An American Tragedy

by Edward Said

The Nation magazine, January 11/18, 1999


Seventy-nine percent of Americans say they are for the bombing of Iraq; 86 percent say God loves them; 57 percent say they don't want Bill Clinton impeached; 62 percent say they believe he bombed Iraq for good, not personal, reasons. And so on, while, over seventy hours, 425 cruise missiles fell on Baghdad, darkness compounding the terrors of bombardment. For the American home audience, everything about this attack has been miniaturized and sanitized-small green images, tiny cluster bombs, invisible missiles, three-second soundbites, abstract phrases like "degrading Saddam's assets ' 24,000 unseen troops on aircraft carriers and cruisers, high-flying B-1 bombers and Tornadoes. Iraq (sometimes pronounced "Eye-rack") has now become synonymous only with Saddam "Hoosane," not with several million people, nor with 6,000 years of civilization, nor with the suffering of millions who have endured the most vicious discipline of economic sanctions in history.

Unimpeachable human rights agencies have estimated that 5,000 children die every month as a result of the sanctions, but only a few public personalities-former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, chief among them-have campaigned on behalf of Iraq's civilians. Contrast these horrors with what Leslie Gelb, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, was quoted as saying in the New York Times on December 18: "I'm very happy to hit Saddam over the head.... But I want to know the answers," such answers presumably being US war aims, or strategic objectives, as yet unspecific. There is no awareness among macho commentators of actual Iraqi human beings, streets, water supply, electrical power, the travail of daily life without access to food and shelter-just Saddam being "hit over the head" by Operation Desert Fox. (Since, as US Ambassador to Britain Philip Lader strongly implied, the ultimate aim of the mission was the physical removal of Saddam, the Nazi analogy was no doubt helpful.)

Undoubtedly Saddam Hussein is a dreadful ruler who, through his nightmarish Baath Party apparatus (to say nothing of ghoulish sons), continues to tyrannize the people. Of course, he has continually provoked confrontations as a way of inflating his stature, but at what point does it become immoral to extract the price of his malfeasance from the citizenry? Why must they suffer the burden of his rule as well as the unconscionably protracted sanctions, plus the bombing? Shouldn't we remind ourselves that Saddam was supported by the United States and Britain during the seventies and eighties, seen as a foil to Iran, avidly courted by Western corporations hungry for the country's oil and eager to profit from its modernizing ambition, its enormous industrial and agricultural potential? Even his Arab enemies loved his swagger. When I was in Kuwait in 1985, a minister lectured me on the greatness of Saddam, champion of the Arabs "against the Persians," as he grandly put it, boasting that Kuwait was subsidizing the war against Iran.

Since 1990 Iraq has become the convenient devil of US foreign policy and a useful testing ground for high-tech weapons. So far no one has been able to dislodge Saddam from power, certainly not the sixty or seventy exile organizations that squabble among themselves and receive CIA and Congressional aid. As for the weapons inspectors and their mandate, it is difficult to imagine that any sovereign country could ever have complied with such demands as they made. Admittedly, Iraq cheated on its agreement with the United Nations, but what country in similar circumstance wouldn't have? After each crisis, the requirements on it increased: At America's behest, Richard Butler added evermore-preposterous conditions to his inspections, demanding lists of the 14,000 people associated with the Iraqi nuclear program, ordering a search of the Foreign Ministry-not to mention sharing intelligence information about Iraq with Israel, an outright violation of his UN mandate.

All the while, Iraq's defenseless people were offered nothing but punishment, punishment so sadistic that Dennis Halliday, the UN administrator of the oil for food program, could not tolerate it, and therefore resigned. To read the April 30 UNICEF report on the effects of the sanctions, a detailed chronicle of malnutrition, rising illiteracy, poverty, socioeconomic breakdown and collapse of medical facilities, is to come face to face with US criminality. But with people like Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger and William Cohen in charge-all of them "policy" second-raters with no record of independent thought-what could one expect? No wonder the sycophantic Tony Blair felt at ease in such mediocre company.

Even worse has been the public discourse about Iraq. Bad enough during the Gulf War, the TV commentaries and reports have become more efficient and technically clever on the one hand, more bloodless and uncritical on the other. All the main networks have eliminated dissent and critical views. Retired military people supply the viewer with acres of technical information, most of it delivered in awestruck, proprietary and utterly bland tones. NBC's star, Tom Brokaw, presented an eyewitness Baghdad report of a nearby missile landing with the homey preface, "Here's what it's like to be there, up close and personal." Yet for all that, Iraq simply doesn't exist. I searched the libraries for recent books that describe it as a real country, not as a strategic problem. I found only one, Nuha al Radi's excellent Baghdad Diary.

Finally, then, we have the man whose conflagration this is. A combination of sentimentality and opportunism, there are no lengths to which Bill Clinton will not go to rescue himself. He's tried them all: abject apology, brazen toughness, casuistic sophistry, simpering patriotism and, since the second half of 1998, murderous air strikes. Who besides the self-righteous and the lubricious cares about his oral sex and pizza in a White House corridor with Monica? It's the homicidal forays against Sudan, Afghanistan and now Iraq that are his true high crimes. Clearly, though, he knows how to exploit the American penchant for cruelty toward lesser, dehumanized creatures, and just as clearly he can elicit all the necessary ideological cant about backing "our" troops. A population brainwashed for almost a decade that Iraq poses the greatest threat to the world since Hitler, and with no time or opportunity to resist, does not stand in his way. With no plan for what is to come after the attack and no conception of the disaster that would follow Saddam's assassination in an enormous, ethnically diverse country whose people are in any event too ground down to rise up against Baathist or any substitute tyranny, Clinton simply refers sanctimoniously to UN resolutions and the international community, leaving someone else to clean up the mess. Considering he is the leader of a country that has, along with Israel, flouted more Security Council resolutions, has more unpaid UN bills and has refused to sign more international conventions (including those against chemical and biological weapons) than any other, this is the real scandal. But such is the nature of US power that both Clinton and Saddam will survive to wreak more havoc on new victims.


Edward Said is University Professor at Columbia

Human Rights, Justice, Reform