Wagging the Dog

This piece was written during the last Iraqi crisis, in Spring of last year, when the first revelations of the Clinton scandal were splattering our television screens. In reviewing it, the editors of this website present it to our readers as an example of a remarkable prescience.

In the popular film "Wag the Dog," a U.S. President caught molesting a young girl seeks to divert attention away from the sex scandal: a mock "invasion" of Albania is staged, Hollywood-style, complete with faked film footage and bogus carnage. L'affaire Lewinski debuted the same week, and U.S. government officials - threatening military action against Iraq as news of presidential priapism hit the media - publicly scoffed at the idea that this may be a case of life imitating art. But privately -- as even Clinton loyalists like Leon Panetta suggested the President may have to step down, and Washington's sharks smelled blood in the water -- the confluence of art and reality must have given them pause. To have launched Gulf War II in that context would have been a public relations disaster. Better to wait a few weeks or even months: by that time, they figured, either Gore will be President or the whole affair will have blown over. In any event, that damned movie will be out of the theaters, and out of the public consciousness, and we can get on with the serious business of murdering the Iraqi people.

This has been an ongoing project of the United States government. While a military strike will be its crowning "success," the less cinematic form of mass murder carried out by U.S. policymakers for the past seven years is not to be overlooked. Among the weapons in the arsenal of the modern Warfare State, economic sanctions are perhaps the cruelest. U.S. missiles can pulverize an entire neighborhood in a matter of moments, but the slow death of economic strangulation can destroy an entire people in a few years. More than a million Iraqis have died as a direct result of the strictest sanctions ever imposed, 547,000 of them children, according to the UN's own reports. More than one third of all Iraqi children are malnourished: 4,500 children under age 5 are dying each month from hunger and disease, a six-fold increase since the onset of this merciless embargo. Iraq was once a nation that was proud of its relative modernity, and its thriving middle class: today, the country is reduced, by every measure of civilization, to the level of Subsaharan Africa.

As the human consequences of the sanctions become widely known, the official rationale for U.S. policy -- that the Iraqis possess and plan to use 'weapons of mass destruction" -- becomes grotesque. What is the result of these monstrous sanctions if not mass destruction?

The idea that the Iraqis "have the capacity to hit Tel Aviv" with chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons, irresponsibly touted by UN disarmament overlord Richard Butler in a speech to a Zionist gathering in New York, is contradicted by the public statements of his predecessor., Rolf Ekeus. As head of the UN Special Commission on Iraq, Ekeus announced that Iraq no longer posed a military threat to its neighbors. "I do not think that Iraq could constitute a threat to the region," Ekeus told a news conference in the summer of `95. Just back from a trip to Baghdad, he descried "a 180-degree change" in Iraqi compliance with UN demands for full disclosure of Iraq's military arsenal. [Associated Press, August 23, 1995] At the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency declared that "there is no possibility" that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons and its spokesman announced that "there is a new atmosphere of transparency. We are satisfied that the information we received looks very credible." [Reuter, August 20, 1995]

As for chemical weapons, Iraq was given a clean bill of health by none other than Israel's army chief, Major General Amnon Shahak, who told a parliamentary committee that Iraq "no longer had chemical weapons," according to an Israeli official. "According to our estimates," said the official, who attended the briefing, "there are no longer chemical weapons in Iraq." [Reuter, August 22, 1995] Not only that, but Shahak also pronounced Iraq bereft of any missile delivery system of consequence.

What happened between the summer of `95 and the winter of `98 that now makes the iraqis such a menace? Under the constraints of the embargo, and the most intrusive and comprehensive industrial surveillance system ever instituted, we are asked to believe that, somehow, Iraq managed to not only maintain but expand its covert weapons program. Yet not one scintilla of evidence exists to support this conclusion.

In response to Iraqi compliance, the U.S. and Great Britain upped the ante: instead of lifting the deadly sanctions, the West tightened the screws and made more demands. The monitoring system set up by the UN was to be extended into Saddam's official residences, the famous "presidential palaces, previously denounced by U.S. officials as emblematic of the Iraqi dictator's hedonic lifestyle: Saddam is building luxurious palaces, they said, while the Iraqi people are starving. As the propaganda campaign gathered steam, however, these symbols of Saddam the Sybarite began to take on a more sinister aspect: hidden in Saddam's many basements, we are told, are enough toxins to wipe out the world's population several times over!

