February 20, 2003
Democracy in Iraq?

Over the last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been emphasizing the moral case for war against Iraq. Saddam Hussein, as the argument goes, has used chemical weapons against the Kurds, kidnapped and murdered people who defy him, and is now using the sanctions to deprive half of the population of Iraq of food and medicine.

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The moral case against Saddam Hussein is difficult to dispute. From being a party to the slaughter of many members of the elected government of Iraq during the 1963 CIA-sponsored coup, to his unprovoked (and US funded) war against Iran in which a million people died, to his current use of sanctions as a way to keep the Shi'ite and Kurd majorities in submission, the case against Saddam Hussein has always been a strong one.

But this "moral case" has little or nothing to do with arguments in favour of a US invasion of Iraq.

Had there been concern for the welfare of the Iraqi people, things might be quite different today. For example, the US might not have funded Hussein when he first undermined Iraq's first and only democratic government in 1963. They might have also declined to sell him chemical weapons and military equipment in the 80s. The US or Britain might also have supported any of the many rebellions that have been crushed by Saddam since the 1991 Gulf War. In at least one case, support wasn't necessarily required; US air cover disappeared for a few crucial days during the 1991 rebellion, allowing Hussein's gunships to quickly dispose of the Shi'ites and Kurds who sought to overthrow their oppressor.

Had there been concern for the Iraqi people, the US might also have abstained from destroying Iraq's water purification plants, communications infrastructure, dropping incendiary bombs on wheat fields, and not bombed surrendering Iraqi troops. At the very least, they would have gotten rid of Hussein during the first Gulf War, when to do so would have been a trivial extension of the campaign already underway.

Surely a campaign to oust Hussein for the benefit of Iraqis would not have instituted unprecedented, militarily enforced economic sanctions which deprived the country of medical textbooks, water purification equipment, essential medicines, and many kinds of food. If the motive was to undermine Saddam, the effects of the sanctions appear to have done the exact opposite: the economic self-sufficiency of all those not in Saddam's favour has been yanked out from under them, while those willing to support the current regime have been well provided for.

Indeed, if removing Hussein from power has been the goal, it appears that US and British policy from 1991 to present has been working to actually keep him in power. While it is theoretically possible that this is out of massive and consistant incompetence, a more plausible explanation is that the US and Britain have benefitted from Saddam remaining in power, albeit militarily and economically impotent.

The threat that Iraq poses to its neighbors has been essential to justifying the US military presence in Saudi Arabia, a country that was not easily convinced that it should host US troops. However, if it were possible to institute a new, US-friendly ruler in Iraq, a US military base could be established there and the dependence on the Saudis would disappear.

In 1991, New York Times diplomatic correspondent Thomas Friedman noted that if Saddam could be toppled without a major shift in the current power structure, "Washington would have the best of all worlds: an iron-fisted Iraqi junta without Saddam Hussein," a return to the days when Saddam's "iron fist...held Iraq together, much to the satisfaction of the American allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia." This neatly explains the lack of US support of the Kurdish and Shi'ite rebellions as well as the sanctions. While the former would have instituted a new government not likely to be compliant with US demands, a maintainence of the status quo without Hussein would be much more likely to be subservient.

This is consistant with US foreign policy in other developing countries. "Ultra-nationalism" is considered dangerous, due to the prioritization of the local population over foreign interests. Military dictatorships, on the other hand, are much more willing to act in accordance with US interests.

Despite the rhetoric from the US and Britain, it doesn't appear likely that democracy will be a likely result of a US invasion. According to a recent report in the Independent, US officials are no longer planning to institute a democracy in Iraq, due to the radical political change that would result from allowing the Shi'ite and Kurd 3/4 majority to vote for leaders. According to the report, the current plan is to keep much of the current government in power, while replacing key officials with American officers or exiled Iraqis.

The US support for the Kurds, a major justification for the "No-Fly Zone" (in which bombing raids were carried out on an average of once every three days for ten years by American and British planes), seems to be evapourating. For Turkey, a major US ally in the Middle East, an nation that represented Kurdish interests diplomatically and militarily would be a major liability, making it likely that a new regime set up by the US would need to curb the Kurdish influence.

Another report from the Iranian Tehran Times, quoted in Oil and Gas International, has US Senator Richard Lugar, a member of the Senate Foreign relations committee, threatening to withhold access to Iraqi oil fields from French and Russian oil companies unless those countries support the US invasion. One might venture that an Iraq controlled by Iraqis would in fact decide which companies to grant access to on its own.

All this is not to say that nothing should be done about Saddam Hussein, but surely a moral case for removing him from power would take into account the hundreds of thousands of lives that would be lost in an American invasion, the million or more refugees, and the further destruction of the country's infrastructure. Given the anticipated effects of such an invasion--in terms of both human cost and political outcome--a US invasion of Iraq would seem to be at the very bottom of the list of moral actions that could be taken. The alternatives are more subtle, but also more obvious.