In the US, Dreaming of Iraq - Midnight Notes pamphlet

In the US, Dreaming of Iraq

George Caffentzis
Midnight Notes
P.O. Box 204
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130


"I am not a criminal.
I am new to Cairo. I live in Baghdad." He told the story
of his dream and the buried treasure,
and he was so believable in the telling that
the night patrolman began to cry. Always,
the fragrance of truth has that effect.
-Rumi, In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo:
In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad (1260-1273)
(Rumi 1996: 210)


Barely seven years after a major military attack that left Iraqi industry, hospitals, water and sewage treatment plants devastated, and caused thousands of civilian casualties as well as widespread sickness among American soldiers, the United States government prepared to go to war again against Iraq in February 1998. The Clinton administration's reasons for initiating this war--although noticeably shifting as the weeks went by--were clothed in a dramatic language. "... [I]t is very important for us to make clear"--said Secretary of State Albright in a Columbus, Ohio "town hall meeting" on February 19, 1998-- "that the United States and the civilized world cannot deal with somebody who is willing to use...weapons of mass destruction on his own people, not to speak of his neighbors." In the same meeting, Albright reiterated, "What we are concerned about is Saddam Hussein, who has a record of using weapons of mass destruction against his neighbors as well as against his own people. And [he is] a brutal dictator who is terrifying his people and threatening the region.....our policy is to contain him; that is what we are trying to do" (NYT 2/19/98: A9).

The key words used to justify the US policy were "weapons of mass destruction" and "tyrannical rule."(1) The US war aims, according to Pres. Clinton, were to undermine the Iraqi government and to "substantially reduce or delay" its ability to develop and deliver weapons of mass destruction (NYT 2/13/98: A1). The commander of US forces in the Persian Gulf, General Zinni, explained that he intended to meet these aims by destroying "the things that obviously allow [Saddam Hussein] to stay in power, threaten his neighbors, threaten the use of weapons of mass destruction, the things that are involved in the control of those sorts of assets" (NYT 2/12/98: A6).

Such justifications, however, were generally unconvincing, as the audience in the famous Columbus town hall meeting demonstrated. Their questions and the answers they received showed that the Clinton Administration was far from transparent about its true war aims. As one audience member said: "The are many countries that have these biological and chemical weapons--six countries in the Middle East alone. You've stated why Saddam Hussein should be singled out, but it is puzzling to people to wonder why it's O.K. for these other countries to have biological and chemical weapons." Another audience member asked Secretary of Defense Cohen "if he thinks that the ultimate goal of this particular action...should be the ultimate removal of Saddam Hussein from Government." Cohen replied that the removal of Hussein "would require...a rather massive force of land forces, and we don't think that it's necessary in order to contain him. We think that we can contain him, as we have for the past seven years, and allow the Iraqi people at some point in time to determine for themselves whether they want another seven years of deprivation" (NYT 2/19/98: A9). In other words, Secretary Cohen committed himself to the "containment" of Saddam Hussein while General Zinni, is out to destroy his power.

The Columbus "town hall meeting" gave voice to a pervasive sense growing throughout the country and the world that the Clinton Administration was hiding something. Was the movie "Wag the Dog" right? Was the threatened war nothing but a diversion from a sordid sex scandal, or was there an another explanation? Clinton Administration officials stuck to their cover story through thick and thin simply because, however shaky it may have appeared, it put the opponents to the war on the defensive. After all, who wanted to defend secret weapons of mass destruction or a tyrannical regime? What I offer in this article is a different explanation as to why the US insisted on waging war against Iraq along with some reasons why people in the US should oppose this war.

Alternative explanations are necessary as probes to challenge and deflate the ever present threats of war. For even though the agreement between Kofi Annan, the UN General Secretary, and the Iraqi government seems to have averted the immediate threat of war, there is very good reason to believe that the US government will be vitally interested in the fomenting similar episodes in the future. This strategy of tension can delay the lifting of the sanctions that restrict the sale of Iraqi oil for years. So we should be ready with our best arguments, since they might have to be deployed quite soon.

Moreover, one of the main arguments of anti-war opponents--a war would cause the loss of innocent Iraqi lives--is morally valid, but politically weak. Its moral validity is obvious. As we know, the combined effects of the aerial bombardments and the sanctions imposed on Iraq, that restricted the import of food and medicine, have been responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people, most of them children.(2) And we can easily imagine that a bombing campaign of the sort described by General Zinni would produce a carnage and a devastation of incommensurable proportions.

