The Iraqi Connection

The English historian A.J.P. Taylor once argued that the principal difference between the methodologies of the lawyer and the historian was that ‘the lawyer aims to make a case; the historian wishes to understand a situation’. According to Taylor, the evidence amassed by the lawyer is ‘loaded’ in ways that will maximise the chances of conviction or acquittal:

Anyone who relies on [this kind of evidence] finds it almost impossible to escape from the load with which they are charge’.

Historians, on the other hand, should allow a ‘detached and scholarly’ examination of the evidence to direct them to conclusions rather than taking a stand and then, retrospectively, seeking documents to support their case.

As Washington and London produce their ‘dossiers’ on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) for public persuasion, it is worth recalling Taylor’s warning about ‘loaded’ documents. President Bush and Prime Minister Blair are scraping together a case to support a decision they have already taken for other reasons. They are not interested in a judicious evaluation of the evidence, but they are worried about public opinion.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the lengths governments will go to in order to convince their populations to support a war. The enormous resources of the state and a compliant private media are at their disposal. In this heady mix, facts and truth are early casualties in the war for the public mind. As Mark Twain warned in 1917:

The statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.

The next crucial question in the Iraq drama may not be heard above the clamour of spin and opinion management by Western states. Would conclusive evidence of Iraq’s possession of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons mean that Baghdad is likely to use them against the US and its allies?

President George W. Bush says yes. However, there are good reasons for thinking this is highly unlikely.

First, many states, including the US, the UK and Israel, use these weapons for deterrence against external attack. Why can’t Iraq legitimately use them for this purpose? We are discouraged from seeing things from Iraq’s point of view, but in many ways WMD make sense for vulnerable states. As neo-realist Kenneth Waltz argues:

North Korea, Iraq, Iran and others know that the United States can be held at bay only by deterrence. Weapons of mass destruction are the only means by which they can hope to deter the United States. They cannot hope to do so by relying on conventional weapons.

Secondly, Iraq had chemical and biological weapons during the Gulf War in 1991 and chose not to use them. Why would Saddam Hussein be more inclined to use them now, knowing the horrendous consequences (as they were explained to him by Brent Scowcroft in 1991), unless his personal survival was at stake and he had nothing left to lose?

Thirdly, it is true that Saddam Hussein has used these weapons before, against Iranian soldiers and perhaps most infamously on 17 March 1988 against ‘his own people’ in the Kurdish city of Halabja. Within half an hour of this attack over 5000 men, women and children were dead from chemical weapons containing a range of pathogens which were dropped upon them.

Having used them before, is he more likely to use them again? This is presumed, implied and stated in Western capitals, but the logic of the argument would suggest that the US is likely to use nuclear weapons because it is the only state to have previously dropped them upon civilians. Is this credible?

Fourthly, if Washington and London are genuinely concerned about Iraq’s WMD, why did they continue to supply him with the means to acquire them for eighteen months after the attack on Halabja?

Initially, the US blamed Iran for the Halabja attack, a particularly cynical ploy given that Saddam had also used chemical weapons against Teheran’s forces during their nine-year conflict in the 1980s. In fact Washington continued to treat Saddam as a favoured ally and trading partner long after the attack on Halabja was exposed as his handiwork. At the time, the Reagan Administration tried to prevent criticism in the Congress of Saddam’s chemical attack on the Kurds, and in December 1989 George Bush Sr authorised new loans to Saddam in order to achieve the ‘goal of increasing US exports and put us in a better position to deal with Iraq regarding its human rights record’. Surprisingly, the goal was never reached. In February 1989, eleven months after Halabja, John Kelly, US Assistant Secretary of State, flew to Baghdad to tell Saddam Hussein that ‘you are a source for moderation in the region, and the United States wants to broaden her relationship with Iraq’.

According to the reports of a Senate Committee, the US Department of Commerce licensed the export of biological materials — including a range of pathogenic agents — as well as plans for chemical and biological warfare production facilities and chemical-warhead filling equipment — to Iraq until December 1989,twenty months after Halabja. According to William Blum a ‘veritable witch’s brew of biological materials were exported to Iraq by private American suppliers’, including Bacillus anthracis (causes anthrax), Clostridium botulinum (a source of botulinum toxin), Histoplasma capsulatam (causes disease which attacks lungs, brain, spinal chord and heart), Brucella melitensis (bacteria which attack vital organs) and other toxic agents. The US Senate Committee said ‘these biological materials were not attenuated or weakened and were capable of reproduction’ and it was later discovered that ‘these microorganisms exported by the United States were identical to those the United Nations inspectors found and removed from the Iraqi biological warfare program’.

