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Mr. Rubin, another pirouette if you please ...

Last September -- one month after UNICEF released its bone-chilling survey
of child mortality in Iraq -- the U.S. State Department was pressed into a
public relations battle against (can this be right?) Saddam Hussein.  

Evidence was mounting that America's policies were complicit in an epic
disaster.  UNICEF's survey estimated an excess 500,000 Iraqi children had
died since economic sanctions began.  The UN's Humanitarian Coordinator for
Iraq, Denis Halliday, resigned to protest an embargo he termed "genocidal".
Other disturbing news began to register in the public's mind.  The
government had, with Dickensian timing, picked the Christmas season to
threaten a Catholic relief group with charges of "delivering toys and
medicines" to the children of Iraq.  No-fly zone bombings - ostensibly to
protect the populace from Saddam - began to kill civilians with disturbing
frequency.  Despite this, the American mind recoiled at the notion of a
public relations duel with Saddam, the Hammer of the Ayatollahs, the Beast
of Baghdad.  How unseemly!  But the battle continues.

Earlier this week -- one month after 70 Representatives protested economic
sanctions, two weeks after additional UN officials (Hans von Sponeck and
Jutta Burghardt) resigned in dismay, and two weeks after the Democratic
House Whip termed these policies "infanticide masquerading as policy" -- the
State Department's James Rubin renewed the PR offensive, again trying to
focus the spotlight on Saddam's brutal regime.  Thus turns the spin cycle in
Washington, D.C.  

Mr. Rubin, another pirouette if you please ...

The latest State Department briefing contains little news.  It gallops into
town crying "palace-building" and "oil smuggling", but it rides a gimpy,
beaten horse.  Here's an experiment: plug "'lavish palaces' AND Saddam" into
AltaVista's web search engine.  You'll get 60-plus hits, most of them State
Department briefings and commentaries.  Yesterday, Mr. Rubin cited a figure
of "2-billon dollars" for palace construction.  Even this is old news,
appearing as far back as 1996 (Thomas Friedman's "Follow the Money", The New
York Times, October 13, 1996, E-13).  Nor is it a particularly impactful
sum, reflecting as it does local WPA-like expenditures in a country
desperately starved for imported items. 

Mr. Rubin offers satellite photos of palace grounds, but pah! -- you can
download your very own satellite photos of Baghdad to 2-meter resolution
from <> (just plug Baghdad into the 'Find' box).
These photos show details of courtyards, railway lines, and heaping piles of
Desert Storm rubble.  Palaces provide an obscene contrast to the wreckage,
certainly.  Of course, from the same website you can download satellite
imagery of the White House -- and in most shots, you'll see destitute
neighborhoods within walking distance of the home of the most powerful man
on earth, a contrast some would also find obscene.  Wealth flows unevenly,
sometimes justly, sometimes not; in this, there is no surprise and no
indictment particular to Baghdad.  

Smuggling?  For years, Iraqi tanker trucks have openly waited in 18-mile
queues for entry into the Turkish frontier.  For years, non-OFF traffic has
flowed unchecked between Iraq and Jordan through Trebil.  That Iraqi oil is
smuggled and that Saddam benefits is hardly secret and hardly news.  

What is Mr. Rubin arguing?  Is he arguing that Saddam is vile?  The world
knows this.  Is he arguing that Saddam could do more to improve the
conditions in Iraq?  The world knows this.  Mr. Rubin labors to state that
to which Warren Zevon danced: in times of desperation, it's connections,
guns, and money that hold the whip hand.  We embargoed Iraq and the
Ba'athists consolidated power as a matter of course.  What did we expect?

Absurdly, we expected revolution.  From inception, the sanctions have been
pitched with deliberate harshness with the intent of provoking regime
change. 'Make the Iraqi people sufficiently miserable', our government
thought, 'and they will do what the armies of Desert Storm could not: they
will end the reign of Saddam Hussein.'   Evidence of our intent abounds, in
the miserly oil-for-food revenue caps, the disruptive import holds, the
roadblocks placed before international aid workers and religious groups, and
in the constant low-density bombing.  

Once this course was set, our hands were bloody.  We held a civilian
population hostage to pressure a dictator to leave office.  We punished
20-million for the crimes of 200.

Despite this, Mr. Rubin argues that Saddam is to blame for the disaster in
Iraq.  Perhaps he is unaware that the U.S.-negotiated wording of the latest
Security Council  Resolution (1284) flatly states the "fundamental
objective" of sanction's proposed suspension is "improving the humanitarian
situation in Iraq".  The resolution itself therefore admits to the causative
link between the sanctions and Iraq's humanitarian disaster. 

Sensible policy would end the economic embargo, extend the military
sanctions while encouraging regional disarmament, all the while engaging and
re-developing Iraq.  But when questioned on de-linking economic and military
sanctions, Mr. Rubin can only note, as he did last August, that conditions
in UN-controlled Iraqi Kurdistan are better than in the UN-monitored,
Saddam-controlled south.  He argues causality: that Saddam has manipulated
conditions, causing depredation to force an end to sanctions.

But the true story is not this simple, nor as comforting to the American
conscience.  UNICEF's executive director, Carol Bellamy, explained the
differences in Iraqi mortality rates as follows: the Kurdish north has been
receiving humanitarian assistance for longer than the remainder of Iraq,
agriculture in the north is better, and evading sanctions is easier.  In
addition, the north receives 22% more per capita from the Oil for Food
program, and gets about 10% of all UN-controlled assistance in currency,
while the rest of the country receives only commodities.  The north also
benefits from the aid of 34 Non-Government Organizations, while in the whole
rest of the country there are only 11.

Moreover, Mr. Rubin's focus on regional differences obscures a larger truth:
the situation in northern Iraq remains dire.
> Today's under-five mortality rate for northern Iraq is roughly equivalent
to the rate observed in the whole of Iraq 20-years ago.
> The current under-five mortality rate for northern Iraq -- 72 -- remains
more than double the rate for most neighboring countries.  For example, the
rate for Saudi Arabia is only 30; for Iran, 37; for Syria, 34; and for
Jordan, 25. 

These are bloodless statistics, but they mask a vast human tragedy.  A
single point's increase in these rates represents an annual toll of hundreds
of children who would be hale but became ill; who visited the hospital
instead of their friends; who were buried rather than returning home.  Rubin
implies these calamitous results are the intention of our policies ... that
the figures for Northern Iraq illustrate how sanctions should "work".   

These words should haunt Mr. Rubin as he enters retirement from government
service, still young and fleet of wit, a handsome man who used his physical
beauty to quell the press and charm them from an ugly truth.

So again, Mr. Rubin, another pirouette if you please.  But you are dancing
on the bodies of children.

Note: This is a draft of my op-ed piece on Rubin's Feb-29 briefing.
Comments welcome; I'll post a sourced/modified version later.


Drew Hamre
Golden Valley, MN USA
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