In his remarks to the United Nations on September 12, President Bush stated “the United States has no quarrel with the Iraqi people; they’ve suffered too long in silent captivity. Liberty for the Iraqi people is a great moral cause, and a great strategic goal. The people of Iraq deserve it.” These comments echoed those of his father during the build up to the 1991 Gulf War: “We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people.”
Considering the carnage that the elder President Bush visited upon the Iraqi people (at least 200,000 Iraqis killed, a statistic rife with ambiguity given then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell’s statement that “It’s really not a number I’m terribly interested in”); the hundreds of thousands more Iraqis (mostly children and the elderly) killed by US/UK-led UN sanctions and bombing during the “liberal” Clinton Administration; and the utter indifference in the present Bush Administration to the mass murder that the proposed expansion of war against Iraq will be, one is hard-pressed to imagine what the US government would do if they did have a quarrel with the Iraqi people.
We may not have to imagine this antipathy if we see more articles like “In Iraq, All Sanctions, All the Time,” that appeared on page three of the January 6 Los Angeles Times. Writer Sergei L. Loiko gave me what Michael Parenti terms a “media moment”: much like a “senior moment” (the self-styled memory lapses of older persons), a media moment comes when you cannot believe that what you are reading passes for news. “Your mind does not go blank,” argues Parenti, “you simply wish it would.”
The subtitle to Loiko’s piece immediately set off alarms. “Many blame the restrictions for anything wrong. And while basic needs go unmet, mosques are springing up.” The obvious thesis here is that there is plenty of money in Iraq, but people there are more willing to blame the sanctions than the spendthrift Iraqi government. It’s curious, then, that Loiko actually blames sanctions for having “badly hit living standards in Iraq.” (A UN report, released in March 1991, calling for an immediate end to the sanctions regime, termed the situation in Iraq “near-apocalyptic.” If that seems a far cry from “badly hit living standards,” well, there’s your media moment.) Loiko then goes on to write, “Everyone here talks about sanctions all the time. Their impact is used to explain almost everything.” As the sanctions maintain a near-apocalyptic situation, it would seem reasonable that people blame the sanctions for “almost everything.”
Oddly, then, Loiko builds a case that makes the alleged hoarding of funds by the Iraqi regime irrelevant. “On Dec. 30, the U.N. Security Council approved even tighter controls on Iraqi imports, including limits on doses of antibiotics that the United States and Britain say could be used to protect Iraqi troops in a war. . . . Experts believe that newly restricted antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin_sold as Cipro in the United States_could make Iraqi troops relatively safe from the effects of anthrax if administered in large doses. Atropine, a drug prescribed for cardiac treatment, could help protect soldiers if President Saddam Hussein’s regime used nerve gases in battle.” These “tightened controls” are more commonly referred to as “dual use” restrictions. The US does not permit for sale to Iraq anything that can conceivably be used for chemical or biological weapons. In the past, the US has gone out of its way to deny contracts to Iraq for items such as refrigerated trucks for the transport of food and medicine, chlorine for the purification of putrid water, and even pencils for schoolchildren. Iraq’s drinking water system, which was purposely destroyed by the United States during the 1991 Gulf War (see Thomas J. Nagy’s article “The Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq’s Water Supply,” The Progressive, August 2001, <http://www.progressive.org/0801issue/nagy0901.html>), cannot be repaired because of “dual use” restrictions. How fitting that the same country that destroyed the water system is the same one that refuses to allow the Iraqis to repair it. Thus, “funding” is not the issue when it comes to these restricted humanitarian goods; US obstructionism is.
Going further, Loiko would have us believe that the Iraqi people could fix their infrastructure, but prefer “luxuries” to such frivolous items as clean drinking water. Loiko implies that Iraqi complaints about the depredations of the sanctions regime are nothing more than disingenuous whining. Loiko’s proof of this empty sentiment? Hussein’s regime is building a number of new mosques. “But somehow, even under the sanctions, money and materials have been available for the construction of mosques.” Let us put aside the issue of “money” being available, as Loiko himself has graciously shown this point to be irrelevant. The notion of “materials” being available is not much harder to disabuse. If we are to accept Loiko’s contention at face value, then yes, there are materials available for the construction of buildings, specifically mosques. This would only be a sign of Hussein’s indifference to the suffering of the Iraqi people if housing construction were a dire need. It is not. A friend who has traveled to Iraq has told me that, of all the humanitarian problems faced by the Iraqis in their near-apocalyptic circumstances, lack of housing is not one of them. It is difficult to discern how, if at all, Loiko thinks the materials used in mosque-building could better be utilized. Perhaps Hussein should use the materials for mosques to rebuild homes damaged by US/UK bombing; but then, perhaps, the US and the UK shouldn’t bomb Iraq in the first place.
This idea of “mosques instead of food” seems to be a rehash of the decade-old notion that Hussein has plenty of money to feed the Iraqi people, but chooses instead to spend it on palaces and military hardware. The “Oil-for-Food” program is cited by many as proof that the US cares more about the suffering of the Iraqi people than Hussein himself. A week after that now-infamous (everywhere outside of the American media) remark by Madeline Albright about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children due to sanctions being “worth it,” she had this to say in a letter to 60 Minutes: “The unfortunate truth is that the UN Security Council cares more about the people of Iraq than their own ruler does.” Oil-for-Food, though was never meant as more than a stopgap measure to prevent further deterioration of the near-apocalyptic conditions in Iraq. The UN head of the humanitarian program in Iraq, Denis Halliday, resigned in protest when he felt that Oil-for-Food was failing even in that regard. Moreover, the idea that Hussein “mishandles” the funds from Oil-for-Food is nonsensical. Roughly thirty percent of the proceeds go to pay reparations to Kuwait and the administrative costs of the UN activities in Iraq, including weapons inspections. The profits from the oil sales are kept in a UN-administered account in the Bank of Paris in New York. (This is the fund that should be used to buy humanitarian equipment and medicine for the people of Iraq, but the sales are repeatedly blocked by the US and Britain.) Hussein does not “mishandle” the funds to build mosques, palaces, weapons, or anything else, for he never “handles” the money in the first place.
Continuing with his cynicism, Loiko quotes an auto mechanic who feels that the deprivations of the sanctions regime have allowed the truly skilled laborers to shine. “Sanctions are a bad thing, but in my business, they really showed who is the real master and who is just a spare parts handler,” said the mechanic. One can only admire such a capitalistic, Darwinian attitude in the midst of all that suffering.
Loiko finishes by telling the rest of his opening story about a man named Kasim whose canary had stopped chirping. After first taking the bird to a vet who said the medicine required to heal the animal was unavailable due to sanctions (in what Loiko would most probably term “typical Iraqi fashion”), the man took his pet to a bird dealer in the marketplace who told him, “Your bird is overfed. You need to impose sanctions on her. Don’t feed it for a day.” Loiko then concludes, “Kasim’s bird sang happily Friday morning. All the family laughed.” The subtext of Loiko’s report seems to be that if the Iraqi people don’t begin putting the blame somewhere else besides where it actually belongs, Kasim and his family will not be laughing for long.
TOM GORMAN is a writer and activist living in Glendale, CA. He welcomes comments at email@example.com