Iraq: inspecting the situation

The clash between Bush officials and UN weapons inspectors reflects broader shifts in international relations.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Over 21 days, 70 weapons inspectors have inspected 100 buildings in Iraq. Saddam’s regime has published one dossier, consisting of 43 volumes, 11,807 pages (12,807 if you read the Sun) and 12 CD-Roms. The USA has positioned 60,000 troops, 200 planes and 24 Apache helicopters in or around the Gulf. And American and British jets have bombed targets in northern and southern Iraq nine times.

But the world is still none the wiser about whether, when or why the West intends to invade Iraq. Since the weapons inspectors arrived in Baghdad on 18 November 2002, we have been subjected to a tirade of contradictory claims about the Bush administration’s plans.

According to White House spokesman and self-confessed hawk Ari Fleischer it’s up to Saddam to prove he has no weapons. ‘The burden of proof lies with Saddam Hussein’, says Fleischer, calling on Iraq to fulfil UN resolution 1441 and provide a ‘currently accurate, full and complete declaration of all aspects of its programmes to develop weapons’ (1).

But when Iraq did publish its 12,000-page dossier on 7 December 2002 it was denounced as a load of lies – before anyone had even read it. Twenty-four hours before it was published UK foreign secretary Jack Straw predicted that Iraq would ‘produce a misleading dossier’ (2), and 24 hours after it was published he reminded us that every word from Saddam’s mouth is ‘normally a pack of lies’ (3).

Others claim that America is routing for war, whatever the outcome of the inspections. ‘We are being set up for a war against Saddam’, says Independent columnist Robert Fisk, arguing that the Bush administration is ‘smearing’ the inspections team because ‘America plans to go to war whatever the UN inspectors find’ (4).

But the Bush administration denies that war will necessarily follow the discovery of weapons of mass destruction, instead claiming that Iraq will be subjected to further ‘enhanced’ or ‘aggressive’ inspections. ‘There may have to be some seriously thorough inspections’, says one Bush official. According to another, if Iraq is found to be in material breach of the UN resolution, ‘it would not be a reason to go to war, but instead…for enhanced inspections’ (5).

What’s going on? How can Western leaders put the burden of proof on Saddam, but then denounce everything he says as a lie? Why did Bush and co agree to weapons inspections for Iraq, but then undermine the inspectors’ authority? And if America is hell-bent on war, why does it continue to talk up inspections – whether of the enhanced, aggressive or ‘seriously thorough’ varieties?

These tensions over Iraq reflect a broader tension within the US elite – between America’s fear of taking decisive action over Iraq alongside its gritty determination to keep Iraq alive as an international issue. The clash between US leaders and the UN weapons inspectors currently being played out in the world media captures the US authorities’ desire to avoid the unilateral route over Iraq and its desire to continue making mileage out of the Iraqi issue.

Despite widespread claims that America is using Iraq and the war on terror to ‘assert its Empire’, in fact the USA seems keen to avoid unilateral action. There is little appetite for unilateral initiative among Western powers today, including the unchallenged superpower America. Unilateralism has become the dirty word of international relations – and America and the rest increasingly hide their international agendas behind multilateral institutions.

This has been the case since Iraq was turned into ‘the big issue’ of international affairs six months ago. From the outset, US leaders were keen to keep the UN on board. Throughout August and September 2002, President Bush and his officials called on the UN to remain a ‘legitimate’ and ‘relevant’ force by accepting the need to act against Iraq. ‘Will the UN serve the purpose of its founding or will it be irrelevant?’ asked Bush in his address to the UN General Assembly in New York on 12 September 2002 (6).

Many interpreted statements like these as a bad case of America bullying the UN into accepting its agenda – and no doubt the USA was keen to impose its agenda. But they can also be seen as an expression of America’s caution over going it alone on Iraq. Despite Bush’s harsh words, his administration returned to the UN again and again in September 2002, eventually agreeing to a compromise between US and UN aims over Iraq.

Indeed, the only time Bush mentioned unilateral action in his speech to the UN in September was in a dig at Saddam. ‘Right now [UN] resolutions are being unilaterally subverted by the Iraqi regime’, he said. ‘And we want the resolutions of the world’s most important multilateral body to be enforced.’ (7) The message seemed to be that unilateral action is bad – the kind of self-serving action carried out by the likes of Saddam.

After forcing a compromise at the UN, the Bush administration set about seeking the support of as many nations as possible. ‘US approaching 60 nations for support on Iraq’ said a headline in September 2002 (hopefully not the same 60 nations that Bush claimed posed a ‘terror threat’ to the world in March 2002). ‘The Bush administration is desperately seeking international support for its stance on Iraq’, claimed one report, while another told of Bush’s ‘telephone tango’ with France, China and Russia, where he personally ‘tried to persuade sceptical nations that action against Iraq is urgently needed’ (8).