Historian Gabriel Kolko claims that:

The United States supplied Iraq with intelligence throughout the war [with Iran] and provided it with more than US$5 billion in food credits, technology, and industrial products, most coming after it began to use mustard, cyanide and nerve gases against both Iranians and dissident Iraqi Kurds.

Finally, the West was supporting Saddam when he committed the worst of his crimes at the zenith of his power and influence. In terms of international support — especially Western and Soviet backing — the strength of his armed forces and the state of his industry and equipment, Saddam was much more dangerous then than he is now under harsh UN sanctions, no-fly zones in the north (since 1991) and south (since 1993) of the country, political isolation and a degraded civilian infrastructure. Why are Saddam’s attempts to develop WMD a concern now if they weren’t when he actually used them?

It should be noted that there is no serious US interest in a democratic transition in Iraq, because this could ultimately encourage the Shi’ite majority in the country to pursue a closer relationship with Shi’ite Iran. It is more likely that a dissident former General, possibly involved in war crimes against Iraq’s Kurdish or Shi’ite communities, will be returned from exile and presented as the ‘democratic opposition’ to Saddam Hussein. The US is interested in compliance rather than democracy. A pro-Western, anti-Iranian, secular ‘iron fist’ would do.

The spectacle of governments in Washington, London, Canberra and elsewhere trying to persuade their doubtful populations about the need to attack Iraq is a concession that they have already lost the first battle. The ‘proof’ they produce will need to be much more substantive and convincing than the circumstantial al-Qaeda dossier which the Blair Government released to the House of Commons last year to justify an attack on Afghanistan.



According to leading American neo-realist Kenneth Waltz, ‘a country disposing of greater power than others cannot long be expected to behave with decency and moderation’. It becomes greedy, dangerous and threatening, especially to those states which don’t axiomatically acknowledge their subordination to its power. Preponderant states are always tempted to lead with their strongest suit — force and violence. This is what has traditionally allowed them to impose their will on others in the international system. As Charles Tilly has argued:

The central tragic fact is simple: coercion … works; those who apply substantial force to their fellows get compliance, and from that compliance draw the multiple advantages of money, goods, deference, access to pleasures denied to less powerful people.

Often the dominant power will become arrogant enough to define itself as ‘the international community’ and claim to set the standards others should follow. This can be just as dangerous. As Australia’s leading international theorist Hedley Bull warned:

Particular states or groups of states that set themselves up as the authoritative judges of the world common good, in disregard of the views of others, are in fact a menace to international order.

This is the context in which Washington’s push towards strategic pre-emption can be understood. Technological fetishism and doctrinal changes are traditional Washington responses to challenges with economic, political and social bases.

According to international law specialist Michael Byers, ‘there is almost no support for a right of anticipatory self-defence as such in present-day customary international law’. To the extent that pre-emptive action is permissible under Article 51 of the UN Charter, it requires very strong evidence and there is a heavy burden of justification. The United States would have to be facing a specific, grave and imminent threat from Iraq which could only be averted by the use of force. Otherwise a unilateral strike not authorised by the UN Security Council would be an act of aggression and a breach of international law.

Christine Gray, author of a seminal modern text on the use of force under international law, argues that the reluctance of states ‘to invoke anticipatory self-defence is in itself a clear indication of the doubtful status of this jurisdiction for the use of force’. According to Gray, in cases where Israel (Beirut 1968, Tunis 1985) and the US (Libya 1986, Iraq 1993, Sudan and Afghanistan 1998) have invoked anticipatory self-defence under Article 51 to justify attacks on their enemies, ‘the actions look more like reprisals, because they were punitive rather than defensive’. The problem for the US and Israel, she argues, ‘is that all states agree that in principle forcible reprisals are unlawful’.

