmers were dependent on imports of seeds and multiple seed storage facilities were destroyed during the war. Similarly, livestock had been dependent on imports for feed and the war apparently destroyed Iraq’s “sole laboratory producing veterinary vaccines.”

The US bombing campaign also damaged 17 out of 20 of the country’s electric power plants, with 11 of them being rendered irreparable. Even four months after the war ended, Iraq was producing only 20% to 25% of its pre-war electrical output. This in turn deeply compromised Iraq’s ability to purify and distribute its drinking water, treat its sewage and refrigerate its food. The UN report estimated at the time that the supply of clean water in Baghdad per person was about 10% of what it had been previously. Without operable sewage plants, Iraqis had no choice but to start dumping raw sewage into their rivers, effectively polluting their main source of drinking water.

The immediate, cumulative effect of the draconian sanctions and the US aerial campaign against Iraq’s infrastructure was indeed nothing short of catastrophic. A Harvard University medical study team estimated that 170,000 Iraqi children would die by the end of 1991 due to US policy. The study cited increased epidemics of ” gastroenteritis, cholera and typhoid” as among the chief causes of death.

The Washington Post revealed months later that inducing massive suffering among Iraq’s civilian population was an intentional strategy of collective punishment. By targeting electric power plants, transportation infrastructure, water utilities and food storage facilities, the US hoped to put pressure on Iraqi civilians since it believed they were at least partially complicit in the invasion of Kuwait.  One senior Air Force officer told the Post that “The definition of innocents gets to be a little bit unclear […] they do live there, and ultimately the people have some control over what goes on in their country.” Another Air Force officer claimed that the targeting of civilian infrastructure was done to “accelerate the effects of the sanctions.”

Further evidence that the US foresaw the humanitarian crisis in Iraq can be found in a Defense Intelligence Agency document from January 1991 entitled “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities”:

Iraq depends on importing-specialized equipment–and some chemicals to purify its water supply, most of which is heavily mineralized and frequently brackish to saline. With no domestic sources of both water treatment replacement parts and some essential chemicals, Iraq will continue attempts to circumvent [UN] sanctions to import these vital commodities. Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease.

Many argue that all Iraq needed to do to get the sanctions lifted was cooperate fully with UN weapons inspections and destroy all of its remaining WMD. However, public statements from a couple months after the war make it clear that the US wanted to keep the sanctions squeeze on the Iraqi people as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power:

  • Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates, May 7: “Saddam is discredited and cannot be redeemed. His leadership will never be accepted by the world community and, therefore, Iraqis will pay the price while he remains in power. […] All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone. […] Any easing of sanctions will be considered only when there is a new government.”
  • State Department Deputy Spokesman Richard Boucher, May 8: “There will be no normal relationships with the United States or many other countries by Iraq as long as Saddam is in power. The President said the sanctions are going to stay there as far as we are concerned.”
  • President Bush, May 20: “My view is we don’t want to lift these sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power.”
  • Secretary of State James Baker, May 22: “We can have a formal cease-fire but no genuine peace with the government of Iraq so long as Saddam Hussein remains in power. […] We will never normalize relations with Iraq so long as Saddam Hussein remains in power.  That means maintaining UN sanctions in place so long as Saddam remains in power.”
  • President Bush, September 23: “It is the United States view that we must keep the United Nations sanctions in place as long as [Saddam Hussein] remains in power.”

In pursuing this policy of permanent hostility to Hussein’s regime, the US denied it any real incentive to fully comply with UN weapons inspections. Saddam Hussein’s intransigence thus became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Just before entering the office of the presidency, Bill Clinton made a statement suggesting that some form of reconciliation with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a possibility:

I am a Baptist. I believe in death-bed conversions. If he [Hussein] wants a different relationship with the United States and the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behavior.

The very next day he appeared to move away from this position at a news conference in a confusing and contradictory statement. He asserted on the one hand that “I will evaluate what I do based on his conduct” but in the very next sentence stated that “I have no intention of normalizing relations with him.”

Much of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy was marked by a facade of nuance and smart diplomacy, its policy towards Iraq was no different. At the United Nations, his administration continued blocking exemptions from the sanctions needed to repair Iraq’s devastated infrastructure and allow its people to be provided with the basic necessities of life. This was much to the annoyance of other members of the UN Security Council, such as France, China and Russia. In fact, because the sanctions imposed by the Security Council had no end date, they would go on until the council approved of yet another resolution explicitly lifting them. Since the US, as a permanent member of the Security Council, could utilize its veto power to block any resolution from going forward, lifting the sanctions was rendered impossible as long as the US objected to it. This became known as the “reverse veto.”

