Another Tap-Dance If You Please, Mr. Rubin
by Drew Hamre

April 2, 2000

Note from the Editor:  SPECIAL EDITION ON IRAQ  We are privileged to bring to you a highly researched and extensively documented analysis on the economic sanctions against the population of Iraq, by Swans' contributor Drew Hamre. Here is again a solid piece that the main media keep refusing to publish. To support Hamre's analysis, I write about what those sanctions really mean in human, emotional terms, and how they are treated by Officialdom, in From Iraq to Serbia, Burying the News and our Humanness with it.  In this short piece I ask that you take a moment and send Hamre's piece to your local paper and write to your elected representatives. Please, consider doing so. In addition, I review the deafening silence in the main media in regard to Kosovo, in Madeleine Albright: "We Did The Right Thing."  Will the innocents, the powerless, remain voiceless for ever, thrown into misery and oblivion for the very few of us on Earth to enjoy a comfortable day at the Mall? Will we keep remaining oblivious to the suffering we create over and over again? Will we ever begin to resist and to answer the call of our humanness? I ask you.

Last September -- shortly after UNICEF released its bone-chilling survey of child mortality in Iraq -- the U.S. State Department launched a publicity offensive against (can this possibly be right?) Saddam Hussein. [1]

UNICEF had estimated an excess 500,000 Iraqi children had died since economic sanctions began, and evidence was mounting that America's policies were complicit in this epic disaster. The UN's Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Denis Halliday, had resigned to protest an embargo he now termed "genocidal". Other disturbing news began to register with the public. The government had, with Dickensian timing, picked the Christmas season to threaten a Catholic relief group with charges of "delivering toys and medicine" to the children of Iraq. No-fly zone bombings - ostensibly to protect the populace from Saddam - began to kill civilians with disturbing frequency. Despite this, the American mind recoiled at the notion of a public relations duel with Saddam, the Hammer of the Ayatollahs, the Beast of Baghdad. How unseemly! But the battle continues. [2]

Last month -- after an additional pair of high-ranking UN officials resigned in disgust (Halliday's successor and the head of the World Food Program), after 70 Representatives protested economic sanctions, after Democratic House Whip David Bonior (MI) termed our Iraq policies "infanticide masquerading as policy" -- the State Department's dashing spokesman, James Rubin, again renewed the PR offensive and tried to re-focus the spotlight on Saddam's brutal regime. Thus turns the spin cycle in Washington, D.C. Another tap-dance if you please, Mr. Rubin. [3]

However, as Secretary General Kofi Annan has since admitted (Star Tribune, March 25), "We are in danger of losing the argument, or the propaganda war -- if we havenít already lost it -- about who is responsible for this situation." Mr. Annan is too self-serving by half. The argument has been lost, and the propaganda war is collapsing as a consequence.

As evidence, consider the past week or so of mainstream British media, where the BBC has twice led its 9-OíClock Nightly News with sanctions reports, where ITV aired John Pilgerís gut-wrenching 90-minute indictment of sanctions to 3-million viewers, and where The Guardian, The New Statesman, and The Independent have each delivered a stinging series of articles.

The walls of silence are tumbling in our country, too. Last week, the press-watch group FAIR took the highly unusual step of targeting a single reporter for criticism, documenting a two-year pattern of "journalistic malpractice" by the New York Timesí Barbara Crossette. The single most influential reporter covering Iraq, Ms. Crossette has time and again shaded her reports to obscure the Iraqi tragedy, to deflect the blame, and to dehumanize the victims. In one disgusting report, Ms. Crossette went so far as to imply that the grief of Iraqi mothers was somehow synthetic, played for political effect. [4]

Given the receptivity of such reporters, itís understandable that the State Departmentís briefings have a certain careless arrogance. The most recent contains little news. It gallops into town crying "palace-building" and "oil smuggling", but it rides a gimpy, beaten horse.