Unfortunately, these types of considerations have never moved the US population to seriously try to stop its government from engaging in the use of mass bombing, except in the case of Vietnam. Moreover, once a war is started, military decisions are not in the people's hands. But if we cannot appeal to the hearts of the US people, then we should speak to their self-interest, showing how the war on Iraq is connected to a set of larger issues that do affect the US working class and call for our resistance to the war.

To explain the US government's decision to threaten an attack on Iraq we must go beyond the official reasons offered to justify this course of action, and look at the short- and long-term material interests the US government has in the region, and at the role Iraq plays in the international division of oil and gas production. If we do that, we also see that the attack on Iraq fits with the politics of "Globalization," as demonstrated by the position the US/UN has taken in many other world regions and conjunctures as, for example, the Asian crisis.

Official Issues and the Fine Print

At the end of the Gulf War, a series of agreements were concluded between the Iraqi government and the United Nations. One of the most controversial was the right of the United Nations to search for and destroy any "weapons of mass destruction" that the Iraqi state would produce. The "UN Special Commission" on Iraq ("UNSCOM") is the name of the UN inspection team in charge of the search-and-destroy mission; its present head is Richard Butler, a former Australian ambassador to Indonesia. Once UNSCOM completes its work, the sanctions will, presumably, be lifted

The Clinton Administration justified its threatened bombing of Iraq by claiming that the Iraqi government has violated this agreement. Was this true? Immediately before the Secretary General Kofi Annan's arrival in Baghdad in February 21, 1998, there appeared to be two interpretations of what complying with the original agreements meant. (A) The Iraqis agreed to give the UNSCOM inspectors access to eight presidential sites--areas containing many buildings including residences belonging to Saddam Hussein--for the duration of 60 days, and they have also agreed to have the inspection team report directly to the UN Secretary General rather than to Mr. Butler. (B) The US asserted that the UNSCOM inspectors "must be free to do their work without hindrance, without conditions, and without time limits" and they must continue to report to Mr. Butler (NYT 2/17/98: A6).

The issue, then, as stated, was not whether the inspections should go on, but how they should be conducted. The Iraqi authorities were demanding that the accords be put in specific terms (specific times, places and persons), while the US demanded a general reading of the accords. In other words, the confrontation seemed to be between the position of Iraq, that accepts eight sites and sixty days, and that of the US, that demands inspection at any place-any time.

The Iraqi government's insistence on specific terms in the interpretation of the accords came from its desire to maintain at least a shred of sovereignty. It wanted the terms of the accord to be open to negotiation at each turn in the story and the story itself to have a temporal limit that would lead to the end of sanctions.

The US government, on the other hand, claims the right to carry on an absolute surveillance over the entire Iraqi territory, for an indefinite span of time, and wants the absolute right to control and destroy any possible means that might lead to the development of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery. This demand is tantamount to requiring that the Iraqi nation becoe a pre-industrial colony producing crude oil, at best. For, as we have learned from the ecological movement, almost any industrial development is either a potential weapon of mass destruction, or allows for the development of such weapons. For example, any petro-chemical industry makes chemical weapons possible; any aero-space industry makes delivery vehicles possible; any bio-engineering or pharmaceutical industry makes biological weapons possible. What the US is, in fact, demanding is the elimination not only of Iraqi sovereignty but the total control over of its future industrial development, if not the total destruction of its industrial capacity.

The seemingly formal issue concerning the interpretation of the accords hid a much more substantial one: whether the ruling Baathist government will accept Iraq's return to a colonial, dependent status. This definitely was what international jurists used to call a "casus belli."

The crisis was averted when Iraqi government decided to accept an interpretation of the accords brought by Kofi Annan to Baghdad on February 23, 1998. This interpretation seemed to be an adequate diplomatic "splitting of the difference" for the moment. It lifted the sixty day limit on inspections, but kept the reference to the eight sites. Similarly, it included a gesture to the recognition of Iraqi sovereignty by adding a group of senior diplomats to the UNSCOM "technical" team--whose members were arrogant and disrespectful, according to Iraqi officials--that will inspect the presidential sites. Finally, the document's references to the "legitimate concerns of Iraq relating to national security, sovereignty and dignity" and the "lifting of sanctions" seemed enough to assuage the Iraqi government (NYT 2/24/98). But the fundamental issue between the US and the Iraqi regimes concerning the political sovereignty and economic independence of Iraq remains and will be the source of tension in the future.

