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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
April 3, 2003

Lessons of Iraq: Alternatives to Pummeling

Gregory Clark (Head of Research Japan Office, and Former President of Tama University)

WASHINGTON -- After Vietnam and Operation Mongoose (the bizarre 1962 attempt by the U.S. military to invent covert "pretexts" for an attack on Cuba), only flag-waving militarists and small children could want to believe current U.S. and British excuses for the attack on Iraq.

Among the more transparent is the one that says Islamic extremism and anti-U.S. "terrorism" must be countered. Iraq happens to be among the more secular of the Middle Eastern Islamic nations, and had no involvement in the recent attacks on the United States by Islamic militants.

Equally strange is the excuse that says the U.S. goal is to spread democracy in the Middle East. Democracy means free elections. Any genuinely free election in any Islamic nation today will almost certainly see radical Islamist parties come to the fore. That is what happened when Algeria planned elections in 1992. Curiously, democracy-loving Washington shows no sign of distress over the cruel denial of almost certain victory for the Islamic Salvation Party in that election.

Middle Eastern friends of the U.S. consist almost entirely of antidemocratic nations. Reasonably democratic Iran is listed as a U.S. enemy.

Then there is the claim that the world is obliged to oppose a brutal regime that practices aggression, uses poison gas and executes its opponents. Here only innocents like British Prime Minister Tony Blair seem capable of belief. For as many have pointed out, it was precisely when the Iraqi regime was invading Iran, using gas to the fullest and executing opponents in large numbers, that it was receiving support from none other than the U.S. and Britain.

Reports say two of the Iraqis involved in the gas attacks on Iran in the 1980s now work as advisers to the U.S. military in the Middle East.

Ironically, it is revulsion against the brutality of the current U.S.-British attack against the once-hated Iraqi regime that is now causing Iraqis and many others in the Middle East to want to support that regime.

Revulsion is not limited to the Islamic world. Few people of conscience can be happy at the sight of two powerful Western nations using weapons of dreadful destruction to pummel yet another small nation. Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld complains that it is wrong for the other side to use guerrilla warfare to resist. Already in the West some are comparing the U.S. blitzkrieg approach and the banal statements of its leaders with those of Nazi Germany in 1939. That said, the problem remains of what to do about regimes like Baghdad in the past when it was killing and torturing its citizens in large numbers.

International law and the U.N. Charter rightly condemn unprovoked attacks on sovereign nations. But there has to be some way morality can be imposed on regimes, including our own, when they behave immorally.

With our own regimes, demonstrations have only marginal impact. As someone involved at the time, I am convinced that most of the protest movements during the early Vietnam War years were, if anything, counterproductive; they simply encouraged the people in power to push ahead even more strongly with their mistaken policies, in the hope that ultimate victory would prove them right and the protesters wrong.

Protesters would be far more effective if they were to set up vigils and camps outside the premises of the policymakers. There they should be prepared to sit for years, decades even, quietly handing out the materials and arguments that point out the evils being done in their name. That more than anything else would shame the power-mongers and prick the national conscience.

At the international level, sanctions and U.N. resolutions also have limited effect. Instead, offending regimes should from the start be treated as international pariahs -- they should have their embassies closed and their officials denied not just any role in international gatherings but even the right to travel abroad. Ability to strut the world stage is very important for the morale of a sadistic regime. From within its own ranks, pressure for reform would grow.

A modified version of this pariah state approach worked with apartheid South Africa. It would have worked much faster if the hawks in Pretoria had not been receiving covert support from ungodly outside sources, many in Britain, at the same time.

One problem, of course, is deciding which regime deserves the pariah treatment. As we have seen over Iraq, we cannot rely on the decision-makers in the West to tell us. Inevitably, they will decide on the basis of some perverse national interest at the time. For example, the U.S. tacitly supported a range of rightwing Latin American regimes bent on butchering and torturing leftwing opponents during the 1970s and '80s while bitterly condemning and ostracizing reformist leftwing regimes around the globe.

Amnesty International would be a good arbiter. It keeps close tabs on regime atrocities. It should devise a grading system -- level one, say, for regimes that ostracize dissidents or minorities, level two for regimes that imprison them without cause, level three for use of torture, and so on.

Peace activists around the world could then grade the level of their protest accordingly. They could begin with letter and published-material campaigns, then move to vigils outside the embassies of listed regimes, and so on.

Governments with conscience -- the Scandinavians for example -- could chime in. I remember well the shock in Canberra when Sweden refused arms sales to Australia while it was intervening in Vietnam. Other governments might also be shamed into action.

If something like this had been in place a decade or so ago, then at the very least we might have been spared the current farce over Iraq.

(This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2003 issue of The Japan Times)

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