Bush has consistently played down America’s centrality and ambitions over Iraq. ‘We have no territorial ambitions’, he said on 11 November 2002. ‘We don’t seek an Empire.’ (9) Instead he flagged up how ‘we and our allies have fought evil regimes and left in place self-governing and prosperous nations’. Bush has claimed that only a unified stand against Iraq can succeed. ‘We work better as a posse’, he said in November.

Even Richard Perle, a leading Pentagon adviser on Iraq, looks down his nose at unilateralism today. Perle is the most hawkish of the hawks (and the most quotable, judging from the number of times he’s made the headlines as an example of America’s supposedly gung-ho foreign policy). In an interview published on 13 November 2002, Perle was asked about German politicians’ accusations that America is seeking to act unilaterally over Iraq. Far from defending America going it alone if necessary, Perle threw the unilateralist accusation back at his German critics.

‘Germany has subsided into a moral numbing pacifism’, he spat. ‘For the German chancellor to say he will have nothing to do with action against Saddam Hussein, even if approved by the United Nations, is unilateralism.’ (10) So Bush denounces Saddam for being unilateralist and Perle attacks a ‘morally numb’ Germany for being unilateralist. Such outbursts confirm the unilateralist tag as the insult to end all insults in modern international relations.

America’s nervousness about acting alone over Iraq is reflected in the way it continues to talk up the UN as one possible route of action – albeit begrudgingly and critically. ‘Bush administration issues “harsh challenge” to UN’, said a headline in early December 2002, as Bush officials continued to criticise weapon inspectors and called on the UN to ‘face its responsibilities’ over Iraq.

Of course some Bush officials are anti-UN and wish that it would buck up its ideas – and some Bush hawks have no time for the UN at all, wondering why their mighty America doesn’t just assert itself as it sees fit. But even America’s ‘harsh challenges’ to the UN can end up giving the UN a certain authority over Iraq. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a veteran of the first Gulf War of 1991 and no dove, demands that the UN ‘must make a judgement as to whether or not the resolution that they passed unanimously is being complied with’ (11). Rumsfeld may not be a UN fan, but the judgement on Iraq, it would seem, is the UN’s.

Despite anti-war claims that America is remoulding the world in its own image, US leaders seem uncomfortable with asserting their power on the world stage, or with launching a war in the name of any domestic American interest. Why? These changes have come about as a result of broader changes in international relations.

There were some significant shifts in international relations in the post-Cold War 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western elites lost the ‘Evil Empire’, an enemy against which they could define themselves and their world agenda. The West’s victory speeches following the end of Cold War were shortlived. By August 1990, The Atlantic had printed John J Mearsheimer’s essay ‘Why we will soon miss the Cold War’, in which he argued that ‘we may wake up one day lamenting the loss of the order that the Cold War gave to the anarchy of international relations’ (12).

In the post-Cold War world, as the certainties of the previous 45 years were unravelling, Western nations had great difficulties justifying and asserting their international power. The rise of humanitarian intervention in the 1990s was a response to this uncertainty – but it ended up fuelling it by further eroding the institutions that had cohered international relations in the postwar period.

Throughout the 1990s, foreign intervention was increasingly justified in humanitarian terms. Even the Gulf War of 1991 – the USA’s attempt to assert its power in the aftermath of the Cold War, and described by one commentator as ‘the last traditional war’ – ended up being justified as an attempt to protect the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq from Saddam’s regime.

In 1993, US forces launched an invasion of Somalia called ‘Operation Restore Hope’, which they described as an effort to protect Somalis ‘from warlords and poverty’. Later in the decade, US President Clinton and UK prime minister Tony Blair launched their bombing campaign over Kosovo, again justified as an attempt to protect a beleaguered people from a ruthless dictator – this time the Kosovans from Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

There was little that was humanitarian in these ‘humanitarian wars’. Thousands died, nations were torn apart, old divisions were intensified, new divisions created. But humanitarian intervention was largely staged for a domestic audience, rather then being driven by concern for people around the world. Military action became an attempt to invest Western elites with a sense of moral purpose that was lacking in the domestic sphere – and to present their foreign interventions as altruistic and internationalist rather than self-serving.

But humanitarian warfare had a destabilising impact on the world order, rewriting the rules of international relations. Even as the humanitarian agenda boosted the legitimacy of Western elites – particularly in the eyes of their former left-wing critics, who often became the most vocal supporters of humanitarian intervention – it also undermined the idea of a Western agenda in international affairs.

