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War without end

To explain the crisis in the Gulf, you need to look no further than London and Washington, argues Brendan O'Neill

Why was Iraq the big international issue of 1998, culminating in British and US air strikes in December? Bill Clinton and Tony Blair would have us believe that Iraq poses a threat to world peace by continuing to build 'weapons of mass destruction'. According to Blair, December's air strikes were an attempt to 'stop Saddam Hussein from...developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons' (Sun, 17 December 1998).

Yet after seven years and more than 2400 inspections, UNSCOM (the United Nations Special Commission to Iraq charged with locating the 'weapons of mass destruction') has failed to find a single prohibited weapon. Asked what he thought Iraq's arsenal consisted of, Charles Duelfer, deputy chairman of UNSCOM, said, 'That's a good question...We have enormous uncertainty' (Impact, CNN, 4 March 1998). In the nine months since Duelfer made that comment UNSCOM has still not found anything incriminating. But on the 'uncertain' notion that Saddam Hussein is developing deadly weapons, Iraq has been bombed and subjected to crippling sanctions.

In reality, the conflict between the British and US governments and Iraq has nothing to do with 'weapons of mass destruction'. The only such weapons that we know for certain exist in the Gulf are those used by the British and US forces. Last year's air strikes were justified not by the discovery of Iraqi weapons but by the fact that the Iraqis failed to submit documents about their factories and chemical plants to UNSCOM. It seems that the only thing Iraq can really be accused of is hiding 'memos of mass destruction' and wanting to keep its internal affairs private.

The British and US governments seem to be in a permanent state of war with Iraq. Last year the 'Gulf crisis' was the major theme of British and US foreign policy and looks set to be the big international issue of 1999. Already this year there have been 'dog-fights' between the Iraqi army and US fighter planes and Blair has once again warned Saddam not to get ideas above his station.

This is a war without end. The Gulf crisis can never be resolved because it is not about what is happening in Iraq and not about 'weapons of mass destruction' or Saddam's threat to his neighbours. It is driven entirely by what is happening in the West.

The weapons inspectors of UNSCOM play an important part in sustaining the permanent state of crisis between the West and Iraq. The real role of UNSCOM was exposed by ex-member Scott Ritter, who has been doing the rounds of the US and British media, describing the weapons inspectors as being like 'spies'. UNSCOM inspectors have gone from demanding access to factories and chemical plants to demanding access to Iraq's presidential palaces and the Baath Party headquarters in Baghdad. By its very nature the search for weapons is ongoing and can never be satisfied, at least not until the weapons inspectors give Saddam himself an intimate body search.

UNSCOM is an open-ended licence to create a crisis between the British and US governments and Iraq. According to Iraqi minister for oil General Amer Rashid, 'The policy...within UNSCOM is always to have an issue under consideration. So always the technique is to make it endless, this tunnel without a light at the end; the goal post is always moving'. This is the reality of UNSCOM; not as a body with a definite brief that can be achieved over a certain period of time, but as an ever-present force which can 'move the goal posts' when it feels like it and muster up a crisis.

This ability to conjure up a crisis at any time serves Britain and America well. The endless war with Iraq is driven by internal US considerations. Many cynics questioned Clinton's motives in taking military action against Iraq, accusing him of trying to deflect attention from the impeachment procedures which were due to take place just days later. But military intervention abroad points to more deep-seated problems in countries like America and Britain.

At a time when not very much goes right for Western leaders they need the international arena in which to assert their authority. This is an ongoing crisis of authority which existed before Clinton and will exist after him. The permanent state of crisis with Iraq gives Clinton the ability to turn to the Gulf whenever he needs to bolster his position as the world's moral policeman and counter the US view of the president as 'Sick Willie'.

New Labour has become involved in the Gulf crisis as a result of its natural inclination to assume the moral high- ground on every issue. Tony Blair has not only been able to improve his relationship with Clinton through the Iraq crisis, it is also the perfect issue on which he can deliver a sermon and look down his nose at those beneath him. Hence all his language about 'degrading Saddam' and putting him 'back in his cage'. The Gulf crisis goes on, not because the weapons inspectors have so far failed to find (non-existent) weapons, but because the crisis continues to serve the purposes of the British and US governments.

The transparent and self-serving nature of Britain and America's policy on the Gulf has rarely been so exposed. This was illustrated in December by America's isolation in launching the missile attacks on Baghdad. The UN secretary-general Kofi Annan registered his opposition to the air strikes by saying that his thoughts were with the men and women of Iraq. Other members of the UN security council were either openly hostile, like China and Russia, or quietly hostile, like France. Such differing views among the leaders of the 'international community' exposed the artificiality of Britain and America's campaign.

For the British and the US governments, Iraq has become the one place where they are sure they can stand tall and look down on the world. In their pursuit of this moral authority Clinton and Blair have clearly decided that Iraqi lives are worthless and expendable.

Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999

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