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[casi] 'The Choice on Iraq'

The Choice on Iraq:
The UN's Disarmament Agenda or the US's Overthrow Agenda

Forthcoming in 'Eclipse: The Anti-War Review', published by
the University of Sussex

October 2002

Eric Herring

Dr. Eric Herring is Senior Lecturer in International
Politics at the University of Bristol. His research visit
to Iraq in April 2002, on which this article draws, was
funded by the Nuffield Foundation Grant Number SGS/00665/G.
Some of his other writings on Iraq and other subjects can
be viewed at

The current crisis is often represented as being caused by
Iraq's refusal to comply with UN resolutions to give up its
nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes.
Therefore, the argument goes, Iraq will only comply if
major military threats are made, and anyway as Saddam
Hussein has never complied so far, we have to be prepared
to go to war to get rid of him. This crisis and indeed the
failure to complete the disarmament of Iraq and thus bring
about the lifting of the sanctions which have devastated
Iraqi society are actually a product of the US agenda of
seeking the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Despite the assertions about Iraqi non-compliance, in
December 1998 the UN weapons inspectors reported that
- Iraq's nuclear weapon programme had been eliminated
'efficiently and effectively'
- the elimination of Iraq's chemical weapon and missile
capabilities was almost complete
- disarmament work remained in the biological weapon area
- Iraq had still to provide further information in all areas
- Iraq had agreed in principle to long-term monitoring but
not to a specific system.

On the other elements of UN Security Council Resolution
687, Iraq has recognised Kuwait, has returned some but not
all Kuwaiti property, has returned some but not all missing
persons, is paying compensation though it has denied
liability in principle, has not sponsored international
terrorism for 10 years according to the CIA but has denied
ever sponsoring it and is not yet allowed to export oil for
the purpose of servicing its external debt.

In other words, far from simply not complying, Iraq had
complied with most of what had been asked of it (however
grudgingly). It is a fantasy that, as is so often said,
Iraq will never comply as long as Saddam is in charge.
Furthermore, the UN resolutions allow for partial
relaxation of sanctions in reward for partial compliance
but this was never offered.

It is a myth, frequently and conveniently repeated by those
in favour of war, that Iraq 'expelled' or 'threw out' the
weapons inspectors. Nor is it true that Iraqi
non-cooperation forced the inspectors to leave. What
happened was that just before the weapon inspectors were
due to report very extensive if incomplete Iraqi compliance
in 1998 (as indicated above), US President Bill Clinton,
lauded at the recent Labour Party conference for his great
wisdom on Iraq decided to bomb Iraq with Blair's backing,
and told the chief weapons inspector Richard Butler he
should get the weapon inspectors out so as not to be
present during the bombing. Butler made a personal decision
not authorised by the Security Council to order them out.
The US and Britain then launched their Operation Desert Fox
bombing of Iraq without Security Council approval. Iraq
refused from that point until September 2002 to allow
inspectors related to resolution 687 back into the country.

If US policy really has been driven by a perceived need to
disarm Iraq then it has been irrational. Its response to
incomplete but extensive compliance has been to label it
non-compliance, force the withdrawal of those doing the
disarming, bomb Iraq and call for the overthrow of Iraq's
leader. This hardly creates any incentive to comply any
further. There has always been a significant thread of US
and British opinion who have feared that Iraq will comply
because sanctions might then be lifted.

Disarmament of Iraq has not been the top priority for the
United States: instead, its priority, stated all along has
been to keep the pressure on for as long as it takes to get
rid of Saddam Hussein (as Mil Rai puts it, leadership
change, not regime change, which they are actually very
frightened of, as indicated by their response to the 1991
uprising: they want rid of him, not the brutal system that
runs Iraq). How serious the US has been about this
objective has varied, but all along disarmament has been
subordinated to the overthrow policy. If Iraq had complied
fully despite the bombing, maybe the US would have been
forced to accept the lifting of the sanctions. That is
indeed my guess. But it is also possible that the US would
have been able to ensure that Iraq was never declared to be
fully in compliance. And it doesn't change the point that
US policy makes no sense if it is meant to be aimed at
prioritising getting rid of Iraq's prohibited weapon
programmes. The official US policy objective of
overthrowing Saddam represents non-compliance with the very
UN resolutions with which Iraq is meant to comply. The
leadership change agenda has fundamentally undermined the
disarmament agenda.