Some "hawks" in the US have attacked the recent agreements because, acording to them, the Iraqi state lost its rights to national independence when it was defeated in the Gulf War and that any negotiations with Saddam Hussein's government are unnecessary and illegitimate concessions to a "mass murderer" and weak-willed world opinion. The Iraqi Army's invasion of Kuwait was unjust, they claim, and its defeat gave the victors (the US-lead UN coalition) the right to punish the guilty state at will. But we must remember that defeat in an unjust war does not give the victor such automatic rights. For example, the US military's unjust invasion (replete with chemical weapons) of Vietnam was defeated. But this defeat did not give the Vietnamese government even the theoretical right to control the US's political and economic life. For the US defeat was conditional. Similarly, the Iraqi state's defeat in the Gulf War by the US-lead UN coalition was conditional. Iraq 1991 was not Japan 1945. The Baath government survived the Gulf War and today is defending the principle of Iraqi sovereignty and the right of the Iraqi state to determine a national industrial policy. That is, the status of Iraq is not that of a slave whose life was forfeited and must then live under the absolute legal and moral power of a master, as occurred in Japan after the Second World War. Iraqi society and its state demand recognition as agents in an exchange.

Nevertheless, the US government insists that any demand by the Iraqi government for negotiations about the conditions of the accords and the end of sanctions--conditions involving its territory and economy--are illegitimate. The Clinton Administration is making claims fit for an absolute master without having any right to possession, except for its military superiority. It is by virtue of this military power that the US government and its transnational corporate allies have in recent times battered down all trade and political barriers wherever they stood in the way of US national and corporate interests. The recent showdown with Iraq was not different, even if the justifications given appealed to the well-being of the people of the world and put the US in the place of the ancient knight fighting the horrendous dragon, ensuring in the end that justice is done.

But is hard to cast President Clinton, the supporter of the IMF, NAFTA, Multinational Aggreement on Investment (MAI) and all the other corporate-sponsored institutions and deals around the planet, in the clothes of Saint George, with his spear drawn in defense of the poor and weak. Indeed, there were and are more mundane reasons revolving around the price and availability of crude oil that make war with Iraq a continual temptation .

The Oil Secret

"Most likely the sanctions will be lifted, not when Iraq agrees to any new elimination of a weapons system or a new inspection of its arms sites, but when it agrees to sell the oil on the US/UN terms" (Midnight Notes 1992: 49).

Oil has long been recognized as a major factor in the Gulf War. This insight was expressed most graphically in the 1990/91 anti-Gulf War movement's slogan "NO BLOOD FOR OIL!" What exact role oil played then, however, was often disputed. According to some commentators at the time, the US's interest in "cheap oil" brought about a confrontation with Iraq. But the US government was never committed to any particular price for crude oil. In 1974, for example, the US government gave the go-ahead to the Saudis to hike the price of oil dramatically while in 1986 it bombed Libya and sent cakes to Iran in order to lower the price of oil (Midnight Notes 1992: 6-7, 283-301). The US was responding not to the Iraqi state's demand for high oil prices, but to its desperate attempt to bypass the US military and economic control of Persian Gulf oil in 1990/91. In this respect little has changed since the Gulf War.

A key to understanding the present situation is to realize that the Iraqi government has managed to face seven years of total military surveillance and economic sanctions without capitulating completely to the military subordination and economic dependence that US has demanded of the states in the region. The Iraqi state is still insisting on some control over the nation's resources and its independent entrance as a seller into the global oil market. For example, the Iraqi state has made major deals with a number of non-US oil companies to bring them into the joint development of oil fields in Iraq once the sanctions are lifted. These deals involve French companies like Elf Aquitaine and Total SA (involving fields of 12.5 billion barrels) and Russian companies like Lukoil, Zabrubezneft and Mashinoimport (involving fields of 7.5 billion barrels). The only companies left out of the oil exploration bonanza when sanctions are lifted will be US-based, unless the Saddam Hussein regime is somehow persuaded otherwise (Wall Street Journal 2/23/98: A17).

The economic situation now is the inverse of what it was during the 1991 Gulf War. In 1990, Iraqi authorities were the primary oil price hawks in OPEC. They were calling for $25 per barrel and one of their official reasons de guerre was that Kuwait was violating its OPEC quota and depressing the price of oil. In 1998 Iraq is objectively not a force for higher oil prices. In fact, the full return of Iraqi oil into the international oil market would substantially lower oil prices. In 1994, the Clinton Administration estimated that, with the full lifting of sanctions, a return of Iraqi oil on the world market would depress prices by almost 50% and there is no reason to believe that this estimate does not hold any longer today. Such a price collapse would be especially problematic for the world petroleum corporations in a period when they believe that there are new, profitable large-scale investments to be made in oil exploration and development (especially in the former non-Russian Soviet republics), but at the same time they face a decline in short-term demand because of the "Asian Crisis" (Beck 1998). Such a price collapse would also undermine the present control structure of OPEC (where Saudi Arabia, a US client state, is king-pin), and would devastate the capitalists of the local "oil patch" in Texas and Louisiana. These are no small losers in the short-run, and they have tremendous power with the US government.