The pretext for Mr. Rubinís presentation is a set of freshly declassified satellite photos of Saddamís palaces (and this in itself is ludicrous, as you can download your own satellite imagery of Baghdad to 2-meter resolution from the Internet). Mr. Rubin cites a figure of 2-billon dollars for palace construction, forgetting that this too is old news, planted in the press as far back as 1996 (Thomas Friedmanís article in the Times, October 13). Nor is it a particularly impactful sum, reflecting as it does WPA-like local expenditures in a country starved for hard currency and imported items. After all, the palaces are built with Iraqi cement (which they used to export), and Iraqi labor (critical to a collapsed economy where unemployment can exceed 75%). And more to the point, they were not built with oil-for-food funds, to which Saddam has absolutely no access. [5]

Contrast this with the more than 7-billion dollars that have been siphoned from oil-for-food to pay compensation and administrative costs. Our State Department feigns outrage over mid-90ís "news" of Iraqi government buildings, yet it resists all attempts to adjust the compensation payments to large oil companies and the Kuwaiti royals: last summerís disbursements included $2.2 billion to Kuwait Oil Co. and $506 million to Saudi Arabian Texaco). The Anglo-Dutch draft of the most recent Security Council resolution sought to allow humanitarian loans from this Compensation Fund; however, even this miserly gesture was withdrawn at the insistence of the U.S. and isnít in Resolution 1284. [6]

Wealth flows unevenly, sometimes justly, sometimes not. In this, there is no surprise and certainly no indictment particular to Baghdad.

Smuggling? For years, Iraqi tanker trucks have openly waited in 18-mile queues for entry into the Turkish frontier. For years, non-OFF traffic has flowed unchecked between Iraq and Jordan through Trebil. That Iraqi oil is smuggled and that Saddam benefits is hardly secret and hardly news. These particular smuggling routes are, in fact, tacitly supported by the U.S. because they benefit our allies (and Iraqís historical trading partners), Jordan and Turkey. This is a cynical exercise: Mr. Rubin stirs old, ersatz mud, intending to blind us to the new protests, resignations, and disclosures. [7]

What is Mr. Rubin arguing? Is he arguing that Saddam is vile? The world knows this. Is he arguing that Saddam could do more to improve the conditions in Iraq? The world knows this. Mr. Rubin labors to state that to which Warren Zevon danced: in times of desperation, it's connections, guns, and money that hold the whip hand. We embargoed Iraq and the Ba'athists consolidated power as a matter of course. What did we expect? [8]

Absurdly, we expected revolution. From inception, the sanctions have been pitched with deliberate harshness with the intent containing Iraq and provoking regime change. 'Make the Iraqi people sufficiently miserable', our government thought, 'and we will contain Iraq without political risk and end the reign of Saddam Hussein.' Evidence of our intent abounds, in the meager oil-for-food revenue caps, the roadblocks placed before international aid workers, the constant low-density bombing, and the disruptive import holds. The latter are especially damaging; for example, it was reported this past winter that Iraq's electrical supply would leap 50% if import holds were released. [9]

We held a civilian population hostage to pressure a dictator to leave office. We punished 23-million for the crimes of 4000. And once this course was set, our hands were bloody.

Despite this, Mr. Rubin argues that Saddam is to blame for the disaster in Iraq. Perhaps he is unaware that the U.S.-negotiated wording of the latest Security Council Resolution flatly states the "fundamental objective" of sanction's proposed suspension is "improving the humanitarian situation in Iraq". The resolution itself therefore admits to the causative link between the sanctions and Iraq's humanitarian disaster.

Consider this: Iraq in 1990 had endured a decade of Saddam Hussein and was just emerging from a bloody war with Iran, yet it had a standard of living approaching that of Greece. Today, after nearly 10-years of sanctions, Iraq has collapsed into sub-Saharan poverty. [10]

Does no one in the State Department remember the consequences of Versailles? Sensible policy would end the economic embargo, extend the military sanctions while encouraging regional disarmament, all the while engaging and re-developing Iraq. But when questioned on de-linking economic and military sanctions, Mr. Rubin could only note, as he did last August, that conditions in UN-controlled Iraqi Kurdistan are better than in the UN-monitored, Saddam-controlled south. He argues causality: that Saddam has manipulated conditions, causing depredation to force an end to sanctions.

