Apocalypse Now

By Edward W. Said

It would be a mistake, I think, to reduce what is happening between Iraq and the United States simply to an assertion of Arab will and sovereignty on the one hand versus American imperialism, which undoubtedly plays a central role in all this. However misguided, Saddam Hussein’s cleverness is not that he is splitting America from its allies (which he has not really succeeded in doing for any practical purpose) but that he is exploiting the astonishing clumsiness and failures of US foreign policy. Very few people, least of all Saddam himself, can be fooled into believing him to be the innocent victim of American bullying; most of what is happening to his unfortunate people who are undergoing the most dreadful and unacknowledged suffering is due in considerable degree to his callous cynicism – first of all, his indefensible and ruinous invasion of Kuwait, his persecution of the Kurds, his cruel egoism and pompous self-regard which persists in aggrandizing himself and his regime at exorbitant and, in my opinion, totally unwarranted cost. It is impossible for him to plead the case for national security and sovereignty now given his abysmal disregard of it in the case of Kuwait and Iran.

Be that as it may, US vindictiveness, whose sources I shall look at in a moment, has exacerbated the situation by imposing a regime of sanctions which, as Sandy Berger, the American National Security adviser has just said proudly, is unprecedented for its severity in the whole of world history. 567,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the Gulf War, mostly as a result of disease, malnutrition, and deplorably poor medical care. Agriculture and industry are at a total standstill. This is unconscionable of course, and for this the brazen inhumanity of American policy-makers is also very largely to blame. But we must not forget that Saddam is feeding that inhumanity quite deliberately in order to dramatize the opposition between the US and the rest of the Arab world; having provoked a crisis with the US (or the UN dominated by the US) he at first dramatised the unfairness of the sanctions. But by continuing it as he is now doing, the issue has changed and has become his non-compliance, and the terrible effects of the sanctions have been marginalised. Still the underlying causes of an Arab/US crisis remain.

A deep gulf separates Arab culture and civilization on the one hand, from the United States on the other, and in the absence of any collective Arab information and cultural policy, the notion of an Arab people with traditions, cultures, and identities of their own is simply inadmissible in the US. Arabs are dehumanized, they are seen as violent irrational terrorists always on the lookout for murder and bombing outrages. The only Arabs worth doing business with for the US are compliant leaders, businessmen, military people whose arms purchases (the highest per capita in the world) are helping the American economy keep afloat. Beyond that there is no feeling at all, for instance, for the dreadful suffering of the Iraqi people whose identity and existence have simply been lost sight of in the present situation.

Pictures of four (or is it now five?) immense aircraft carriers steaming virtuously away punctuate breathless news bulletins about Saddam’s defiance, and the impending crisis. The President announces that he is thinking not about the Gulf but about the 21st century: how can we tolerate Iraq’s threat to use biological warfare even though (this is unmentioned) it is clear from the UNSCOM reports that he neither has the missile capacity, nor the chemical arms, nor the nuclear arsenal, nor in fact the anthrax bombs that he is alleged to be brandishing? Forgotten in all this is that the US has all the terror weapons known to humankind, is the only country to have used a nuclear bomb on civilians, and as recently as seven years ago dropped 66,000 tons of bombs on Iraq. As the only country involved in this crisis that has never had to fight a war on its own soil, it is easy for the US and its mostly brain-washed citizens to speak in apocalyptic terms. A report out of Australia on Sunday, November l6 suggests that Israel and the US are thinking about a neutron bomb on Baghdad.

Unfortunately the dictates of raw power are very severe and, for a weak state like Iraq, overwhelming. Certainly US misuse of the sanctions to strip Iraq of everything, including any possibility for security is monstrously sadistic. The so-called UN 661 Committee created to oversee the sanctions is composed of fifteen member states (including the US) each of which has a veto. Every time Iraq passes this committee a request to sell oil for medicines, trucks, meat, etc., any member of the committee can block these requests by saying that a given item may have military purposes (tires, for example, or ambulances). In addition the US and its clients – eg., the unpleasant and racist Richard Butler, who says openly that Arabs have a different notion of truth than the rest of the world – have made it clear that even if Iraq is completely reduced militarily to the point where it is no longer a threat to its neighbors (which is now the case) the real goal of the sanctions is to topple Saddam Hussein’s government. In other words, according to the Americans, very little that Iraq can do short of Saddam’s resignation or death will produce a lifting of sanctions. Finally, we should not for a moment forget that quite apart from its foreign policy interest, Iraq has now become a domestic American issue whose repercussions on issues unrelated to oil or the Gulf are very important.

The saddest aspect of the whole thing is that Iraqi civilians seem condemned to additional suffering and protracted agony. Neither their government nor that of the US is inclined to ease the daily pressure on them, and the probability that only they will pay for the crisis is extremely high. At least – and it isn’t very much – there seems to be no enthusiasm among Arab governments for American military action, but beyond that there is no coordinated Arab position, not even on the extremely grave humanitarian question. It is unfortunate that, according to the news, there is rising popular support for Saddam in the Arab world, as if the old lessons of defiance without real power have still not been learned.

Undoubtedly the US has manipulated the UN to its own ends, a rather shameful exercise given at the same time that the Congress once again struck down a motion to pay a billion dollars in arrears to the world organization. The major priority for Arabs, Europeans, Muslims, and Americans is to push to the fore the issue of sanctions and the terrible suffering imposed on innocent Iraqi civilians. Taking the case to the International Court in the Hague strikes me as a perfectly viable possibility, but what is needed is a concerted will on behalf of Arabs who have suffered the US’s egregious blows for too long without an adequate response.

Edward W. Said is Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University. This article originally appeared in longer form in the November 25th editions of Al-Hayat, London, and Al Ahram Weekly, Cairo.