President Bush's February 26 Speech on the Future of Iraq: A Critique
by Stephen Zunes
March 10, 2003
Considerable attention has been given to President George W. Bush's February 26 speech before the right-wing American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC outlining his vision of the Middle East in the aftermath of a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq. The speech was broadcast live over national radio and television and given widespread coverage in the print media, yet few critical voices questioning the major points raised in this sanctimonious and highly misleading address were given the opportunity to offer commentary. Below are excerpts of some key portions of the speech followed by some critiques that listeners and viewers were unable to hear:
"In Iraq, a dictator is building and hiding weapons that could enable him to dominate the Middle East and intimidate the civilized world--and we will not allow it."
The Bush administration has yet to provide any proof that Iraq is currently building or hiding such weapons. Even if in the likely event that the Iraqi regime has squirreled away certain proscribed materials, it is unclear as to how they would be able to dominate the Middle East or intimidate the "civilized world." Two other countries in the region (Israel and Pakistan) already have nuclear weapons and several others are believed to have chemical and biological weapons, all in excess to even the most alarmist assessments of what Iraq may currently possess. Iraq, alone among these countries, is under strict military and economic sanctions that deny them access to much of the raw materials and technology that enabled them to initially develop their weapons of mass destruction during the 1980s, virtually all of which were accounted for and destroyed during the 1990s. As a result, it is unclear as to how Iraq could develop an arsenal that could dominate and threaten anybody, particularly with the United States and its heavily armed allies acting as a deterrent.
"This same tyrant has close ties to terrorist organizations, and could supply them with the terrible means to strike this country--and America will not permit it."
The Bush administration has been unable to put forward any evidence that Iraq or any other government in the region has any intent to pass on weapons of mass destruction to a terrorist group. Reports from the U.S. State Department, the FBI, and the CIA have indicated a marked decline in Iraqi support for international terrorism over the past fifteen years, largely as a result of a fear of American retaliation. In particular, Bush administration claims that the Islamist Al Qaeda--by far the most dangerous terrorist network--has any ties with the secular Baathist government in Iraq have, upon closer examination, proved groundless.
"The first to benefit from a free Iraq would be the Iraqi people, themselves. Today they live in scarcity and fear, under a dictator who has brought them nothing but war, and misery, and torture."
The scarcity of basic food and medicines are a direct result of the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq. Prior to the imposition of the sanctions in 1990, Iraqis had the highest per capita caloric intake in the Arab world and one of the Middle East's most advanced health care systems. Furthermore, most visitors to the country report that at this point the Iraqis' greatest fear by far is the threat of a foreign invasion.
"Their lives and their freedom matter little to Saddam Hussein--but Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us."
There is little evidence to support the claim that Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to the U.S. government. During the height of Saddam Hussein's repression during the 1980s, the United States provided military and economic aid to his government and even covered up for Iraqi human rights abuses, such as falsely claiming that the Iranians were responsible for the Halabja massacre and other atrocities. The heavy U.S.-led bombing campaign during the 1991 Gulf War targeted much of Iraq's civilian infrastructure, including the country's irrigation and water purification systems. The subsequent sanctions have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, mostly children. In addition, U.S. air strikes killed at least 5,000 civilians during the Gulf War and several hundred have died from subsequent U.S. military action. At the end of the Gulf War, thousands of retreating Iraqi soldiers--mostly unwilling conscripts with no loyalty to the regime--were slaughtered by U.S. forces.
"If we must use force, the United States and our coalition stand ready to help the citizens of a liberated Iraq. We will deliver medicine to the sick, and we are now moving into place nearly 3 million emergency rations to feed the hungry."
According to United Nations, as a result of the destruction of large segments of the country's infrastructure during the 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent sanctions, at least 60% of Iraq's population of 24 million is directly dependent on the Iraqi government and its distribution network for daily food supplies, which would come to a virtual halt in the event of war. Few Iraqis have food supplies lasting for more than a few days. Three million emergency rations will be woefully inadequate.
"We'll make sure that Iraq's 55,000 food distribution sites, operating under the Oil For Food program, are stocked and open as soon as possible. The United States and Great Britain are providing tens of millions of dollars to the UN High Commission on Refugees, and to such groups as the World Food Program and UNICEF, to provide emergency aid to the Iraqi people."
U.S. contributions to United Nations humanitarian agencies is among the lowest per capita in the industrialized world. The Bush administration has recently shown its contempt for these UN agencies by vetoing a UN Security Council resolution this past December that criticized Israel for its destruction of the World Food Program's food warehouse in the occupied Gaza Strip and its killing of several UN relief workers in Palestinian refugee camps.
"We will also lead in carrying out the urgent and dangerous work of destroying chemical and biological weapons."
If the Bush administration knows that such weapons actually exist and where they are located, why have they not told United Nations Monitoring and Verification Commission (UNMOVIC), which has a mandate to destroy them? If the Bush administration does not have such information and UNMOVIC cannot find these alleged weapons, how will the United States be able to find them in the chaos of a post-invasion Iraq when rogue agents may try to smuggle them out of the country?