But the true story is not this simple, nor as comforting to the American conscience. UNICEF's executive director, Carol Bellamy, explained the differences in Iraqi mortality rates as follows: the Kurdish north has been receiving humanitarian assistance for longer than the remainder of Iraq, agriculture in the north is better, and evading sanctions is easier. In addition, the north receives 22% more per capita from the Oil for Food program, and gets about 10% of all UN-controlled assistance in currency, while the rest of the country receives only commodities. The north also benefits from the aid of 34 Non-Government Organizations, while in the whole rest of the country there are only 11. [11]

Moreover, Mr. Rubin's focus on regional differences obscures a larger truth: the situation in northern Iraq remains dire. Today's under-five mortality rate for northern Iraq is roughly equivalent to the rate observed in the whole of Iraq 20-years ago. The current under-five mortality rate for northern Iraq -- 72 -- remains more than double the rate for most neighboring countries. For example, the rate for Saudi Arabia is only 30; for Iran, 37; for Syria, 34; and for Jordan, 25. [12]

These are bloodless statistics, but they mask a vast human tragedy. A single point's increase in these rates represents an annual toll of hundreds of children who would be hale but became ill; who visited the hospital instead of their friends; who were buried rather than returning home. Mr. Rubin implies these results are the intention of our policies ... that the figures for Northern Iraq illustrate how sanctions should "work".

These words should haunt Mr. Rubin as he retires from government service, still young and fleet of wit, a handsome man with a glamorous wife (CNNís Christiana Amanpour), a corrupt man who used his celebrity to quell the press and charm them from an ugly truth.

So again, Mr. Rubin, another pirouette if you please. But you are dancing on the bodies of children.


[1] UNICEF's massive survey of 40,000 Iraqi households was released August 12, 1999; (see http://www.unicef.org/reseval/iraqr.htm.) The State Department responded almost immediately in a press conference with Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Jones' (see http://www.usia.gov/regional/nea/gulfsec/jones813.htm). The major response, though, came on September 13, in a report and briefing by State Department Spokesman James Rubin and Assistant Secretary Martin Indyk (report: http://www.usia.gov/regional/nea/iraq/iraq99.htm; transcript: http://www.state.gov/www/policy_remarks/1999/990913_indyk_rubin.html). The characterization - "publicity offensive" -- was actually used by the Washington Post: "U.S. Says Saddam Diverts Aid" by John Lancaster, September 14, 1999; Page A19.

[2] UNICEF's 'excess death' estimate is detailed in the report section, "A note on the estimation of under-five deaths" (see above link). Also see Ms. Bellamy's prepared statement at http://www.unicef.org/newsline/99pr29.htm. Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday - a man of immense dignity and integrity -- ended a 34-year diplomatic career to protest sanctions. Transcripts of his speeches are available here (http://www.scn.org/ccpi/, here http://welcome.to/casi/, and here http://www.leb.net/iac/denis.html. Voices in the Wilderness has organized repeated trips to Iraq; they were threatened with fines totaling well into six-figures on December 27, 1998 http://www.nonviolence.org/vitw/hearthevoices.html. AFP estimates the no-fly zone bombing have claimed 156 lives since the end of Desert Fox... roughly equivalent to the toll for the Oklahoma City Bombing (168).

