Remember the sanctions

In 1990, despite 8 years of devastating war with Iran, Iraq could boast some of the most advanced medical, commercial, and energy infrastructure in the Middle East. This was Saddam Hussein's way of buying off the population — keep quiet and you'll live a comfortable life. Along with security (purchased at a terrible human cost), high material living standards were about the only benefit of Hussein's dictatorship.

Ten years later that level of development had been utterly destroyed, and living standards in Iraq ranked among the most miserable in the world. What happened? Hussein's instincts as a dictator didn't change. Iraq still had oil, which paid for everything in the first place. The difference was American policy.

In the 1980s Hussein was a useful ally for the United States, but with the invasion of Kuwait he became a potential threat to American power over the Middle East. The USA reacted by first brutally attacking Iraq, devastating its sanitation and power infrastructure, its roads and bridges, with weeks of bombing, as well as massacring much of its army. Then, since Bush I was unwilling to conquer the country, he merely ensured that Iraq would be unable to rebuild. A crippled country would be easier to deal with.

Bush had an extremely effective weapon at his disposal. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the UN reacted by forbidding any trade whatsoever with Iraq. Since Iraq relied overwhelmingly on imports for its food, medicine, and machinery, the sanctions hit civilians hard. But things got much worse after the USA bombed much of the civilian infrastructure to rubble. Diseases swept the populace as sanitation systems broke down and medicine was unavailable. Food supplies ran short. Without spare parts, electricity generators and communication systems couldn't be rebuilt. In the immediate aftermath of the 1991 war, sanctions killed far more people than bombs or bullets.

And the sanctions went on, with Clinton continuing Bush I's "containment" of Iraq. The devastation they wrecked against civilians turned virtually the whole world against them. But the USA wielded a veto in the UN, and blocked any attempts to end them. In time the severity of the sanctions regime was slightly alleviated with the oil for food program, in which Iraq could buy food and medicine by selling limited amounts of oil to the UN. But oil for food only stabilized an intolerable situation. Vital civilian infrastructure could not be repaired, the Iraqi economy remained caught in depression; the suffering continued. As Iraq sank back into desperate poverty, its middle class was destroyed, its medical system suffered catastrophic decline, death rates shot up. Perhaps 1 million people died as a result of the sanctions. The United States had succeeded in taking from the Iraqi people the single unmitigated benefit they had enjoyed under Saddam Hussein.

There's a strong argument to be made that the sanctions met the legal definition of crimes against humanity. Some, including one of the two directors of the oil for food program who resigned in protest at the devastation of the sanctions, went so far as to label the sanctions genocide. But whatever the legal classification, there's no question that the sanctions were a policy of mass murder directed against the innocent of Iraq, used as a tool of American state policy.

Yet during the sanctions decade (actually over 12 years) there was virtually no debate about them in American civil society. The media didn't report on their effects, government leaders dismissed criticisms as pro-Hussein propaganda, discussion centered on whether to be more punitive. After the invasion there has been even less of a will to confront one of the worst atrocities ever committed by US policymakers. Ignorance of the sanctions is so deep that articles like this one can claim that infrastructure disrepair was caused by Saddam Hussein's insidious neglect, rather than the USA blocking spare parts imports.

One sanctions-related topic is up for discussion tho: corruption in the oil for food program. The New York Times is now writing long articles about allegations pushed by anti-UN forces in the USA that the oil for food program was illegally flexible in administering the exports and imports of Iraq.

I think it tells us something about public culture when this sort of flexibility — which probably saved a number of Iraqis' lives by making the sanctions slightly less harsh — should become controversial, while the policies that caused mass death have been wiped clean from historical memory.


The end of oil

Last month I wrote about the economic devastation and possibly even war that could follow a constriction in oil supplies, but I didn't really make the case that such a constriction is approaching. The current issue of Harper's Magazine features a concise and well-argued article explaining why cheap oil will soon be a thing of the past. I've posted it here. Take a look — within a decade or two this could be the most important issue the world faces.


The chance for peace with Iran further dissipates

The disposition of the Middle East after the Iraq war depends heavily on the relationships other countries establish with Iran. Will the USA seek to overthrow the government covertly or out in the open? Will Israel continue its belligerency up to the point of open hostilities? Will Iraq move toward friendliness or recreate the old enmities?

