Clinton’s Other War

When it comes to the continuing conflict in Iraq, the administration can’t seem to get its story straight, and the media can’t seem to get the story at all.

Image: AP Photo/Jassim Mohammed

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Most of the United States’ attention is now focused on the NATO bombing of Kosovo. But just because a new war has started doesn’t mean the old one is over. On Friday, the U.S. bombed an Iraqi communications control facility and an Iraqi radio relay station — one more incident to add to the eighty-plus that have occured over the past three months. However, the media seemingly lost interest in this tired conflict months ago, after the dramatic headlines and night-glow images of Operation Desert Fox had subsided.

Newspapers have generally relegated their coverage of the more recent U.S./British bombing “incidents” to a few paragraphs in the international section. And Time and Newsweek have largely ignored the ongoing campaign, which has inflicted more damage than December’s intensive four-day bombing blitz.

Neither magazine, amazingly, bothered to report the January 25 missile attacks on civilian areas that wounded nearly 100 people and killed ten children. Newsweek didn’t even mention the current conflict with Iraq in its March 8 issue devoted entirely to “Americans at War.” (The magazine did have the audacity to claim, though, that “America has not started a war in this century.” Perhaps Vietnam was just a decade-long police action.)

The media’s relative silence is disturbing, but hardly surprising: the U.S. government’s attempt to defeat Iraq through a slow-moving war of attrition just doesn’t make for good copy. Combine that fact with the Clinton administration’s bumblingly inconsistent spin, and the result is an American public that has remained mostly in the dark about its government’s past, present, and future actions in Iraq.

The UNSCOM spy revelations

We know now that United States intelligence operatives used the cover of UNSCOM inspections to spy on the Iraqis — a charge that the Iraqis had long alleged. The day before the Boston Globe and The Washington Post reported, on January 6, that “U.S. intelligence agencies, working under the cover of the United Nations, carried out an ambitious spying operation,” the Clinton administration refused comment on the issue. The day the story broke, UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler stated at the United Nations in New York that “we have never conducted spying for anybody” and insisted that UNSCOM did not possess any eavesdropping equipment.

After the papers broke the story, the Clinton administration acknowledged that the United States had received intelligence information about Iraq from UNSCOM inspectors. However, State Department Spokesman James Rubin asserted that “it is my understanding that at no time did the U.S. work with anyone at UNSCOM to collect information for the purpose of undermining the Iraqi regime.”

The next day, Kenneth Bacon of the Defense Department attempted to “clarify” matters:

Bacon: In order to do its job, UNSCOM asked about 40 different countries at various times to support its mission…so we responded to UNSCOM’s request.

Q: Despite the fact that you say that UNSCOM had to be increasingly aggressive about its job…that increased aggression did not include spying?

Bacon: It had to work hard to gather information…

Q: Where do you draw the line between spying and just gathering information?

Bacon: I don’t. There’s no need to. UNSCOM was a disarmament agency, not a spy agency.

Then the story changed again. On March 2, The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence services “infiltrated agents and espionage equipment for three years…to eavesdrop on the Iraqi military without the knowledge of the U.N. agency that it used to disguise its work.” (Unfortunately, only articles printed within the last two weeks are readily available on the Post’s Web site. You have to pay a small fee to download it.) U.S. officials had apparently “considered the risk of discrediting an international arms control system by infiltrating it for their own eavesdropping…[and] they deemed the risks worth running.”

Even while printing these revelations, most newspapers did not address their implications: The justification for bombing Iraq had been thrown into question. The December bombing blitz was precipitated by the release of Butler’s report stating that Iraq was not satisfactorily complying with UNSCOM inspections — partially because they believed UNSCOM was a front for U.S. spying operations. UNSCOM was a front for U.S. spying operations. We bombed them anyway.

The Debate Over The “No-Fly” Zones

Despite being caught once using a U.N. operation to conceal its actions, the U.S. continues to veil its Iraq policy behind the authority of the United Nations. In a January 5 press briefing, State Department Spokesman Rubin explained that U.S. and British enforcement of

“…the no-fly zones [is] very important to protect the people of Iraq from its dictatorship, which has so blatantly and completely brutalized and terrorized it. We have been enforcing no-fly zones since 1991. The coalition created them in accordance with [U.N.] Resolution 688, as well as Resolution 678 and 687. We are acting pursuant to those resolutions.”

Perhaps Mr. Rubin should read the resolutions.

Resolution 687 (1991) allows for the creation of “a Special Commission, which shall carry out immediate on-site inspection of Iraq’s biological, chemical and missile capabilities” and clarifies the sanctions levied against Baghdad.

Resolution 688 (1991) “condemns the repression of the Iraqi civilian population in many parts of Iraq” and calls for humanitarian efforts “to address urgently the critical needs of the refugees.”

Only Resolution 678 (1990) could remotely be interpreted to authorize the no-fly zones. It demands that Iraq “comply fully with Resolution 660” (which called for Iraq to withdraw its forces from Kuwait) and “authorizes Member States … to use all necessary means” to implement resolution 660 and “all subsequent relevant resolutions.”