"We will provide security against those who try to spread chaos, or settle scores…"
Given the utter failure of the United States to do this in Afghanistan--where the United States has refused to deploy peacekeeping forces outside of Kabul and rural areas have descended into an anarchy of feuding war lords, ethnic militias, and opium magnates--how can he expect to do this in Iraq?
"… or threaten the territorial integrity of Iraq."
Why, then, has the United States encouraged Turkey to invade and occupy the northern part of Iraq in the event of a U.S. war against Saddam Hussein's regime, particularly given the strident opposition to such intervention by the Kurds who populate that part of the country and have experienced a large degree of autonomy since 1991? The Turkish government is notorious for its longstanding and severe repression against Kurdish people inside its borders, raising serious concerns about the security of the ethnic Kurdish population in Iraq in the event of a U.S.-backed Turkish occupation.
"We will seek to protect Iraq's natural resources from sabotage by a dying regime, and ensure those resources are used for the benefit of the owners--the Iraqi people."
Historically, the United States has shown great hostility when Middle Eastern countries have sought to control their oil resources. For example, when neighboring Iran nationalized a foreign-controlled oil conglomerate in the 1950s, the CIA staged a coup that toppled the constitutional government and installed the Shah as dictator. The Shah then promptly turned over most of the country's oil resources to American oil companies.
"The United States has no intention of determining the precise form of Iraq's new government. That choice belongs to the Iraqi people. Yet, we will ensure that one brutal dictator is not replaced by another. All Iraqis must have a voice in the new government, and all citizens must have their rights protected."
The United States has a long history of determining the form of government in Third World countries, at times even selecting a country's leaders, and frequently showing little regard for the rights of citizens. Today, the leading candidates floated by the United States to replace Saddam Hussein have little in the way of democratic credentials and some--such as some former Iraqi generals who are on the list--have in the past engaged in war crimes.
"After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments. We established an atmosphere of safety, in which responsible, reform-minded local leaders could build lasting institutions of freedom. In societies that once bred fascism and militarism, liberty found a permanent home."
In Chile, Iran, Guatemala, and a number of other countries, the United States helped overthrow democratic governments and replaced them with brutal military dictatorships. To this day, throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, the United States supports autocratic, corrupt, and militaristic regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and other countries, as well as occupation armies in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, northern Cyprus, and Western Sahara. There is little reason to believe that the Bush administration would suddenly adopt a radically different policy of supporting reform-minded and freedom-loving leaders.
"There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. The nation of Iraq--with its proud heritage, abundant resources, and skilled and educated people--is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom."
There are some key differences between Germany and Japan of 1945 and Iraq today. Germany had a democratic parliamentary system prior to Hitler seizing power in the early 1930s and Japan had some semblance of a constitutional monarchy prior to the rise of militarism in the late 1920s, whereas Iraq has never had a representative government. Germany and Japan were homogeneous societies with a strong sense of national identity, whereas Iraq is an artificial creation thrown together from three Ottoman provinces by colonial powers that has only been truly independent for 45 years; fighting between Arabs and Kurds and between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands in recent decades. In addition, most Germans and Japanese recognized that their defeat and occupation was a direct result of their leaders' aggression against its neighbors, whereas the Iraqis--whose government has been far weaker and less aggressive now than it was in the past--are more likely to see an American takeover as an act of Western imperialism and will thereby likely make it more difficult to establish a widely accepted and stable regime. Finally, the idealistic New Deal liberals who helped create open political systems in post-war Germany and Japan arguably had a stronger personal commitment to democracy than the right-wing neoconservatives in the Bush administration, who have a history of supporting dictatorial governments that support U.S. strategic and economic interests.
"Success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state. The passing of Saddam Hussein's regime will deprive terrorist networks of a wealthy patron that pays for terrorist training, and offers rewards to families of suicide bombers."
While the Iraqi government has offered some financial aid to families of Palestinians killed in their struggle against Israel--including relatives of suicide bombers--there is no evidence that Iraq has actually sent any money. Most of the funding of terrorist groups in Palestine comes from Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally that annually receives billions of dollars worth of arms transfers as well as military and police training from the Bush administration. Iraq has little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at this stage. The major obstacles to a democratic Palestinian state are the internal corruption of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli occupation, not Iraq.
"And other regimes will be given a clear warning that support for terror will not be tolerated."
This will be highly unlikely as long as the United States maintains its close strategic and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia and refuses to extradite or prosecute Nicaraguan and Cuban exiles living in the United States wanted for acts of terrorism during the 1970s and 1980s.
"Without this outside support for terrorism, Palestinians who are working for reform and long for democracy will be in a better position to choose new leaders."
The major obstacle to Palestinian democracy and their ability to choose new leaders is the ongoing Israeli occupation, made possible by the Bush administration's insistence on providing large-scale military, economic, and diplomatic support to the rightist Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.
"A Palestinian state must be a reformed and peaceful state that abandons forever the use of terror."
