Foreign Policy by Catharsis: The Failure of U.S. Policy toward Iraq

By Zunes, Stephen | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Foreign Policy by Catharsis: The Failure of U.S. Policy toward Iraq


Zunes, Stephen, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


TEN YEARS AFTER THE GULF WAR, U.S. policy toward Iraq continues to suffer from an over-reliance on military solutions, an abuse of the United Nations and international law, and a disregard for the human suffering resulting from the policy. Furthermore, it has failed to dislodge Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power. The GulfWar coalition built by the first Bush Administration is in tatters, U.S. credibility has been further compromised in the international community in general and in the Arab world in particular, and Saddam Hussein's standing in Iraq and throughout the region has been enhanced. Meanwhile, problems which threaten the stability of the region far more than the Iraqi dictator -- such as the violent interruption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, uneven economic development, and the ongoing militarization of the region -- continue to grow, in part due to U.S. policies.

Despite initial hopes that the new Bush team would be more pragmatic than the ideologues who dominated the Clinton Administration policy towards the Gulf, it appears at this writing that it is unlikely that such a shift will take place. Though Colin Powell's advocacy of what he refers to as "smart sanctions" are a tacit admission of the need for change, they fail to address the underlying humanitarian, economic, strategic and political problems with the U.S. approach to Iraq and the Gulf as a whole.

This article examines U.S. policy towards Iraq in relation to the alleged strategic threat posed by the regime of Saddam Hussein to the region.

EARLY APPEASMENT

With antipathy towards Iraq so strong as to lead the United States to engage in an ongoing low-level bombing campaign and to lead the most devastating sanctions regime in modern history, it is perhaps surprising that the United States tolerated the abuses of Saddam Hussein's regime for as long as it did. Most of us familiar with the Middle East did not have to wait until Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Iraq to know that Saddam Hussein was a vicious dictator. Many of the crimes committed by the Iraqi ruler now cited by U.S. officials as examples of the heinous nature of his regime were actually committed in the 1980s when the U.S. was quietly supporting Saddam in his war with Iran.

It is ironic that it was the senior George Bush who, as president, first emphasized how Saddam Hussein had "used chemical weapons against his own people." The March 1988 massacre at Halabja, where Saddam's forces murdered 5000 civilians in that Kurdish town with chemical weapons, was downplayed by the Reagan Administration, in which he was the vice-president, even to the point of claiming that Iran, then the preferred enemy of the U.S., was actually responsible. When ABC television correspondent Charles Glass revealed sites of Saddam's biological warfare programs in early 1989, the State Department denied the facts presented and the story essentially died. Glass recently observed that the State Department "now issues briefings on the same sites."

When a 1988 Senate Foreign Relations committee staff report brought to light Saddam's policy of widespread extermination in Iraqi Kurdistan, Senator Claiborne Pell introduced the Prevention of Genocide Act to put pressure on the Iraqi regime, but the Bush Administration successfully moved to have the measure killed. Indeed, even before the Halabja tragedy, U.N. reports in 1986 and 1987 documented Iraq's use of chemical weapons, which were confirmed both by investigations from the CIA and from U.S. embassy staff who had visited Iraqi Kurdish refugees in Turkey. However, not only was the United States not particularly concerned about the ongoing repression, the use of chemical weapons and the potential use of biological weapons, the U.S. was actually supporting the Iraqi government's procurement effort of materials necessary for the development of weapons of mass destruction.

During the 1980s, American companies, with U. …

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