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Governments versus Peoples

by Scott Burchill  (25 February 2003)

Having failed to produce or fabricate an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection, and in the absence of any WMD actually being found by UNMOVIC's inspectors, Anglo-Saxon war-enthusiasts have revived their earlier tactic of demonising Saddam Hussein in an increasingly desperate search for a pretext which will engender war fever amongst the citizenry.

Last week British PM Tony Blair claimed that at the basis of his "moral case" against the Beast of Baghdad was Saddam's "barbarous and detestable" human rights record, an "appalling situation [which] will continue" unless he is removed from power (The Age, 21 Feb 03). Joining the chorus, John Howard (Australian PM) and Alexander Downer (Australian Foreign Minister) expressed astonishment that others weren't equally mortified by Saddam's horrifying treatment of both his neighbours and his own people.

One reason why so few Australians are following Washington's script is that unlike George, Tony, John and Alex, they haven't just discovered Saddam's brutality. A number of people who marched two weekends ago expressed their concerns back in the late 1980s when the Iraqi leader was at the peak of his crimes - gassing Iranian child soldiers and defenceless Kurdish villagers. Unsurprisingly, within the corridors of power at the time, their protests fell on deaf ears. It's easy, therefore, to imagine their anger at the calumny of those who, previously silent, are now lecturing them about the evils of Saddam's regime.

At the heart of the West's credibility on this issue is its response at the time these atrocities took place. What forms did outrage in Washington, London and Canberra take after Saddam killed 5000 Kurds in the town of Halabja on 17 March 1988? What steps did governments in these capitals take to bring him to account for his wicked crimes? The answers to these questions will tell us how seriously we should accept the arguments that are currently being mounted for war.

Washington was so offended by Saddam's behaviour in the 1980s that it backed him in Baghdad's war against Iran. Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr supplied the Iraqi leader with intelligence, satellite imagery, arms and billions of dollars in loans. Two decades later, Saddam's attack on Persia - about which at the time Washington was officially "neutral" - is being invoked by many of the same people as a reason for his annihilation.

More ominously, according to the report of a 1994 US Senate Banking Committee, the "United States provided the government of Iraq with 'dual-use' licensed materials which assisted in the development of Iraqi chemical, biological and missile-system programs." According to the report, this assistance included "chemical warfare-agent precursors; chemical warfare-agent production facility plans and technical drawings; chemical warfare-filling equipment; biological warfare-related materials; missile fabrication equipment and missile system guidance equipment." These technologies were sent to Iraq until December 1989, 20 months after the gassing of Halabja.

In February 1989, John Kelly, US Assistant Secretary of State, flew to Baghdad to tell Saddam Hussein that "you are a source for moderation in the region, and the United States wants to broaden her relationship with Iraq." This was eleven months after Halabja.

Now that's outrage.

In the UK, as journalist Mark Thomas notes, the conspicuous aspect of British Labour's attitude to Iraq has been the failure of Blair, Straw, Prescott, Blunkett, Cook or Hoon to register any concerns about Iraq's human rights record whenever the opportunity arose in the British Parliament during the 1980s and 1990s - and there were plenty of them (New Statesman, 9 Dec 02). No complaints or protests from these people were recorded.

Not a "moral case" in sight.

In Australia there is no evidence of either Mr Howard or Mr Downer ever raising any concerns about Saddam Hussein at the peak of his crimes in the late 1980s when he was using the chemical weapons they now find so personally abhorrent unless they are in the hands of friends. It's not as if they could plead ignorance - at least in this case. A cursory glance of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch reports for this period would have given them many opportunities to display their moral righteousness. None were taken.

So the Anglo-Saxons shouldn't feel bewildered by the public's failure to accept their arguments. It's because they have no credibility whatsoever on this question. When Prime Minister Howard claims that peace marchers "give comfort to Saddam Hussein," he is not just defaming thousands who walked in solidarity with the people of Iraq, he is conveniently forgetting who actually gave the dictator considerably more than comfort only a few years ago so that he could accomplish his gruesome deeds (The Age, 20 Feb 03).

The Australian, which is championing the pro-war case in the local press, might also care to reflect on why it thought the most regrettable aspect about Iraq's use of chemical weapons at Halabja was that it had "given Teheran a propaganda coup and may have destroyed Western hopes of achieving an embargo through quiet diplomacy" (The Australian, 22 Mar 88). In other words, the crime was giving comfort to the enemy in Iran rather than the murder of 5,000 innocent people. The newspaper might also explain why less than a week after the attack, it defended Saddam by quoting "senior military analysts in Israel" who claimed that Iraq's use of nerve agents and chemical weapons was "only against targets inside Iraq and only when important strategic positions, such as the city of Basra, were threatened" (The Australian, 8 Apr 88). Well that's OK then.