If the United States continues to deny Palestinians the right to establish such a state by continuing to support the Israeli occupation, terrorism will only continue. By contrast, demanding an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories so that the Palestinians could finally exercise their right to self-determination would be by far the most effective means of ending the terrorism. Terrorism by Zimbabweans struggling for freedom from white minority rule (1970s), Algerians for freedom from French colonialism (1950s), and Israelis for freedom from British colonialism (1940s) virtually ended once independence was established.
"For its part, the new government of Israel--as the terror threat is removed and security improves--will be expected to support the creation of a viable Palestinian state--and to work as quickly as possible toward a final status agreement. As progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end."
Why should an Israeli halt to its illegal settlement activities be delayed until progress is made toward peace? According to the Fourth Geneva Convention and UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, and 465, Israel is required to withdraw from those settlements immediately, regardless of the security situation. Indeed, the U.S.-backed occupation and colonization of Palestinian land occupied by Israel since 1967 has been the primary cause of the Palestinian terrorism, not the other way around.
"And the Arab states will be expected to meet their responsibilities to oppose terrorism, to support the emergence of a peaceful and democratic Palestine, and state clearly they will live in peace with Israel."
The Arab states have already done so, as when Arab League in their March 2002 summit in Beirut unanimously supported the Abdullah Plan that offered peace, security guarantees, and full diplomatic relations with Israel in return for a total withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces from lands seized in the 1967 war. The Bush administration, however, failed to respond positively to the initiative or to encourage Israel to negotiate on the basis of that proposal.
"The United States and other nations are working on a road map for peace. We are setting out the necessary conditions for progress toward the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. It is the commitment of our government--and my personal commitment--to implement the road map and to reach that goal."
In reality, the Bush administration blocked the publication of the "road map" put together by the U.S., Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations prior to the Israeli election for fear it would hurt the re-election chances of the hard-line right-wing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon against his more moderate challenger Amram Mitzna. Sharon's government--the largest recipient of U.S. military and economic aid--opposes the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel approximating his country's internationally recognized borders and instead seeks to illegally annex at least half of the occupied Palestinian territories, leaving the Palestinians with barely one-tenth of historic Palestine and with that divided into scores of non-contiguous enclaves.
"Old patterns of conflict in the Middle East can be broken, if all concerned will let go of bitterness, hatred, and violence, and get on with the serious work of economic development, and political reform, and reconciliation. America will seize every opportunity in pursuit of peace. And the end of the present regime in Iraq would create such an opportunity."
Given Iraq's isolation within the Arab world, much less the rest of the Middle East, it is hard to understand why Iraq is seen as an obstacle to these goals. By contrast, a U.S. invasion of Iraq and the many thousands of deaths that would result will only spawn more bitterness, hatred, and violence and will greatly retard economic development, political reform, and reconciliation in the resulting chaos and backlash that will likely follow.
"The global threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction cannot be confronted by one nation alone. The world needs today and will need tomorrow international bodies with the authority and the will to stop the spread of terror and chemical and biological and nuclear weapons."
The Bush administration has actually blocked efforts to strengthen international treaties preventing the spread of biological and chemical weapons and successfully instigated an effort to remove the highly effective director of an international program overseeing the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles around the world. In addition, the United States has blocked the United Nations from enforcing UN Security Council resolution 487, which calls on Israel to place its nuclear facilities under the safeguard of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Furthermore, administration spokespersons have repeatedly belittled the IAEA and its effectiveness.
"A threat to all must be answered by all. High-minded pronouncements against proliferation mean little unless the strongest nations are willing to stand behind them--and use force if necessary."
According to UN Security Council resolution 687, on which all subsequent resolutions regarding Iraqi disarmament and the inspections regimes are based, Iraqi disarmament should take place within the context of regional disarmament. This point was reiterated by UNMOVIC chairman Hans Blix in his address before the UN Security Council in January. However, the Bush administration has refused to support or even acknowledge this segment of the resolution. Furthermore, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty--to which both the United States and Iraq are signatories--requires that, in return for countries like Iraq not developing such weapons themselves, the United States and other existing nuclear powers must make good-faith efforts to disarm.
"If the Council responds to Iraq's defiance with more excuses and delays, if all its authority proves to be empty, the United Nations will be severely weakened as a source of stability and order."
Over the past three decades, the United States has used its veto power to defeat UN Security Council resolutions more times than all other members of the Security Council combined. In almost every case, the United States cast the sole negative vote. Furthermore, the United States has blocked the UN Security Council from enforcing more than eighty resolutions that did pass because they were directed at U.S. allies like Morocco, Israel, and Turkey. Indeed, no country has done more to undermine the credibility of the UN Security Council than has the United States.
"If the members rise to this moment, then the Council will fulfil its founding purpose."
The founding purpose of the UN Security Council is to protect international peace and security, not to legitimize the invasion of one country by another.
"We go forward with confidence, because we trust in the power of human freedom to change lives and nations. By the resolve and purpose of America, and of our friends and allies, we will make this an age of progress and liberty. Free people will set the course of history, and free people will keep the peace of the world."
This is why free people in the United States and around the world must work even harder to stop President Bush from invading Iraq.
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project (www.fpif.org) where this article first appeared, and is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (available at www.commoncouragepress.com). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org