By definition, pre-emptive strikes depend on conclusive intelligence. If the intelligence is wrong — as it was on 20 August 1998 when the Clinton Administration attacked the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, mistakenly believing it was an al-Qaeda chemical weapons factory, the results can be catastrophic for the innocent — self-defence becomes aggression.

Interestingly, the US has not always supported the ‘doctrine’ of anticipatory self-defence, even when its closest allies invoked it. On 7 June 1981 unmarked American-built F-16 aircraft of the Israeli airforce attacked and destroyed a nuclear reactor at Osirak in Iraq. The raid was authorised by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, but had been internally opposed by Yitzhak Hofi, the director of Mossad, and Major-General Yehoshua Saguy, chief of military intelligence, because there was no evidence that Iraq was capable of building a nuclear bomb. This was also the view of the International Atomic Energy Authority. At the time of the attack, Israel itself had been developing and accumulating nuclear weapons for thirteen years, mostly at its nuclear facility at Dimona.

In response to Israel’s unprovoked pre-emptive strike, US Vice-President George Bush Sr argued that sanctions had to be imposed on Israel. The US State Department condemned the bombing for its destabilising impact ‘which cannot but seriously add to the already tense situation in the area’. The basis of Washington’s concern, it must be said, was not its opposition to anticipatory self-defence per se but that Israel had violated the UN Charter by not exhausting all peaceful means for the resolution of the conflict — in truth no peaceful resolution had been sought. A few days after the raid, Ronald Reagan’s White House announced that the planned delivery of four additional F-16s to Israel would be suspended in protest against the attack. The suspension was discreetly lifted soon after.

In the current climate when pre-emptive attacks are being invoked as just responses to terrorism, it is worth recalling the comments of Princeton University historian Arno Mayer in Le Monde shortly after the September 11 attacks:

Since 1947 America has been the chief and pioneering perpetrator of ‘pre-emptive’ state terror, exclusively in the Third World and therefore widely disassembled. Besides the unexceptional subversion and overthrow of governments in competition with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Washington has resorted to political assassinations, surrogate death squads, and unseemly freedom fighters (e.g. Bin Laden). It masterminded the killing of Lumumba and Allende; and it unsuccessfully tried to put to death Castro, Khadafi, and Saddam Hussein … and vetoed all efforts to rein in not only Israel’s violation of international agreements and UN resolutions but also its practice of pre-emptive state terror.



From the middle of last century Washington’s foreign policy priority in the Middle East was to establish US control over what the State Department described as ‘a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the great material prizes in world history’, namely the region’s vast reserves of crude oil. Middle Eastern oil was regarded in Washington as ‘probably the richest economic prize in the world in the field of foreign investment’, in what President Eisenhower described as the most ‘strategically important area in the world’.

Control could be most easily maintained via a number of despotic feudal oligarchies in the Gulf which ensured that the extraordinary wealth of the region would be shared between a small number of ruling families and US oil companies, rather than European commercial competitors or the population of these states. Until recently the US has not needed the oil for itself though it needed to ensure that the oil price stayed within a desirable range — not too low or too high. A side benefit of this control over such a vital industrial resource is the influence it gives the US over economic development in rival countries such as Japan.

The greatest threat to this control has always been independent economic nationalism, especially nationalist politicians within the oil-producing region who, unlike the feudal oligarchies of the Gulf states, would channel wealth into endogenous development priorities rather than to US transnationals.

The US wants to secure reliable access to the world’s second largest oil reserves, 112 billion barrels already with possibly double that figure still to be mapped and claimed, thus depriving France and Russia of commercial advantages they have developed in Iraq over the last decade when US companies have been excluded. Just as importantly, access to Iraqi oil would also make the US less reliant upon — and therefore less supportive of — the regime in Saudi Arabia. The geo-political dynamics of the Middle East would be transformed.

If Russia and France maintain their inside track on Iraqi oil, then US corporations will be partially shut out from an enormous resource prize. No US administration is likely to accept that scenario. Meanwhile, Iraqi dissidents close to Washington have promised to cancel all existing oil contracts awarded to firms which do not assist the US to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Regime change in Baghdad could therefore be a bonanza for US oil companies and a disaster for Russian and French companies which have painstakingly built up their relations with the Iraqi dictator since the Gulf war. When Iraq’s oil comes fully back on stream, as many as 5 million barrels of oil (or 6.5 per cent) could be added to the world’s daily supply. The implications of this for existing suppliers, the global spot price, economic growth, OPEC and the world’s consumers are enormous.

