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5 September 1996

Bloody Crusaders Call the Shots in Iraq

The five year human rights crusade by liberals and charities paved the way for the air strikes against Iraq, writes Jennie Bristow.

It is obvious that the US decision to fire cruise missiles into Iraq again had nothing to do with the complex geopolitical situation in the region. Washington has been quite content to see Saddam Hussein's Iraq act as a regional counterweight to Iran, and to watch persistent attacks on the Kurds by NATO ally Turkey. The latest strikes had nothing to do with the situation in Iraq and everything to do with the situation in America. The Cruise missiles were launched as a cynical election stunt, designed to show that Clinton can boss the world around.

The question is, how could the US authorities get away with such an obvious cheap tactic without attracting any serious criticism in the West? Why does nobody bat an eyelid anymore when Clinton bombs Iraqis for the crime of 'invading' part of their own country? The answer is that this is the pay-off of the human rights crusade which liberal journalists, aid organisations and radical charities have been running over the past five years.

As the September issue of Living Marxism explains, the campaign to highlight human rights abuses in Third World societies such as Iraq, and to demand that the West takes action against them, has succeeded only in demonising the Third World as immoral and depicting the West as a higher authority. The consequence of that consensus is that Clinton, Major and other 'civilised' Western leaders have a free hand to teach the 'barbarians' a lesson with Cruise missiles and other moral instruments.

The issue of Iraq and the Kurds has been to the fore throughout the human rights crusade. The Gulf War of 1990-91 marked a turning point in world politics. The US-led coalition devastated Iraq, leaving an estimated 120 000 Iraqis dead. Yet many anti-war campaigners refused to oppose the war outright, arguing only for the West to beat the Iraqis with sanctions instead of bombs. At the end of the war, the convergence of the Western liberals and NGOs with the rulers of Western imperialism was complete, when the former called for the latter to intervene further in Iraq to protect the Kurds from the Iraqi regime.

The consequences of this apparently liberal concern with the Kurds only served to legitimise the role of imperialism. In the name of protecting these vulnerable people against the human rights abuses they suffered under the Iraqi regime, Western powers were able to carve up Iraq, creating so-called 'safe havens' and no-fly zones and placing a political and economic stranglehold on the country.

Who has gained from the human rights campaign against Saddam? Ghettoising the Kurds in safe havens has made them easy prey for NATO ally Turkey to attack at will. The UN sanctions on Iraq have punished those too young even to remember the Gulf war. In February last year, Living Marxism reported from Iraq on the effect of five years of 'peaceful' sanctions - including a sevenfold rise in infant mortality rates, and the treatment of one hundred and fifty thousand under-fives for basic nutritional diseases every month (The UN: new dictators of Iraq).

Yet the plight of Iraqi civilians as a result of the UN sanctions has largely been ignored, while the plight of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs at the hands of Saddam Hussein's decrepit regime has been shamelessly exploited to legitimise Western intervention. The conclusion is always similar to that reached by Martin Woollacott in the Guardian: that 'the Middle East is a region that needs constant management, care and attention'. In other words, Iraq is a place that needs to be constantly policed by Clinton and the West, in the name of defending human rights.

The Cruise attacks are only the latest pay-off for the liberals' crusade around human rights in the Third World. Over the past five years, America has shown itself capable of bombing parts of Iraq on the most spurious grounds, without attracting any serious criticism.

It should be clear that the task facing anti-imperialists today goes much deeper than simply reacting to cynical air-strike stunts. We need to challenge the political basis on which such attacks are accepted as legitimate. That means we need to take up the notion that Western powers have the moral authority to dictate to the Third World, whether it is through high-tech weaponry or the more insidious humanitarian campaigns of liberals and NGOs in this country. As Helen Searls writes in this month's Living Marxism:
'Nowadays, the political reputations of Western leaders are built not through gunboat diplomacy like Margaret Thatcher's Falklands War, but by supporting humanitarian causes like human rights or the rainforest...We need a new kind of politics to meet the challenge of a world where the rules of the game have been turned upside down' (Saving the Third World from Itself, Helen Searls, September 1996).

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