Capitol Chronicle

Happy New War: As the year turns, the auguries predict the worst

If you've as much as walked past a newspaper rack in the last couple of weeks, you are abundantly aware that in the judgment of the Bush administration -- the only judgment that matters -- Iraq is in "material breach" of its current obligations to the United Nations. There has been a bit of quibbling about this elsewhere on the planet. Other Security Council members have called for UN weapons inspections to continue as planned, and even Me-Too Tony Blair, faced with strong popular opposition in the United Kingdom to a pre-emptive war, has cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

But the Bush administration has been piling up its material breaches and war pretexts for weeks, "softening up" Iraqi defenses with more frequent bombing runs, and strong-arming allies and opponents to climb aboard or get out of the way. The subordination of the UN to U.S. power has been laughable, most recently in the role played by current Security Council president Alfonso Valdivieso of Colombia in handling the Iraqi weapons declaration. Whenever a U.S. demand concerning the declaration has conflicted with a Security Council vote, Valdivieso has invariably obeyed the U.S. In return, Sec. of State Colin Powell rewarded the Colombian government with a massive new consignment of military aid.

Last week the Washington Post reported that the Bush administration has chosen Jan. 27 as its "make-or-break" date for a final decision on a full-scale war. Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix is scheduled to make his first substantial report to the Security Council on that day. The Post noted helpfully that the date -- no doubt coincidentally -- "falls within the late-January to early-February window U.S. military planners have said is the optimum moment to launch an invasion of Iraq." If you've been following this story since last September, when the White House (in the words of Chief of Staff Andrew Card) "rolled out the new product," the generals have been pointing to late January as their preferred D-Day for several months. Funny how things work out.

From the Back Pages

Perhaps with massive international protest things might change. Right now, it looks inevitable that the U.S., Britain, and their drafted "coalition" partners will launch a full-scale assault on Iraq at about the appointed time. After that, who knows? The generals of late have been retracting earlier predictions of a "cakewalk," instead contemplating a much bloodier and protracted campaign. It is difficult to find a published estimate of direct casualties, for even a brief war, of fewer than 10,000 people.

But it could well be many more. The humanitarian organizations who will need to clean up after an Iraq war cite a report issued last month by the global health organization Medact. The report envisions scenarios ranging from a quick collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime to a regional conflagration in which Israel responds to a chemical attack from Iraq with nuclear weapons. The report's best guess is somewhere in the grisly middle: "Credible estimates of the total possible deaths on all sides during the conflict and the following three months range from 48,000 to over 260,000. Civil war within Iraq could add another 20,000 deaths. Additional later deaths from post-war adverse health effects could reach 200,000." ("Collateral Damage: the Health and Environmental Costs of War on Iraq," Nov. 12, The Medact report, which received extensive coverage abroad, apparently merited only two stories in major U.S. newspapers: a polite summary in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a sneering dismissal in the Washington Times.

Amid the exhaustive pre-war coverage in the U.S. media, there are additional material breaches. Although the American press religiously applauds every eyebrow raised in anger at the UN, last month's UNICEF report, "The State of the World's Children 2003," has somehow escaped much notice. According to the report, in Iraq the mortality rate for children under five (the best single indicator of child welfare) has almost tripled since 1990, from 50 to 133 per 1,000 live births. One-fourth of Iraqi infants are now born underweight; one-fifth of young children suffer from growth-stunting malnutrition.

Conventional U.S. wisdom declares that a blitzkrieg-assisted "regime change" in Baghdad will restore those starving children to rosy-cheeked vitality. But no matter how evil Saddam Hussein may be, it is at least plausible that a massive military assault and its aftermath will produce greater physical and economic devastation, and a more overwhelming humanitarian disaster, than Saddam has managed on his own. As the English writer Harold Pinter bluntly assessed both our government and his own last month, "The planned war against Iraq is in fact a plan for premeditated murder of thousands of civilians in order, apparently, to rescue them from their dictator."

Facts on the Ground

U.S. military planners, expecting an Afghanistan-style miniseries, have been spectacularly wrong before -- recall only LBJ's self-deluded counselors, "the best and the brightest." It is impossible to wish on the Iraqi people the Vietnamese role of defying the indefatigable onslaught of the last superpower, armed with weapons of mass destruction beyond all previous imperial imagination. Yet in the long run, the alternative may well be worse: A U.S. government still top-heavy with armchair warriors, emboldened by an easy victory against a devastated Iraq, might readily set its sights elsewhere, most likely on Iran. And should Israel, under the umbrella of arrogant U.S. power and its doctrine of "pre-emptive self-defense," attempt to carry to a logical and bloody conclusion the war of attrition against the Palestinians, the Armageddon cheerfully contemplated by the Jerry Falwells of the world could well be at hand.

Elsewhere in this issue, the great Texas documentary photographer Alan Pogue makes another of his persistent, valiant attempts to educate the world outside a war zone about the people who live within it ("Faces of the Enemy," p.22). Despite international indifference and their own thuggish government, the Iraqi people have been enduring siege war with great suffering and considerable dignity for more than a decade. The Bush administration and most of the U.S. media will persist in the fiction that all that stands between Iraq and "liberation" are Saddam Hussein and a handful of Iraqi Republican Guards. If we wish to look honestly at these photographs and ourselves in the mirror, the rest of us do not have that moral luxury.

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Iraq, United Nations, Tony Blair, Alfonso Valdivieso, Colin Powell, Hans Blix, Medact, Saddam Hussein, UNICEF, Alan Pogue, Harold Pinter

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