In response, the Iraqis took Western reporters on a tour of these fabled palaces, stuffed to the rafters with ornate furniture, marble mosaics, and bronze statues of the Iraqi leader in a thousand heroic poses. Asked why the presidential sites were being opened to reporters but not to UN inspectors, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz replied: "You are guests. You are not inspectors. Guests are allowed, inspectors are not allowed. Very simple."

The Iraqis make the charming argument that asking for access to these presidential sites would be like asking the U.S. to open up the White House, or Camp David, for inspection. This old-fashioned idea that the same standards apply everywhere to all nations and governments, belongs to our republican past. Now that we are a full-fledged Empire - a "global hegemony," as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol likes to put it - all acts of defiance, no matter how small, are acts of lese majeste, and must be severely punished, lest others get ideas. Saddam won't open the doors of his harem to "weapons inspectors"? Let the bombing begin!

The most bizarre and ominous aspect of all this is the position taken by the Republican congressional leadership: both Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich have declared that another bombing campaign would be futile and that Saddam must "somehow" be forced from power. What these two cagey politicians left carefully unsaid, but forcefully implied, is openly proclaimed by the "hegemonists" over at the Weekly Standard, where Robert Kagan, the neoconservative Clausewitz, bewails "Saddam's Impending Victory" [February 2, 1998] and bemoans the fact that "air power is not enough to bring the Iraqis to their knees. Having assured us throughout the debate leading up to Gulf War I that air power would indeed be sufficient to make short work of Saddam, the interventionists have now turned on a dime - without, of course, acknowledging that any such turnabout has taken place. "Only ground forces can find and destroy weapons-production facilities with a high degree of confidence that they have been destroyed." Therefore, according to this loony logic, the U.S. must occupy every square inch of Iraqi territory. New York Times columnist William Safire has chimed in with the suggestion that an invasion ought to culminate in "teaching the Iraqis how to hold an election."

Such an election, held amid smoldering ruins, was recently held in Bosnia, where Serbian nationalist radio and television stations were shut down by U.S. troops and all opposition to the occupation was banned as "hate speech." This Pollyannaish scenario ignores the history and culture of the region: Saddam may perish in the conflagration, but there will be other Saddams who will rise to take his place -- a resurrection engineered by U.S. policymakers,who fail to appreciate the power and significance of martyrdom in the political culture of Islam.

Amid signs of a rapprochement with Iran - signaled by the advent of a de Tocqueville-quoting Iranian President - the approach of Gulf War II is ominous indeed. For what it promises is the dismemberment and division of Iraq, the permanent U.S. occupation of the Iraqi oilfields - and a leap into a morass from which there will be no extrication.

The role of the neoconservative "hawks" in all this is to make Clinton look presidentially prudent in ruling out the use of ground troops and holding out the possibility (however tenuous) of a negotiated settlement. Otherwise, the proposal that we go in and conquer Iraq, as Bill Kristol argued with a straight face on "Sam and Cokie," is hard to take seriously. A U.S. military garrison in Baghdad would be Beirut write large: it unleash a holy war against the infidel occupiers, and set the stage for a much larger conflict.

Boris Yeltsin was vilified for daring to suggest that U.S. actions in the Gulf could set off World War III. Anyone can see, however, that the end of the cold war has not eliminated the danger of a third -- and, perhaps, final -- world war. In Iraq, three out of the four great civlizational powers intersect: Islam, the West, and a defeated and resentful Slavic empire. Saddam, as the leader of the Baathist or Arab socialist tendency in the Arab world, fits in nowhere neatly: as a secularist modernizer, he is anathema to fundamentalists, who swear allegiance to Teheran. He is an intransigent nationalist, and thus the sworn enemy of the West. Only the Russians have shown any sympathy for the Iraqis, but Moscow is reduced to playing the role of mediator and cannot offer any military protection: in any showdown with the U.S. and Britain, the Iraqis are on their own.