However, nowhere in the body of any of the three resolutions is the concept of a “no-fly” zone introduced. Yet the Clinton administration continues to use the pretext of U.N. mandates to justify the bombing runs — and the major U.S. media outlets do little more than echo that assertion. Not once in two months of (rarely) reporting the conflict did Time  or Newsweek  even mention that the legality of the no-fly zones has been contested by Russia and China, two of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Instead, the media has characterized all opposition to the no-fly zones as coming from Iraq, which “considers” the zones illegal and an infringement of its sovereignty.

The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998

While continuing to enforce the no-fly zones, the U.S. is also strategizing new ways to defeat Saddam. Once again, these actions have been kept mostly out of the public eye. On October 31, President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which authorizes the president to give up to $97 million in weapons, “defense services,” and military training to Iraqi opposition groups that are “opposed to the Saddam Hussein regime and are committed to democratic values.” When Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott introduced the bill, he said, “It is time to openly state our policy goal is the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power.”

The bill was signed despite widespread concerns — even within the Clinton administration — that it would lead to fractiousness and instability within Iraq. In an October 22 article in USA Today, even the region’s commanding officer, Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni (who claims that he was never consulted about the bill), expressed doubts: “I don’t think this has been thought out … A Saddam in place and contained is better than promoting something that causes Iraq to explode, implode, fragment into pieces, cause turmoil.” (Such concerns have put the actual disbursement of arms and military support on hold, but the policy remains in place.)

The passage of the bill was barely noticed by the media, despite the ethical and legal implications of a formal U.S. policy to remove a sovereign country’s leader from power, the dubious likelihood of such a plan succeeding, and the tremendous resources committed. Even more disturbing was an article that appeared in the December 28 issue of U.S. News and World Report claiming, incredulously, that

” … there appears to be little intensification of American efforts to weaken Saddam’s grip on the Iraqi people. Retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing, who has advised some of the Iraqi opposition leaders, says there have been no efforts to start training opposition groups … or other steps to bolster their standing.”

Surely the passage of a bill — two months before the publication of the article — authorizing almost $100 million in military aid to Iraqi opposition groups qualifies as “bolstering” their standing. The article only acknowledged the provisions of the Iraq Liberation Act in passing: “Administration officials tout a new ‘containment plus’ strategy…while working more aggressively with Iraqi dissidents who might one day depose Saddam.” Actually, ousting Saddam Hussein had become a formalized U.S. foreign policy objective.

If media reports were misleading, the Clinton administration was just plain evasive. At a State Department Briefing on October 13, after Congress had passed the Iraq Liberation Act, spokesman Rubin fielded a question about how the $97 million would be spent: “We have an elaborate arrangement that we’ve briefed Congress on, on how to spend those funds. And it is a broad-based arrangement designed to promote and present … a Democratic alternative, and to get maximum cooperation between the various groups.” Attempts by the reporter to get Rubin to further define this “elaborate arrangement” were unsuccessful.

Undoubtedly, the Clinton administration will continue to fumble and misrepresent its way through future actions against Iraq — and the media will continue to miss the story. Unfortunately, the majority of the American public believes what they read (or don’tread) in Time and Newsweek. The lesson learned from all of this? What you do isn’t as important as what you say you do, especially when you’re blessed with a complicit press and a complacent public.

Photo by AP Photo/Jassim Mohammed

Important Links

In search of an alternative perspective on the U.S.-Iraqi conflict? The following Web sites are good places to start.

The Iraq Foundation
In their words: “The Iraq Foundation is a non-profit, non-governmental organization working for democracy and human rights in Iraq…”
In other words: A good source for frequent updates on Iraq-related news. The site also provides information on human rights in Iraq and an online forum.

The Iraq Action Coalition
In their words: “The Iraq Action Coalition is an independent grassroots coalition dedicated to ending the war on the people of Iraq…”
In other words: The place to go for information on the sanctions, including an online petition and a speakers resource list.

The International Action Center
In their words: “The IAC was initiated in 1992 by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark … to expose the U.S. bombing of innocent Iraqi civilians…”
In other words: The IAC site specializes in the legal aspects of the Iraqi conflict. Added bonuses: information on Mumia Abu-Jamal and the crisis in Kosovo.

The Open Directory Project
In their words: “The Open Directory Project’s goal is to produce the most comprehensive directory of the Web, by relying on a vast army of volunteer editors.”
In other words: Their page on Iraq contains a broad array of speakers, video clips, essays, book listings, and other information.

Iraq Net Information Network
In their words: “Iraq Net is a small effort towards bringing Iraqis scattered around the globe, to one place. To share ideas, discuss Iraqi concerns, meet old friends.”
In other words: Here you’ll find tons of links to news organizations, an “events board” highlighting important events worldwide, an online forum, and a chat community.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
In their words: “The [ADC] is a civil-rights organization committed to defending the rights of people of Arab descent and promoting their rich cultural heritage.”
In other words: Although you have to dig a little to find information specifically on Iraq, it’s there, along with information on Palestinian statehood and threats to Arab-American civil liberties.

U.S. Out of the Gulf: Committee Against U.S. Intervention
In their words: They don’t describe who they are or give a mission statement on the site, at least not one we could find.
In other words: This site has plenty of links to newspaper coverage of the Iraq fiasco, as well as to anti-intervention essays written by people like Dennis Halliday, Noam Chomsky, and Camille Paglia.


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