Saddam Hussein is not crazy. He is rational, though he
miscalculates. While certainty is impossible, his
priorities and goals can be deduced from his actions. After
he was forced out of Kuwait, his aim was to receive a clean
bill of health from the UN weapons inspectors and get the
sanctions lifted while still secretly maintaining most of
his prohibited weapon programmes. Eventually it became
clear that this was not going to work, and he accepted that
he would have to give up all or virtually all of those
programmes in order to get the sanctions lifted. The UN and
various governments sought to reassure him that the US
would be forced to go along with the lifting of the
sanctions. However, with the US using the weapons
inspectors to spy on Iraq (another fact almost totally
absent from current news coverage) and the US proclaiming
that the sanctions would never be lifted until Saddam
Hussein was out of power, Iraqi incentives to disarm were
being undermined. When the US forced the withdrawal of the
inspectors and bombed Iraq, Saddam Hussein faced the
prospect of indefinite sanctions and a US policy officially
committed to his overthrow. It is hardly surprising that he
may have made efforts to revive prohibited weapons

Only nuclear weapons are really weapons of mass destruction
(meaning only one of which is necessary for vast and rapid
destruction). With 19 years up to 1991, $18,000 million,
lots of international assistance and little monitoring,
Iraq failed to build a nuclear weapon. With little time,
money or assistance, and lots of people watching, it is
utterly implausible that Iraq has managed to make much
headway after restarting virtually from scratch since
December 1998. Making biological and chemical weapon agents
is easy: turning those agents into a weapon is vastly more
difficult. Finding a way of then delivering those weapons
in a way which can inflict large numbers of casualties or
doing so with any kind of reliability is very much harder
still. Many such weapons have to be used in just the right
conditions and require that no serious counter-measures
betaken. Iraq lacks a capability to attack the US and
Britain directly with such weapons, and has at most a
highly limited and unreliable capability to use them even
against forces invading Iraq. Saddam Hussein knows that
using such weapons would prompt such a massive US and
British response that it would be suicidal and pointless in
anything other than the last gasp of trying to avoid total
defeat during an invasion. Iraq is now a shattered society
with a disintegrating infrastructure; a demoralised,
impoverished population after the bombing (continuing on a
weekly basis by US and British aircraft) and sanctions of
the last 12 years. With a total debt of something in the
region of $200 billion (including compensation awarded
against it by the UN for the invasion of Kuwait), Iraq has
a staggering debt to exports ratio that makes it the most
indebted state in the world, alongside Rwanda and Sudan. To
be piled on top of this is whatever portion is awarded of
the $217 billion of further compensation claims against
Iraq. The threat from Iraq is not imminent or grave. And
if, despite all this, you still think the threat from Iraq
is imminent or grave, all the more reason not to undermine
the UN disarmament agenda.

Maybe, just maybe, a war would result in a quick Iraqi
military collapse, the advent of democratic government in
Iraq, the lifting of the sanctions and an economic revival
necessary for the relief of at least some of the extreme
and crushing poverty in Iraq. But the recent US-led wars in
both Afghanistan and Kosovo show that prosperity and
freedom did not follow even with quick military victory,
and there is no reason to think that this case will be any

Whatever the outcome for ordinary Iraqis, the US wants its
war, with rationales coming and going daily. The excuse
that war would be necessary if Iraq did not readmit the
weapons inspectors has now been dumped. The new excuse
being worked on by the US is a new UN Security Council
resolution designed to be impossible for Iraq to accept,
including the stationing of US forces throughout Iraq in a
replay of the US manoeuvre at Rambouillet designed to
ensure that the US could bomb Yugoslavia.

The US can be stopped, mainly because the US elite and the
Western elite more broadly is deeply divided by a war
crisis brought about by the recent dominance of the
Rumsfeld-Perle-Wolfowitz faction since the September 11
attacks on the United States. What is not helping is that
the dominant and false framing in news coverage is that
this is very much a crisis of Iraqi non-compliance with UN
disarmament requirements. The reality is that the crisis is
one of continuing US non-compliance gand unwillingness to
respond to Iraqi compliance with most of what has been
asked of it.  To put it bluntly, we are heading for war on
the basis of lies (some of the people making the argument
for war now know what the truth is) and self-deception
(some of them believe their own propaganda). What is needed
are efforts to force the United States to drop its
overthrow agenda and accept the UN disarmament agenda. In
addition, the elements of the UN sanctions which are
causing a continuing humanitarian disaster in Iraq must on
principle be lifted immediately. And for the longer term,
three things are needed. First, the weapon programmes of
Israel and others must be addressed as it is unrealistic to
expect Iraq to accept them indefinitely without response.
Second, Iraq's debt and compensation burdens must be
reduced to take into account the share of the
responsibility of Western and Arab governments and
institutions for being willing to lend money to fund Saddam
Hussein's crimes and follies. And third we must work to
ensure that our own governments are no longer able to build
up such dictators only to knock them down when they step
out of line.

Dr. Eric Herring
Department of Politics
University of Bristol
10 Priory Road
Bristol BS8 1TU
England, UK
Office tel. +44-(0)117-928-8582
Mobile tel. +44-(0)7771-966608
Fax +44-(0)117-973-2133

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