Saddam and the Iranian mullahs represent the two great tendencies competing for cultural and political dominance in the Arab world, one medievalist and the other modernist. The struggle broke out in open warfare during the Iran-Iraq war, which devastated both countries, The demonization of Saddam as "worse than Hitler," as George Bush put it, has obscured the U.S. tilt toward Iran, now formalized by Iranian overtures and a warm, albeit cautious, American response. While U.S.-Iranian complicity in sending arms shipments to Bosnian Muslims is well-known, the arms-length embrace of the Iranian mullahs by the Clinton Administration makes this alliance semi-official.

If Bill Kristol were to get his fondest wish, and a U.S. invasion succeeded in planting the flag of "democracy" in Iraq, its domain would not extend far beyond Baghdad. The break-up of Iraq would likely lead to the creation of a separate Shi-ite Muslim "republic" in the south, aligned with Iran: this is the price of Iranian acquiescence. Saddam's demise would also almost certainly lead to the renewal of the ongoing struggle for a separate Kurdish nation in the north. The introduction of the Kurdish factor into the equation means that the conflict is sure to spread to at least four other nations in the region - Turkey, Syria, Iran, and the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan - all of which have substantial Kurdish minorities that long for political and cultural independence. As the U.S., Iran, and others face off over the Iraqi corpse, the image of vultures feasting is hard to escape.

Vultures are greedy, quarrelsome creatures, just as likely to turn on each other as they are to attack the weak and the dying. Yeltsin was right: in Iraq, all the ingredients of a global conflagration are in the mix, not only religion, nationalism, and the passions they invoke, but also the fate of Iraq's vast oil wealth, great pools of it bubbling beneath the scorched earth.

It is hopelessly na´ve to believe that the giant multinational corporations, which do a thriving business in the region, have failed to exert considerable influence over U.S. policy. These same interests are well served by the advocates of outright invasion, in both parties: U.S. troops can seize Iraq's oil fields, but who will pump the oil out of them? A sure-fire method of identifying the source of a government policy or a political movement is to ask the key question: qui bono? Who profits? A policy that can only end in war, and a propaganda campaign to support it, does not come out of nowhere. While Hillary Rodham Clinton is taken seriously when she blames "a vast right-wing conspiracy" for the sexual peccadilloes of her errant husband, the same rhetoric employed to describe the events leading up to a war is routinely dismissed as beyond the pale, and dangerous too boot.

Some Republicans, however, bravely spoke out. Representative Steven E. Bayer, of Indiana, dared ask: "Why are emotions running so high at the White House? Why are the tom-toms of war sounding?" Representative Ron Paul, of Texas, excoriated his jingoist colleagues for "trying to appease the military industrial complex and appear tough for campaign ads." He complained that "once hostilities begin, debating the policy which created the mess is off-limits; the thinking goes that everybody must support the troops by blindly and dumbly supporting irrational and irresponsible policies." The only solution, he concludes, "is a pro-American constitutional policy of nonintervention." But "unfortunately, we cannot expect such common sense to prevail in the current political climate."

Paul's sentiments are correct, but his pessimism is unwarranted, and shortsighted. As Patrick J. Buchanan put it in his column, use of ground troops would require a half-million soldiers in arms, and this means "cannibalizing U.S. forces around the world, calling up the reserves, and perhaps reinstituting the draft. We may soon see just how enthusiastic we really are about playing Globocop, if it comes to the serious shedding of American blood."

President Caligula has no moral authority to leads his legions into battle. The reinstitution of the draft by the draft-dodging Clinton would ignite a social and political revolution. As the U.S. stumbles, or is pushed, into another unwinnable land war in Asia, the anti-war protestors of the future will come from the ranks of the Right. Buchanan, and the editors of this magazine, in alliance with other conservatives and libertarians, stood firm against the war hysteria that preceded Gulf War I. This time around, with the stakes even higher, that same alliance has the potential to expand its ranks to include the overwhelming majority of Americans. Let our rulers unleash the dogs of war to mask their own corruption: they will ignite a social and political explosion that will make the sixties seem relatively tranquil.

--Justin Raimondo

"This article first appeared in the June 1998 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, a publication of The Rockford Institute (928 N. Main St., Rockford, IL 61103)."