In March 1997, Madeleine Albright rather bluntly restated US policy: “we do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted.” She also engaged in further self-fulfilling prophecy by saying that “the evidence is overwhelming that Saddam Hussein’s intentions will never be peaceful.” Albright would later note half-heartedly that the regime change policy “appeared” to interfere with Iraq’s motivation to fully cooperate with the UN. In November 1997, after Iraq briefly ejected UN weapons inspectors, Clinton said “what he has just done is to ensure that the sanctions will be there until the end of time or as long as he lasts.”

In late 1998, US Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act with bipartisan support and President Clinton signed it into law on October 31. The law further dedicated the US to the cause of regime change in Iraq and authorized funding for opposition groups opposed to Saddam Hussein’s rule. On December 19, Clinton declared that “so long as Saddam remains in power he will remain a threat to his people, his region and the world.”

In a February 2004 article for Mother Jones, Seth Ackerman elaborated how many of the false and misleading WMD claims offered by George W. Bush’s administration originated in the Clinton administration to justify the sanctions policy. Ackerman recalled a speech given by Clinton in 1998 that utilized the story of Hussein Kamel, son-in-law of Saddam Hussein and government defector who claimed to the UN and the CIA that Iraq was “cheating” the weapons inspectors, to justify his claim that “Iraq still has stockpiles of chemical and biological munitions.” It was not until early 2003 that some long suppressed–yet incredibly important–details in the transcript of Kamel’s interview with Western intelligence agencies and UN inspectors appeared in a short story by Newsweek‘s John Barry. In the transcript, Kamel stated that “all weapons–biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed” in the summer following the Gulf War. An August 1995 CIA report (declassified in redacted form in 1996) reiterated some of his claims, making it clear that the Clinton administration must have been aware of all his claims. While Kamel also stated that this destruction was for the purpose of duping UN inspectors so that Iraq could resume its WMD program later on, it is perfectly clear that the Clinton administration was incredibly deceptive by selectively revealing Kamel’s assertions to the US public. As Ackerman described it:

As of 1995, Iraq was left with practically nothing from its past programs. Virtually all its old dual-use equipment was now under U.N. monitoring, and, as Kamel told the U.N., the regime’s WMD stockpiles were destroyed. While Iraq could not be declared officially “disarmed” until the inspectors had accounted for every detail of its byzantine prewar weapons programs, in practice even the most hawkish inspectors admitted that once the monitoring system was up and running, Iraq lost its entire ability to rebuild the arsenal that it had destroyed in 1991.

Ultimately, US “containment” policy through sanctions ended up killing an estimated 1.7 million Iraqis. By accepting this “price” as worthy of being paid (in the terminology of Robert Gates and Madeleine Albright) in the name of thwarting Saddam, sanctions advocates casually legitimized the reasoning neoconservatives would later use to justify civilian deaths caused by the US invasion and occupation. By repeatedly demonizing Saddam Hussein as an irrational actor who only understood the logic of massive force, they paved the way for neoconservatives to assert that only a US invasion could end his purported threat to world peace.

In the months after the US invaded Iraq and the search for WMDs came up dry, it is perhaps warranted that pro-war conservatives began circulating quotes from prominent Democrats vilifying Iraq’s government and calling for various actions against it, even if none of them explicitly endorsed the massive US invasion that took place or the unilateral means by which the Bush administration waged it.

In conclusion, it is deceptive to portray many of the same figures who led the charge for regime change in Iraq as favorable contrasts to the neoconservatives. Robert “Iraqis will pay the price” Gates is today seen as a clear-eyed non-partisan, James “so long as Saddam Hussein remains in power” Baker a wise old realist and Madeleine “we think the price is worth it” Albright a smart multilateralist. Yet all three of these individuals were willing to commit the US to a stubborn policy of regime change that costed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and eventually enabled the the neocons to realize their dream of a unilateral invasion.

As the US moves into another presidential election season, questions will inevitably raised about Hillary Clinton’s vote as Senator to authorize George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. I posit that such concerns, while valid and necessary, are only superficial without a much deeper look at the imperialist rot that rests deep within US political culture. It is not enough to object to the US directly invading Iraq without UN approval. We must be willing to ask why the US feels the need to impose its will on Third World countries, even when it does so without overtly violating international norms.