Supplementary arguments for war proposed by those who were untroubled by Saddam's behaviour in the 1980s, appear like new verses of Onward Christian Soldiers. They are revealing for what they omit.

We are told that only the threat of force got weapons inspectors back into Iraq. We are not told why the threat won't actually disarm him, why the threat of force failed in December 1998, or that under Chapter 1, Article 2 of the UN Charter all member states "shall refrainŠ.from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state."

The Prime Minister claims that existing UN SC resolutions already authorise the use of force against Iraq, even though virtually every credible international lawyer disagrees and the Howard Government refuses to table its own legal advice on this question.

We are informed that the very future of the UN is at stake if it doesn't do the bidding of a few Western states, but not why its credibility wasn't in question when the organisation betrayed the people of West Papua in 1969, Bosnia in 1993, Rwanda in 1994, East Timor in 1999, Palestine continuously since 1948, etc, etc,. Why is the enforcement of SC resolutions against Iraq a condition of the UN's ongoing credibility but not when longer standing resolutions against Israel and Turkey are defied without any implications for the UN?

[Incidentally, West Papua is currently a locus of state-sponsored terrorism, though despite its close proximity to Australia this fact elicits no concern in Canberra beyond a regular pledge of support for Jakarta's sovereign brutality and exploitation of the territory]

We have been told by Mr Downer and Mr Howard why international law and the authority of the UN must be respected by Iraq. At the same time, the Australian Government has indicated that it is prepared to disregard a SC veto by one of the Permanent Five if it regards the vote as "capricious" - meaning it doesn't like the result. Unsurprisingly, there are no legal precedents for such contempt for the rule of law - which is a qualifying clause for rogue states.

PM Howard has said that only legally authorised states should possess nuclear weapons, but won't outline the international agreements which permit Pakistan, India and Israel to keep their nuclear stockpiles. Or in the absence of such agreements, the steps he is taking to disarm them.

Mr Howard has asked why protesters haven't been carrying as many anti-Hussein placards as they have anti-Bush signs. Perhaps it is because only one of them is proposing a devastating military assault on an impoverished country - involving Australian soldiers - which will almost certainly leave thousands of innocents civilians dead? This is just a small sample of the concoctions Western governments and their backers in the Fourth Estate have cooked up recently. We can expect even more agitprop in the days ahead. There is, however, one positive development which has emerged out of this nightmare.

The yawning gulf between popular antipathy to war in Iraq and Government enthusiasm is a profoundly significant development across the world, from Australia to the UK, in Spain, Italy, Mexico and elsewhere. There are few signs that the gap will close. In Turkey 96% of the population are opposed to war, according to recent surveys. Unsurprisingly, authorities there "are finding it difficult to disregard the public's anti-war feelings" (The New York Times, 18 Feb 03). Here in Australia, the Government and its cheerleaders in the Murdoch empire have no such difficulty, accusing hundreds of thousands of peace marchers of just about everything short of being enemies of the state.

In truth, such a claim wouldn't be wildly inaccurate.

According to Patrick Tyler in The New York Times, President Bush and the coalition which is preparing to re-landscape Mesopotamia now face a "tenacious new adversary" - the public (17 Feb 03). They just won't buy the Administration's arguments. According to Tyler, we're heading into a new bipolar world with two superpowers: the US (meaning the government in Washington) and public opinion. It's a development which raises uncomfortable questions about the state of representative government in the liberal democracies.

One of the remarkable features of the moment is the extraordinary linkages and solidarity which are being established by people around the world in total disregard - and in some cases in defiance - of their governments. Opposition to the war is increasingly unmediated by government and mainstream information sources, thanks largely to the internet where individuals can access arguments and details which would never see the light of day in a broadsheet newspaper. Governments cannot filter the dissemination of information or control the debate, and are left to demonise their opponents.

The division of populations into two distinct groups - political elites in favour of war and the people opposed - is dramatically revealing to the latter that the former do not always act in their interests - despite the PM's much chanted mantra about 'national interests'. This explains why Howard, Blair and Bush are so worried. They should be. Thank you.

(Speech to anti-war meeting, Melbourne Town Hall, 25 February, 2003)

- from ZNet

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revised 18 November 2005