The New Humanitarianism
Basra as Military Target
by Rahul Mahajan
March 27, 2003
Iraq's desperate humanitarian situation has suddenly become a retroactive justification for the war, even for the attacking of civilian targets. The need to get aid into Basra has apparently prompted a British military spokesperson to designate it as a "legitimate military target," language reminiscent of Gulf War I, when the saturation bombing of Basra was justified on the same basis.
As verifiable civilian deaths mount toward 300 in this "war of liberation," the need to establish American moral superiority is growing rapidly. Thus Donald Rumsfeld's convenient rediscovery of the Geneva Convention and thus the American media hysteria over al-Jazeera, which has the temerity to provide balanced reporting of the war.
Thus also a recent press conference by the execrable Andrew Natsios, head administrator of USAID, in which he raised the already stunning mendacity of the Bush administration to new heights. While beating his chest over the massive preparations the United States has made to avert a humanitarian tragedy in Iraq (always assuming the Iraqis don't screw things up by continuing unaccountably to resist their liberation), he touched on the problems of Basra, where only 40% of the people currently have access to potable water.
The genesis of said problems, according to him, is "a deliberate decision by the regime not to repair the water system or replace old equipment with new equipment, so in many cases people are basically drinking untreated sewer water in their homes and have been for some years."
A deliberate decision by the regime. We've seen some remarkable lies about Iraq from this administration including Dick Cheney's statement that Iraq has "reconstituted nuclear weapons", Ari Fleischer's that Iraq did not declare the range of its al-Samoud 2 missiles, and an attempt to pass off crudely forged documents as proof that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Niger.
But this. "A deliberate decision by the regime." The mind boggles. Ever since Iraq's water treatment system was left in shambles by the Gulf War, where the deliberate targeting of the entire electrical power grid caused water pumping to shut down and sewage to fill the streets of Basra, the Iraqi government has scrambled desperately to repair its water system, only to come repeatedly face to face with one huge obstacle: the United States government.
Joy Gordon's excellent article, "Cool War: Economic Sanctions as a Weapon of Mass Destruction" (Harper's, November 2002), documents at length her conclusion that "the United States has consistently thwarted Iraq from satisfying its most basic humanitarian needs." Under the sanctions regime set up over Iraq after the Gulf War, any country on the Security Council could block or indefinitely delay any contract for goods submitted by the Iraqi government. The United States has imposed far more blocks than all other members put together; as of 2001, it had put half a billion dollars worth of water and sanitation contracts on hold. The water treatment goods it has blocked at one time or another include pipes (roughly 40% of the clean water pumped is lost to leakage), earth-moving equipment, safety equipment for handling chlorine, and no fewer than three sewage treatment plants.
But there can be no doubt that, in the inimitable words of Madeleine Albright, "we care more about the Iraqi people."
If you're not convinced yet, consider this. After coming under harsh criticism because of the frightful inadequacy of its humanitarian preparations, the United States has made some attempt to remedy the problem. The original plan was a reprise of the Afghan operation dubbed "military propaganda" by Doctors Without Borders, in which some tens of thousands of meals would be dropped out of planes every day, and, in the miraculous manner common in that part of the world, each meal would feed a multitude; now, some shipments of wheat have been added to the original plan.
The same Andrew Natsios wrote an indignant rejoinder to the Washington Post, claiming full readiness of the United States to "help Iraq.". Tucked away in the middle of his missive: "Saddam Hussein has doubled monthly food rations since October, trying to buy the affection of his people. As a result, families have stored food at home."
In other words, for all the humanitarian triumphalism of the "coalition," for all its great desire to level Basra so that Iraqis can be fed, the agency that has taken meaningful steps to avert a catastrophe is the Iraqi government. It did so under the severest of constraints; for over a year, revenue has been depressed and the Oil for Food program is dramatically underfunded.
Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator who has subjected his people to horrible suffering. There is little doubt about that. The fact that on at least the grounds considered above he stacks up far better than the U.S. government, no matter which administration, does not bode well for the future of the Iraqi people.
Nor does this brave new humanitarian world being created by the exponents of water privatization and structural adjustment bode well for the future of anybody else. On Iraq, the New Humanitarianism is clear: we had to destroy Iraq (over the past 12 years, not just the last few days) in order to save it. Who will we save next?
Rahul Mahajan is a founding member of the Nowar Collective and serves on the National Board of Peace Action. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The U.S. War Against Iraq: Myths, Facts, and Lies, to be published by Seven Stories Press in April 2003. His first book, The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism (Monthly Review, 2002), has been described as "mandatory reading for all those who wish to get a handle on the war on terrorism." His articles can be found at http://www.rahulmahajan.com. Email: email@example.com