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19 February 1998

Iraq - caught between the US and the UN

The current crisis in the Gulf might look like bully-boy tactics by the US and Britain, but in fact is a product of the institutions put in place after the crushing of Iraq by the Allied forces, argues Donna Kingsley

Iraq should expect bombing raids once the moon's cycle is darkest after 24 February. This was the message spelled out in a major speech by US President Bill Clinton and lengthy debates in both the House of Lords and the Commons in Britain. Despite some pacifists' posturing there appear to be few if any barriers to Clinton and Blair having their way and teaching Saddam Hussein a lesson.

The emphasis on Saddam's alleged nuclear potential has placed 'weapons of mass destruction' at the centre of the debate. The setting up of the UN Weapons Inspectorate in the months after Desert Storm marked an important shift in international relations. UNSCOM, the United Nations Special Commission set up to identify and destroy Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological capabilities, has the power to interfere in Iraq on the pretext of global security, turning global policing into a 'humanitarian' issue, policed by a 'neutral' body, the UN. The image of international inspectors bravely negotiating their way, armed only with clipboards, into the arsenals of a tin-pot dictator seemed to mark a shift away from the era of Stormin' Norman and US arrogance. In reality of course, behind the men in white coats is always the threat of being turned into 'a charcoal briquette', as North Korea was told in 1995 and as Iraq is finding out at the moment. It is inevitable that the process of weapons inspecting results in periodical acts of defiance by the inspected and to the flexing of the muscles behind UNSCOM.

Despite all the protestations about the use of force, the demonisation of Saddam is more entrenched now than ever before. Whether the chosen solution is the diplomacy of the UN chief Kofi Annan or the military threats of the Clinton and Blair brigade, the underlying belief is that Saddam is the problem. There is a consensus that something must be done about Iraq. Pacifist slogans in the UK say sarcastically 'First we arm dictators - then we bomb their citizens'. There has been a disturbing absence of disbelief in the increasingly ludicrous claims about the kind of weapons Saddam is alleged to have at his disposal. Like something from a science fiction novel, in an article in the liberal-leaning Observer, prime minister Tony Blair described in gory detail the likely affects of Saddam's stores: anthrax which makes people 'drown in their own body fluids'; the 'gas gangrene' Clostridium and Atafloxin which 'induces liver cancer'. The opponents of the proposed bombing do not seek to expose these fantasies, but claim that there is a greater risk from bombing the 'presidential palaces' than from disarming Saddam by negotiation. That Saddam needs disarming is unquestioned.

Those who see themselves as progressive may have an instinctive suspicion of the naked bullying tactics of the US and Britain. For them, the crude threat of smart missiles and ground troops reeks too much of old fashioned national self-interest. The bleatings from British commentators about the hypocrisy of war-mongering by the New Labour proponents of an ethical foreign policy miss the point: ethical foreign policy and bombing Iraq go hand in hand. Ethical foreign policy is all about identifying and punishing those states which do not fit into the etiquette of ethics and humanitarianism as defined by UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook or US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Of course there is a tension between the ethical claims of Britain and the US and the nasty reality of blowing people's heads off, but the consensus that Saddam is a threat who needs to be dealt with is the other side of moral outrage. Shouting 'hypocrisy' is no answer to the self-righteousness of Cook and Co.

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