Even as it attempted to resolve uncertainty about the assertion of power in the post-Cold War world, humanitarianism started to remove explicit notions of Western power from the international arena – instead making foreign intervention contingent on ‘helping others’ and being seen to do ‘the right thing’. As a consequence, any idea of military intervention that put the interests of America, Britain or France before anybody else’s became distinctly unfashionable – which is one reason why Western powers have become so susceptible to, and defensive about, accusations of ‘war for oil’, ‘war for prestige’, ‘wagging the dog’, and all the rest.

This created an inversion of power in international relations throughout the 1990s – where military might was increasingly called up in the name of helping those less fortunate than ourselves. The most powerful were not those who were the most assertive or arrogant, but those who did the most to forward ‘humanitarianism’.

Left-wing and anti-war critics attempted to find some material interest in the wars of the 1990s. They claimed that the Gulf War of 1991 was about oil, and some even argued that the invasion of the dustbowl of Somalia in 1993 was a search for oil. Later, Clinton’s bombing of Iraq in 1999 was seen by some as a means of diverting attention from his fling with Monica Lewinsky. But in fact there was nothing obviously self-serving about these conflicts. That is what made them so dangerous. This disinterested foreign policy could operate on a higher moral plane than traditional realpolitik – and in self-styled crusades of Good v Evil, without the geopolitical constraints of the Cold War era, anything could happen. And very often it did.

Denying imperial ambitions, forswearing territorial gains, claiming to have no selfish or strategic interest – these all became second nature to Western elites carrying out humanitarian wars. And this undermined notions of unilateral action on the world stage. This has led to a state of affairs where even the Afghan War of October 2001, in response to the 11 September acts of aggression on US territory, had to be justified in selfless, humanitarian terms.

In the wake of the biggest assault on American sovereignty in decades, many predicted that right-wing republican President Bush would respond by launching a fearsome war against Afghanistan and anybody else accused of harbouring al-Qaeda operatives. In fact, even the Afghan venture was presented as an attempt to rescue beleaguered Afghans from the wrath of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, rather than as a traditional punishment of a terrorist enemy. In his National Security Strategy document published in September 2002, Bush said of the Afghan war:

‘[W]e will continue to work with international organisations such as the United Nations, as well as non-governmental organisations, and other countries to provide the humanitarian, political, economic and security assistance necessary to rebuild Afghanistan so that it will never again abuse its people….’ (13)

This depiction of the post-9/11 Afghan war as an attempt to rebuild a broken state with the help of the UN and NGOs captured how America finds it increasingly difficult to justify its foreign campaigns in anything other than international and humanitarian terms.

Indeed, even though many pro-war advocates tried to present the Afghan War in black-and-white terms, as Good America taking action against Bad Terrorists, it was moral and military confusion over Afghanistan that eventually turned Western attention back to Iraq. The Afghan war has been a sorry affair, with little intelligence to speak of, numerous bodged operations and ever-changing (and unfulfilled) war aims.

In mid-January 2002, Bush said that the war on terror was against the ‘shadowy enemy dwelling in dark corners of the Earth’ – a statement that revealed as much about America’s lack of confidence as it did its lack of intelligence. In the midst of an increasingly disastrous Afghan War, shifting the focus to Iraq was a desperate attempt to give that ‘shadowy enemy’ some definition.

And what is most striking is that even in Iraq, the whipping boy of the Western powers, the Bush administration and its supporters appear desperately uncertain about whether, when or how to assert their authority.

In many ways, Iraq is like a case study of how international tensions have been played out since the end of the Cold War. It has been on the sharp end of many different justifications for warfare. There was the original Gulf War of 1991, which was a kind of crossover war between the Cold War period and the post-Cold War period, between the traditional West/East divide of the postwar era and the new focus on humanitarian intervention.

Since then Iraq has been fingered as a human rights disaster zone, where Western forces justified intervention in the name of protecting Kurds and other minorities. It has been tarnished with the weapons of mass destruction brush, and accused of trying to acquire The Bomb. And more recently it has been charged with supporting international terrorism. Iraq has had every justification for invasion levelled against it, reflecting the shifting focus of humanitarian warfare throughout the 1990s. It has become the symbolic bad boy of world affairs, taking a whacking whenever the West has seen fit.