This is not primarily an issue of dependence. The US was just as concerned about controlling Middle East oil-producing regions when it didn’t depend on them at all. Until about thirty years ago, North America was the largest producer and the US scarcely used Middle East oil at all. Since then Venezuela has normally been the largest oil exporter to the United States. US intelligence projections suggest that in coming years the US will rely primarily on Western Hemisphere resources: Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, probably Colombia, and possibly Canada, which has huge potential reserves if they become economically competitive. Imported supplies accounted for 50 per cent of US oil consumption in 2000 and by 2020 the figure is expected to rise to 66 per cent.

Control over the world’s greatest concentration of energy resources has two goals: (1) economic: huge profits for energy corporations, construction firms, arms producers, as well as petrodollars recycled to US treasury, etc; and (2) it is a lever of global geo-political control. For those trying to understand the motives behind US behaviour towards Iraq, it is impossible to overestimate the importance which oil has in the minds of Washington’s strategic planners.


Australian responses

On 9 September John Howard said that ‘we can’t be certain either way’ whether there are any links between Iraq and September 11. Excuse me Prime Minister? The absence of any evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda leaves us uncertain about the relationship? Reversing the onus of proof in this way sets an interesting precedent for rules of evidence. By this standard ‘we can’t be certain either way’ whether Harold Holt was picked up off Portsea by a Chinese submarine or if Sir John Kerr was a CIA operative.

By Tuesday the Iraq-September 11 nexus became, in the Prime Minister’s words, a ‘potential threat link’ and later ‘a generic link,’ a concession that no evidence exists connecting Saddam with Bin Laden despite extraordinary efforts to find some. The ‘new dimension in international affairs’ since last September, said the PM, ‘is the reality that rogue states or groups of terrorists can successfully assault the citadels of economic and military power’. True enough. Vietnam, Nicaragua, Panama and Serbia, to name only four countries attacked by a rogue state in recent times, hardly qualify as ‘citadels of economic and military power’. Atrocities of the September 11 kind are supposed to happen elsewhere, and then elicit little excitement in the West.

The Iraq issue in Australia suddenly centred on the honour and integrity of the UN, a subject not previously thought to have concerned the Howard Government. The international community ‘can’t afford’ to have its authority ‘brushed aside’, says foreign minister Downer; otherwise it will ‘look meaningless and weak, completely ineffectual’. According to the Prime Minister, ‘if the United Nations Security Council doesn’t rise to its responsibilities on this occasion it will badly weaken its credibility’.

Former chief weapons inspector and Australian Ambassador to the UN, Richard Butler, argues that the Security Council faces the ‘challenge of its life’ and that its future will be ‘terminal’ if it doesn’t hold Iraq to account this time. His predecessor at the UN, Michael Costello, agrees. ‘If the UN Security Council won’t enforce its own resolutions against Iraq, the whole UN collective security system will be badly wounded, perhaps fatally.’

One might have thought that the credibility of the UN Security Council had been badly weakened before now, say in Bosnia in 1993, Rwanda in 1994 or in East Timor in 1999, to cite only three recent cases when it failed to protect defenceless civilians from slaughter. Palestinians might wonder why the organisation’s authority hasn’t been ‘brushed aside’ by Israel’s consistent non-compliance with numerous Security Council resolutions calling for its withdrawal from occupied territories, from resolution 242 in 1967 to resolution 1402 last March.

Washington clearly has an idiosyncratic view about states complying with UN Security Council resolutions. If the US objects to non-compliance, the country is attacked. If the US favors non-compliance it either vetoes the resolution or disregards it, in which case it is as good as vetoed. Since the early 1970s, for example, the US has vetoed twenty-two draft Security Council resolutions on Palestine alone — this figure doesn’t include seven vetoes relating to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s.

At the National Press Club, and later on commercial talkback radio, Mr Howard seemed to think that because Israel was a democracy it shouldn’t be judged by the same standards as Iraq. The future of the UN Security Council is not apparently terminal when its resolutions regarding Palestine and Israel are flouted. He should be reminded that democracies are just as obliged to observe international law as authoritarian dictatorships — there is no exemption. In fact we should expect a higher commitment to the rule of law from countries which assert their democratic credentials.