Recent indications are discouraging. As I wrote last week, a US policy to destabilize Iran may be coalescing. It now seems the "sovereign" Iraqi government is moving in the same direction. A couple weeks ago Defense Minister Hazim al-Shaalan made a series of anti-Iran comments, accusing it of fomenting terrorism in Iraq and threatening to retaliate militarily. Shaalan's views were immediately contradicted by other members of the government, including Prime Minister Allawi. But now Allawi is moving toward Shaalan, having cancelled a diplomatic visit to Iran in protest of Irani interference in Iraqi affairs.

Juan Cole comments:
Allawi's cozy relations with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and his snub of Iran, suggests an emerging pattern in the caretaker government. Secular, pro-American Shiites like Allawi and Shaalan are increasingly throwing their lot in with powerful Sunni Arab neighbors of Iraq, cementing their alliance with Sunni Iraqi politicians like President Yawar in the process. In contrast, the religious Shiite parties are not being given any significant role in the new government (al-Da`wa has a vice-presidency and SCIRI has the Finance Ministry, and that is about it; the Sadrists have nothing). They are the ones who would seek close relations with Iran if they could. The religious Shiite parties also appear to be being sidelined in the national congress. Are pro-American, secular Shiite leaders a trojan horse inside Shiite Iraq for restored Sunni power and diplomacy in Iraq and the Gulf?
As I wrote last month, the restoration of Sunni Baathist power seems to be the USA's goal in Iraq. Hostility to Iran is a key part of this program. From the time of the first USA-Iraq war to the runup to invasion in 2003, the biggest fear American planners had in overthrowing Hussein was that the Shi'i majority would ally with Iran once it was freed of Baathist tyranny. The neocons were convinced that the Shia would welcome them and accept American control, but more cautious types in State and the CIA worried that Iran would benefit and American power in the region be weakened.

Clearly the State/CIA fears were more grounded in reality than the neocon fantasies. But taking over Iran has always been at least as important to the neocons as taking over Iraq, just harder to do. Now that the Iraqi Shia have proved independent and the strategy in Iraq has been shifted to Baathist restoration, it has become an urgent priority for the Americans to contain the potential gains for Iran and prevent the emergence of a Shi'i regime in Iraq. These two aims are closely linked for both the Americans and those who head the government in Baghdad. As elections in Iraq approach, watch out for increasing attacks on Iran and Iraqi Shia as justification for containing the power of both.


Taking city politics seriously

Does it seem strange that people on the left don't talk about city politics? We know exactly what's going on in Iraq or Argentina, we know exactly which social forces are at work and what arguments to use against our opponents. But ask us how power is organized in Chicago or LA, what the key issues are, what social groups we can look to as allies, and we're completely lost.

At least I have been, and based on the lack of writing about it in progressive publications it seems like I'm not alone. Chicago is a city seemingly full of opportunities for the left. Huge inequalities of wealth, entire sections of the city (mostly populated by minorities) left to decay and violence, inadequate public transit, major environmental concerns, increasing business homogenization, loss of public space, low wages, exploitation of immigrants, &c, &c. Yet there's virtually no progressive civil society to speak of. Electoral politics is run by the Daley machine and there's basically no public debate over city policies. Hardly any local publications cover these issues, besides occasional good reporting in The Reader, The Chicago Reporter, and Chicago Indymedia. Community groups function here and there, but with almost no visibility or power. Cooperative businesses are nowhere to be found.

So this is a call for leftists to re'engage with city issues. It's not just that there are a lot of extremely important struggles that are being neglected, it's also an important strategic issue. The kinds of social movements we need to make any sort of national or global structural changes won't have any force without a strong base in communities and democratic businesses. We don't get that by ignoring what's going on where we live.

For my Chicago friends, this article is a good place to start. We need to understand how power works before we can confront it. In Chicago, Daley's machine Democrats work with developers, unions, businesses with city contracts, and international business interests in finance, law, and manufacturing to keep a stranglehold on politics and the economy. And they do it with virtually no dissent. That has to end.