Ten years later, the Persian Gulf War continues

In its final few days in office, the Clinton administration is scrambling to put together a compromise peace proposal acceptable to both Iraq and the Kuwaitis. According to an adviser who asked not to be identified, President Clinton is determined to secure an agreement before his term expires this month, as he views the establishment of permanent peace in the region as critical to his presidential legacy.
Along these lines, in Baghdad today Saddam Hussein accepted with reservations the latest American proposal, but insisted that any agreement must account for Iraq’s security needs and could not lead to his country’s “demographic suicide” as a Sunni state. In Kuwait City, meanwhile, several leaders of the Kuwait Resistance Coalition said the current document falls short of their goals, as it only calls for a partial withdrawal from disputed Kuwaiti territory, which Baghdad claims as its historical nineteenth province, while it allows the Iraqis to retain effective sovereignty over several islands in the Persian Gulf and the Rumailah oil field along their disputed border.
Washington’s proposal, which American negotiators are urging the Kuwaitis to accept as the best they can realistically expect from Baghdad, calls for the Kuwaitis to exert autonomy over the surface of the Rumailah field, while Iraq would retain sovereignty over the oil below.
Sound ridiculous? It should. Replace “Iraq” with “Israel” and “Kuwaitis” with “Palestinians,” however, and you get a decent sense of a glaring double standard operative in U.S. foreign policy. While certainly not identical, the two situations are comparable in both being illegal occupations condemned by the United Nations. Indeed, in December 1990 Saddam Hussein attempted to link his country’s withdrawal from Kuwait to an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory. Vice President Dan Quayle replied in an interview that “Palestine is not an issue on the table. There is no linkage.”
The occasion for the analogy is today’s anniversary of the Persian Gulf War: It was exactly 10 years ago that the United States commenced its invasion of Iraq. A decade later, the aggression continues. Last week, U.S. and British jets bombed the country as part of an ongoing military campaign — unauthorized by the U.N. — about which most Americans remain ignorant. And in a particularly tragic and immoral exercise of power emanating from Washington, the U.S./U.N. sanctions regime against the country, which persists only because the United States and Britain have employed the threat of their Security Council vetoes in demanding it, has continued to boost the Iraqi civilian death toll.
In what they refer to as a “method, if not a weapon, of mass destruction,” two scholars concluded in the journal Foreign Affairs that the sanctions “may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history.” According to U.N. estimates, the sanctions have killed approximately half a million girls and boys under the age of 5. The figure for adults is similar. Considering only the former, that’s far more children than the entire population, young and old, of Minneapolis, and nearly twice that of St. Paul.
Ten years ago, George Bush claimed that the “naked aggression” exhibited by the government of Iraq must be checked. “America stands where it always has, against aggression, against those who would use force to replace the rule of law,” he intoned, nine months after ordering the illegal U.S. invasion of Panama.
To be sure, Hussein’s campaign against Kuwait contravened international law and basic principles of justice. On this matter, at least, Bush was correct. The Iraqi invasion was wrong, and the international community could not abrogate its moral responsibility to oppose Hussein’s illegal aggression. However, it must be remembered this week that Washington, contrary to American public opinion, did everything diplomatically possible to undermine a negotiated solution to the conflict, including rebuffing Iraq’s offer to negotiate its withdrawal from Kuwait.
Despite spending months priming the nation for what was to follow, U.S. officials failed to persuade millions of Americans that the administration’s position was based, as Bush insisted, on moral principle. At the University of Minnesota, Northrop Auditorium, with a seating capacity of 5000, was much too small to accommodate the overflowing crowd that met to oppose the American march to war. In downtown Minneapolis, hundreds of activists blocked entrances to the old federal building that housed recruiting stations for the armed forces.
Throughout the United States and the world, people called attention to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory or the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, and asked why Washington did not wage war against these colonial states. On the contrary, peace activists noted, the United States armed and financed the Israeli and Indonesian governments, while itself retaining unlawful possession of lands treated to American Indian peoples, such as the Black Hills.
At the time of this writing, articles or television reports discussing the tenth anniversary have been few. More prominent has been a curious development that could potentially impact the war’s legacy in American memory. The New York Times reported last week that the Navy will change the status of a fighter pilot shot down over Iraq in 1991 from “killed in action” to “missing in action.”
President Clinton went so far as to suggest that the pilot, Michael Scott Speicher, might still be alive and that “the United States government would work aggressively to seek his release if he did indeed survive.” The timing of the announcement, 10 years later, is at best suspicious.
The people of the United States have long been captivated by the subject of American soldiers missing and allegedly imprisoned abroad. Contrary to diplomatic common sense and in the absence of any credible evidence, a 1993 poll indicated that two thirds of Americans believe that U.S. POWs “are still being held in Southeast Asia.”
Rutgers University professor H. Bruce Franklin, who has written extensively on this issue, observed in his excellent new book, “Vietnam and Other American Fantasies,” that the “myth of Americans held captive in Vietnam after the war” is “a fantasy so potent that it has become virtually a national religion,” all the more powerful because it “cannot be logically disproved.”
Franklin traced the origins of the myth to U.S. negotiations with the Vietnamese nationalist forces in 1969, when the United States needed an issue with which to demonize its enemies, whose long struggle for reunification and independence generated remarkably widespread sympathy among Americans. The wartime retention by the Vietnamese of captured servicemen — treated far better than nationalist soldiers and sympathizers held by U.S. and Saigonese forces, most of whom were tortured and many of whom were extrajudicially executed — was thus manufactured into a fantasy of Asian brutality intended to serve this function.
With respect to Iraq, it is impossible to weigh the validity of the new American charge. As Franklin told me over the weekend, “Because all the relevant information is in the hands of the Pentagon, there’s no way to assess the evidence independently.” The timing of the announcement does not seem surprising, however. For years, human rights activists, religious groups and others have been calling attention to Iraqi suffering under the sanctions and have been increasingly successful in humanizing the civilian population in American popular consciousness. Government officials might have expected media reports to appear this week drawing attention to the war and its aftermath, possibly even noting the sanctions’ horrendous toll on Iraqi children. The MIA/POW accusation could thus have been a preemptive strike, to borrow a term popular in the American military lexicon. What makes the emergence of the issue at this particular moment “especially ominous,” according to Franklin, “is the desire of the Bush family to seek revenge against Saddam for surviving the Gulf War and thus, in their opinion, causing Daddy to lose the White House.”
Ten years later, the war against the people of Iraq continues. Only now, most Americans aren’t watching.
Scott Laderman’s column appears alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]