It is important to review oil price politics since the Gulf War to understand this issue. That war itself was a $4 war because one of the crucial issues at stake was the price of oil in the 1990s. A desperate Iraqi government, trying to rebuild after the Iraq-Iran war and full of political debts to its populace, was demanding a $25 per barrel price target at the last OPEC meeting before the war while the Saudi Arabian regime, with US support, was demanding $21--a $4 difference. The Baath regime in 1990 was desperate because it was caught in a pincer. On the one side, the Iraqi proletariat, after nearly a decade of war with Iran, was demanding a "pay off" in the form of higher living standards, on the other side, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the US, and the UN were demanding the privatization of state industries and an end to subsidies, i.e., the imposition of a policy of austerity and structural adjustment. The invasion of Kuwait was a calculated risk meant to gain some breathing space from both the Iraqi working class and the IMF/US/UN (by gaining concessions from the Kuwaitis and other elements of Middle Eastern capital in exchange for a pull back). The invasion was also premised on the US not having an viable political alternative to the Baath party. In a way, the invasion did save the Baath regime and did impose austerity on the Iraqi people.

The Saudi Arabians won the oil price debate with Iraq both at the last OPEC meeting before the Gulf War and in reality. The price of oil on the international market between 1992 and early 1997 averaged in the region of $19-$20 (with the low at $14 in late 1993 and a high of $25 in early 1997). Indeed, in 1996 the price was rising rapidly, to the point where many were wondering whether the pre-Gulf War oil experts' predictions of $40 oil at the beginning of the next century might still be fulfilled.

But then came, after many twists of fate, the "oil-for-food" agreement between the Iraqi government and the UN Security Council (Resolution 986) and with it the very regulated and restricted return of Iraqi oil onto the world market in January 7, 1997 which lead to a dramatic collapse of the price of oil. In two months (January-March) it fell from $24 to $18 and a year later it is in the $15-$16 range (it was $16.18 on Feb. 20, 1998, for example).

The US fought against the "oil-for-food" deal diplomatically and militarily. Indeed, the last US attack on Iraq--the launching of 27 cruise missals on September 9, 1996--delayed the implementation of the Resolution for almost four months. Though it could not stop the "oil-for-food" deal completely, US diplomats have crafted the resolution in a very restrictive way, making it vulnerable to a thousand and one possible interruptions and challenges. First, it only allowed for the sale of about 700,000 barrels per day or only 20% of the 3,500,000 barrels per day the Iraqi state was exporting before the Gulf War. Second, an essential part of the agreement is the placing of 151 monitors from the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs (UNDHA) throughout Iraq who observe whether the food bought from the oil revenues is properly distributed through an agreed upon ration card system at more than 60,000 retailers throughout the country. Third, along with food, essential technology to repair water and sewerage systems as well as equipment for the oil industry may be purchased with the oil money. These imports will to be checked by a monitoring team as well. Consequently, the Iraqi economy is not only watched by satellite, spy plane over flights, and the UNSCOM inspectors; hundreds of accountants and market inspectors are also auditing it daily.

These monitoring teams are clearly more important for the fate of the Iraqi people and state than the UNSCOM inspection teams, but they are not often talked about in Clinton administration press conferences. If they are removed from Iraq or cannot do their work there, the "oil-for-food" deal will become null-and-void and the Iraqi right to sell oil openly will be rescinded.(3) In effect, any time the US bangs the "drums of war," Iraqi oil is driven out of the market. This is certainly one of the secret motivations for US war threats, since they permit control over Iraqi oil sales in the short-run. For example, the UN Security Council increased Iraq's quota for exporting oil from $2 billion to $5.2 billion on February 20, 1998 as an inducement to Saddam Hussein's government to sign the new interpretation of the accords in Baghdad. This increase permitted the Iraqi national oil company to sell up to about 50% of its pre-Gulf War exports. But this limit is purely theoretical, because (a) the UNDHA inspection teams must be operating on the ground in Iraq and (b) parts must be imported in order to repair oil extraction and pipeline equipment in order for the Iraqi National Oil Company to be able to increase production to meet this limit. If the US threatens war again or objects that some imported piece of equipment can be used to construct a weapon of mass destruction, the Iraqi's will find themselves either thrown out of the market or unable to enter into it.

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