[3] The Campbell/Conyers protest letter and the signatories are available at http://www.adc.org. The UN resignations were of Count Hans Von Sponeck (the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq) and Jutta Burghardt (head of the World Food Program in Iraq). Count Von Sponeckís resignation ended a 32-year diplomatic career. Bonior's quote was reported by both the BBC and the Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPlate/2000-02/25/097l-022500-idx.html. Rubin's briefing occurred February 29, and is available here (transcript: http://secretary.state.gov/www/briefings/0002/000229db.html) and here, as an update to the earlier report, "Saddam Hussein's Iraq" http://www.usia.gov/regional/nea/iraq/iraq99.htm.

[4] FAIRís report is here: http://www.fair.org/extra/0003/crossette-iraq.html. Ms. Crossetteís imputation of synthetic grief came in her summary of the UNICEF report (ď"Children's Death Rates Rising in Iraqi Lands, Unicef Reports" by Barbara Crossette, August 13, 1999).

[5] The satellite photos are available from http://www.terraserver.com/ (just plug Baghdad into the 'Find' box). The 2-billion figure appeared in a Thomas Friedman article in the New York Times on October 13, 1996, Page E-13 (see Footnote 90 here: http://www.ndu.edu/ndu/inss/books/sanctions/chapter1.html).

[6] The latest oil-for-food financials are available on the UNís ĎOffice of the Iraq Programmeí site (http://www.un/org/depts/oip/). The disbursements were listed in an AP story dated July 13, 1999: ďUN Awards $2.8 Billion to Oil Cos.Ē The Anglo-Dutch draft and an analysis of SCR1284 are available on CASIís site: http://www.welcome.to/casi/.

[7] The 18-mile traffic jams at the Turkish border were reported by The Economist (February 12th-18th, 2000) in the article, "One man's joy in Iraq". The unchecked crossing at Trebil was recounted in an interview with Hans Von Sponeck (http://www.scn.org/ccpi/vonsponeck.html).

[8] It is, of course, actually "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" by Zevon.

[9] Contract holds on imported goods have been a repeated source of friction between UN officials and the U.S. Refer to the numerous reports of the Office of the Iraq Programme, online at http://www.un.org/depts/oip/. The remark about Iraq's electrical supply was made by the head of the program, Benon Sevan, in the '180 Day Report' released in November, 1999.

[10] SCR-1284 appears here: http://www.un.org/Depts/oip/scrs/scr1284-99.htm. The statement of causality occures in Section D, Paragraph 33. The Security Council commissioned a special panel to report on the humanitarian effect of sanctions, and their report (published March 30, 1999) contains exhaustive comparisons of Iraq prior to the Gulf War versus today. See http://www.un.org/Depts/oip/panelrep.htm)

[11] Ms. Bellamy's comments were reported by the Associated Press, August 12, 1999. The remaining information is per personal communication with Professor Richard Garfield of Coumbia University. Garfield is an epidemiologist who studies the health effects of sanctions; he can be reached at [garfier@cuson-sph.cpmc.columbia.edu]; his office phone is 212-305-3248.

[12] Mr.Rubin's briefing for August 12, 1999 (http://secretary.state.gov/www/briefings/9908/990812db.html): "It is our view that the fact that in Northern Iraq, the infant morality rate is improving with the same sanctions regime under the rest of Iraq shows that in places where Saddam Hussein isn't manipulating the medicines and the supplies, that this works." Data for Iraq's north and center/south are from UNICEF's recent surveys, available online at http://www.unicef.org/reseval/iraqr.htm. From each region's respective report, data are pulled from "Table 3" on page 10. Under-five mortality rates are as follows:

   Iraq's Center/South        Northern Iraq
1994-99       131                     72
1989-94        92                      90
1984-89        56                      80
1979-84        67                     104

Non-Iraq statistics are from http://www.unicef.org/statis/index.html. As a further frame of reference, the USA's U5 mortality rate is 8; the UK's, 7.


Drew Hamre is a peace activist from Minnesota. He can be reached at drew.hamre@rainier.com.


This Week's Other Articles

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Madeleine Albright: "We Did The Right Thing" - by Gilles d'Aymery


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Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath

Published April 2, 2000
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