Despite rhetoric which portrays the UN as a foreign body at its moment of truth, it is nothing more than the states which comprise it — including Australia and the US. If it has become dysfunctional, it is those member states which manipulate it for their own individual purposes which are to blame. Those who think the credibility of the UN is suddenly at risk over the question of Iraq might like to explain why non-compliance now is suddenly a pretext for an imminent attack on Iraq, when Baghdad has been in violation of UN Security Council resolutions for four years.

The Prime Minister asks if Iraq has ‘nothing to hide and nothing to conceal from the world community, why has it repeatedly refused to comply with the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council?’

Perhaps it is for the same reason that he restricts the UN from entering Australia’s refugee detention centres. Or for the same reason that Israel would not allow the UN to inspect its research institute at Nes Ziona near Tel Aviv, which produces chemical and biological weapons, a stockpile of chemical agents Mr Howard claims he is ‘not aware’ of. If he had bothered to inquire, Mr Howard would have found that ‘there is hardly a single known or unknown form of chemical or biological weapons … which is not manufactured at the institute’, according to a biologist who held a senior post in Israeli intelligence. Nes Ziona does not work on defensive and protective devices, but only biological weapons for attack, claims the British Foreign Report.

The Prime Minister believes that Iraq’s ‘aspiration to develop a nuclear capacity’ might be a sufficient pretext for war. He has repeatedly claimed that ‘there is already a mountain of evidence in the public domain’, though he didn’t say what any of it actually proved beyond the existing public record, or how it established that the United States faces a specific, grave and imminent threat from Iraq which can only be averted by the use of force — under international law, the only justification for a pre-emptive attack.

According to the Prime Minister, the mountain of evidence includes a recently released IISS report which actually found Saddam was much less dangerous now than in the past when he was backed by the West. Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, described the IISS report as little more than conjecture. ‘It’s absurd. It has zero factual basis. It’s all rhetoric … speculative and meaningless.’ There was a similar response to President Bush’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 12 September, which outlined Iraq’s breaches of international law. According to Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman, Bush’s speech was ‘clumsy and shallow’ and little more than ‘a glorified press release’. It offered little, if anything, that wasn’t already on the public record. More a trough than a mountain.

At the UN on 13 September, Foreign Minister Downer claimed that ‘Iraq’s flagrant and persistent defiance is a direct challenge to the United Nations, to the authority of the Security Council, to international law, and to the will of the international community’. Four days later in the Australian Parliament Mr Downer repeated the charges that Iraq ‘directly challenges the authority of the United Nations and international law’, that it poses ‘a grave threat’ to the world, that it ‘has flouted and frustrated UN resolutions … persistently defied legally binding obligations’ and is therefore ‘a serial transgressor’. Every one of these comments could also have been made about Israel. However, for reasons not explained there are to be no dossiers presented to the Parliament outlining its breaches of UN resolutions, it won’t be called ‘a serial transgressor’ of international law, nor has its long history of defying Security Council resolutions ever meant that ‘the authority of the United Nations was at stake’.

Neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Minister has answered the key question: where is the new evidence that makes military action against Iraq more urgent now than it has been since December 1998 when Richard Butler withdrew UNSCOM from Iraq?

This could be 1990. If either the Government or the Opposition had bothered to consult the region as both had promised, they would find it almost uniformly opposed to a US-led attack on Iraq: Canberra is again out of step with the neighbours. As Bob Hawke proved twelve years ago and John Howard demonstrates today, at moments of global crisis Canberra defaults to its Pacific alliance, and regional engagement is exposed as skin deep. If that. At this point in time the ALP wants a UN-based multilateral solution to the crisis but isn’t expected to hold to its principles if Washington proceeds with a unilateral strike against Iraq which the Howard Government supports.

If Washington bypasses the Security Council or cannot get UN authorisation for a strike against Iraq, but unilaterally attacks Iraq regardless, it will have done great damage to the UN’s credibility. The Prime Minister will then need more than ‘loaded’ evidence to convince an increasingly sceptical public to support a clear breach of international law.


Scott Burchill lectures in International Relations at Deakin University.

Categorised: Against the Current

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