It's time for the Iraqis to cease their bloody sectarian rivalries, disband their ruthless militias and death squads and take responsibility for their country's fate. Why should American boys continue dying to save Iraqis from their own perverse selves?
It's a view expressed by all sides in the U.S. four years after the 2003 invasion. The problem is it shows no understanding of Iraq's nightmarish past and calamitous psychological present.
Take, for instance, the report of a group of Harvard medical researchers who found that the children of Iraq were "the most traumatized children of war ever described." The experts concluded that "a majority of Iraq's children would suffer from severe psychological problems throughout their lives." (Additional citations for this material are in my book, Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush.)
That appalling judgment was rendered not recently but sixteen years ago, in May 1991. Consider what Iraqis had already endured at that point: From September, 1980 to August, 1988 more than a million Iraqis and Iranians died in what was the longest war of the twentieth century. As that conflict raged, Saddam also launched his genocidal attacks against the Kurds --which Presidents Reagan and Bush Senior-then Saddam's de facto allies against Iran-did their best to ignore.
Next came Saddam's disastrous invasion of Kuwait in August 1990--there again the U.S. played a hand-followed by an abortive popular uprising against Saddam. That revolt, which George Bush pere had called for, ended with Saddam's slaughter of tens of thousands of Shiites--as U.S. troops stood by.
At the same time, the United Nations Security Council was implementing a Draconian embargo on all trade with Iraq. Indeed, when the Harvard study cited above was carried out, those sanctions had been in effect for only seven months. They cut off all trade between Iraq and the rest of the world. That meant everything, from food and electric generators to vaccines, hospital equipment--even medical journals. Since Iraq imported 70% of its food, and its principle revenues were derived from the export of petroleum, the sanctions had an immediate and catastrophic impact.
Enforced primarily by the United States and Great Britain, they remained in place for almost thirteen years and were in their own way a weapon of mass destruction far more deadly than anything Saddam had developed. Two U.N. administrators who oversaw humanitarian relief in Iraq during that period, and resigned in protest, consider the embargo to have been a "crime against humanity."
Early on it became evident that for the United States and England, the real objective of the sanctions was not the elimination of Saddam Hussein's WMD but of Saddam Hussein himself, though that goal went far beyond anything authorized by the Security Council. The effect of the sanctions was magnified by the wide-scale destruction of Iraq's infrastructure--power plants, sewage treatment facilities, telephone exchanges, irrigation systems-wrought by the air and rocket attacks preceding the war. Iraq's contaminated waters became a biological killer as lethal as anything Saddam had attempted to produce.
There were massive outbreaks of severe child and infant dysentery. Typhoid and cholera, which had been virtually eradicated in Iraq, also packed the hospital wards.
Added to that was a disastrous shortage of food, which meant malnutrition for some, starvation and death for others. At the same time, the medical system, once the country's pride, was careening towards total collapse. Iraq would soon have the worst child mortality rate of all 188 countries measured by UNICEF.
There is no question that U.S. planners knew what the awful impact of the sanctions would be. The health calamity was first predicted and then carefully tracked by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. Their first study was entitled "Iraq's Water Treatment Vulnerabilities."
Indeed, from the beginning the intent of U.S. officials was to create such a catastrophic situation that the people of Iraq--civilians but particularly the military--would be forced to react. As Dennis Halliday, the former U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, put it to me, "the U.S. theory behind the sanctions was that if you hurt the people of Iraq and kill the children particularly, they'll rise up with anger and overthrow Saddam."
But rather than weakening Saddam, the sanctions only consolidated his hold on power. The government's rationing system became vital to the survival of the people, even though it provided less than a third of a person's nutritional requirements. Iraqis were so obsessed with simply keeping their families alive that there was little interest or energy to plot the overthrow of one of the most ruthless dictatorships on the planet. "The people didn't hold Saddam responsible for their plight," Dennis Halliday said. "They blamed the US and the UN for these sanctions and the pain and anger that these sanctions brought to their lives."
By now it was clear that sanctions and the terrible sacrifices they were exacting from the people of Iraq would not rid the world of Saddam Hussein. But rather than ending the sanctions or modifying them to target those items truly crucial to building WMD, the Clinton administration continued the futile policy: decimating an entire nation in order to destroy one leader.
Neither for the first nor the last time, the people of Iraq were victims of failed U.S. policy.
The Oil for Food program which was introduced in 1996 and expanded over the following years was billed as a major humanitarian measure by the U.S. It allowed Iraq to sell unlimited amounts of petroleum to pay for vital imports, not just food. But Hans Von Sponeck, who also resigned his post as U.N. coordinator in Iraq, condemned the program as "a fig leaf for the international community."
The simple fact is that Iraq didn't have much petroleum to sell. The country's ability to pump oil had been crippled by the bombings and sanctions. Because of other restrictions imposed by the Security Council, only $28 billion actually arrived in Iraq. That had to cover not just food but all Iraq's imports. That amounted to $170 per person per year which, as one analyst pointed out, is less than one half the annual per capita income of Haiti, the most destitute nation of the Western Hemisphere.
There is no question that Saddam ripped off money during the sanctions regime to attempt to rebuild his military and support his family's lavish lifestyle, but that point hides the basic issue: Iraq's needs were enormous. Even if Saddam had invested everything he skimmed from the sanctions into rebuilding his country and feeding his people, those sums would have never prevented the colossal devastation that sanctions brought about.
Of course Saddam profited by smuggling petroleum to neighboring countries. But, according to the Volcker Commission set up to investigate charges of corruption under the sanctions regime, the great bulk of those illicit activities were known about--and accepted--by the U.S.-dominated Sanctions Committee. Because the other countries involved in the smuggling--Turkey, Jordan and Syria--had powerful allies on the Security Council, the delegates closed their eyes to what was going on.
By the time the sanctions were finally removed, May 22, 2003, after the U.S.-led invasion, an entire generation of Iraqis had been decimated by the failed policy. A Unicef study in 1999 concluded that half a million Iraqi children perished in the previous eight years because of the sanctions--and that was four years before they ended. Another American expert in 2003 estimated that the sanctions had killed between 343,900 to 529,000 young children and infants. The exact number will never be known. It was, however, certainly more young people than were ever killed by Saddam Hussein.
(In a statement right out of Orwell on March 27, 2003 Tony Blair actually cited the dramatic increase in infant mortality in Iraq to justify the invasion.)
Beyond the death and destruction of infrastructure, the sanctions had another, equally devastating, but less visible impact, as documented early in 1991 by the group of Harvard medical researchers. They reported that four out of five children interviewed were fearful of losing their families; two thirds doubted whether they themselves would survive to adulthood. The experts concluded that a majority of Iraq's children would suffer from severe psychological problems throughout their lives. "The trauma, the loss, the grief, the lack of prospects, the feeling of threat here and now, that it will all start again, the impact of the sanctions, make us ask if these children are not the most suffering child population on earth."
Those sanctions, we reemphasize, lasted for another 12 years after that study --terminating only with the American led invasion of Iraq which unleashed the current debacle.
It is that generation of "the most traumatized children of war ever described," who have come of age and been engulfed by the cataclysm that is Iraq today. It is they who--if they have not fled the country -also make up much of the insurgencies, the militias, the criminal gangs, the death squads. It is also they, as the new military and police commanders, bureaucrats and legislators, who are confronted with governing this anarchic land.
It is also they, as the months pass, who will be increasingly blamed--along with the Democrat controlled congress--for America's ultimate failure in Iraq.
Follow Barry Lando on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@barrylando