The West v Iraq clash seems to be a war without end. In June 1993 US forces bombed Baghdad in retaliation for a supposed plot to assassinate Bush senior; in December 1998 the bombs were an attempt to destroy Iraq’s alleged nuclear weapons programme; in February 2001 the West attacked to enforce the ‘no-fly zones’ and to put Saddam ‘back in his cage’ (in the words of Tony Blair); now the charge is that Saddam is ‘addicted to weapons of mass destruction’ and is helping out the likes of al-Qaeda.

But the clashes with Iraq over the past 10 years had little to do with anything that was happening in Iraq itself. Rather these varied ventures against a weakened state were primarily about making the UK and USA look like the tough guys of international politics, about giving the West something that it could define its ‘goodness’ against in the post-Soviet era. America and Britain’s ability to kick up a crisis over something (anything) in Iraq allowed them to turn to the Gulf whenever they needed to look impressive – and the Bush junior administration is not about to give up such a prize.

It is this tension – between America’s caution about taking unilateral action and its determination to hang on to Iraq as its assertive patch – which leads to today’s stand-off between US politicians and UN weapons inspectors. The US wants to keep Saddam as the bad guy of international affairs, the evil regime against which it can assert its ‘humanitarian’ agenda – but what if the weapons inspectors come up with something definitive about the Iraqi regime?

The value of Iraq for many a Western leader was that the claims against it could be changed whenever necessary. The goalposts in the Gulf are constantly shifting. One year Saddam’s human rights abuses are the burning issue, the next it’s his weapons, then it might be his alleged support for bin Laden’s lot. This ability to shift the agenda in Iraq has allowed Britain and the USA to turn to Iraq at different times over the past 10 years.

What if the UN inspectors find out something final about Iraq? What if they conclude that Iraq really doesn’t have weapons of mass destruction; that Saddam’s apology to Kuwait for invading in 1990 is genuine; that the regime can be ‘modified’ rather than changed? What then will become of Western claims that Iraq remains a threat to world peace that occasionally needs to be put ‘back in its cage’?

This could be one reason why Iraq’s 12,000-page dossier on its weapons programmes, and the seriousness with which the UN treated it, seemed to have put the wind up the Bush administration – because it might undermine some of America’s premises for action against its eternal enemy.

And this might explain why the Bush administration has such a strange relationship with the inspectors. It agreed to them going in there as an assertion of Western determination over Iraq, but perhaps it fears their conclusions. This has led to a push-me/pull-you affair, with America backing the inspectors officially, while questioning their effectiveness in leaks to the media.

The USA’s tension over Iraq is most clearly reflected in its attitude to action against Saddam’s regime. US leaders may be cautious about taking decisive or unilateral action, but they want to leave room for action in the future. They may be uncertain of acting now or committing thousands of troops to a potentially bloody invasion, but they don’t want to sign off Iraq as an arena for future intervention.

So American leaders constantly assert that ‘we will act alone if necessary’, even as the evidence suggests that they don’t want to go it alone – not because they have a plan of action, but because they want to keep their options open. In one sense, the current dummy invasions being practiced by thousands of US troops in Qatar can be seen as America asserting its potential to act…without actually acting.

Where previous US and UK governments acted in Iraq, either through massive invasions or sporadic bombing campaigns, Bush and co have sent in the weapons inspectors as a stop-gap measure – not because they are cynically ‘setting us up for war’, as Robert Fisk and others claim, but because they are fearful about doing anything too involved. The end result is a more diluted form of intervention, through inspections rather than invasions, leading to increased tensions in the Western camp – and to a confused combination of heightened rhetoric about Saddam’s threat and caution about taking action against it.

And the Iraqi people? They will continue to live at the mercy of an increasingly indecisive US regime.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War with Iraq

(1) Saddam: Iraq to give the inspectors a chance, Washington Times, 5 December 2002

(2) Iraq prepares weapons dossier, Sky News, 6 December 2002

(3) UK backing for UN inspectors, BBC News, 8 December 2002

(4) We are being set up for a war against Saddam, Robert Fisk, Independent, 4 December 2002

(5) US readies case on Iraq weapons, Washington Post, 6 December 2002

(6) Bush and the need for UN reform, Middle East Times, September 2002

(7) Transcript of Bush’s UN address, MSNBC News, 12 September 2002

(8) Bush in telephone tango over Iraq, CBS News, 6 September 2002

(9) Bush warns of ‘full force’ against Iraq, if needed, Reuters, 12 November 2002

(10) Europe lacks moral fibre, says US hawk, Guardian, 13 November 2002

(11) US readies case on Iraq weapons, Washington Post, 6 December 2002

(12) Why we will soon miss the Cold War, John J Mearsheimer, Atlantic, August 1990

(13) The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, White House, September 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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