Operation Desert Mirage

Americans may have already forgotten about weapons of mass destruction, but the United Nations hasn’t—and it’s demanding answers

Ian Williams

Faith moves mountains, hides weapons, and makes oil flow. At the beginning of May, the new viceroy of Iraq, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who seems to have recently resumed his military title, announced that the shortage of gasoline in Iraq was the United Nations’ fault. He said that continuing U.N. sanctions stopped supplies to the pumps in Baghdad.

Of course, until then, most of us not schooled in the new Republican reality had assumed that the purpose of U.N. sanctions was to stop Iraq exporting oil except under strictly regulated circumstances. So if the U.N. Oil for Food program was struggling to get moving again, this meant that there was less oil being exported, which should mean that there was more oil left behind in Iraq. But reality shimmers like a mirage in the growing desert heat. It is always the United Nations’ fault.

Anyone else but this administration would blush when faced with the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But it was fairly obvious that the White House was only kidding when it used that as the excuse to the United Nations for the invasion. Now, they genuinely seem unembarrassed when they ask the Security Council to give validation to their conquest, which was allegedly carried out in support of the United Nations, in search of weapons that they alleged were definitely there, and which the allegedly conniving and inefficient U.N. weapons inspectors willfully would not find.

Or maybe the invasion was to force the Iraqis to cooperate properly with the weapons inspectors. Certainly Washington is now refusing to let the weapons inspectors return to Iraq—possibly because they had proved their inefficiency by not finding the weapons that a quarter of a million heavily armed allies have also failed to find. Even the British at the United Nations agree that no one will believe an allied “discovery” of weapons in Iraq unless it is koshered by U.N. inspectors. When Bush says the weapons “will be found,” it does sound almost as much like an order as a prophecy.

But then, no one has found Osama bin Laden in Baghdad; indeed, they cannot find Saddam Hussein in Baghdad either. If ordinary Fox News viewers scratched their medium-term memory, this could worry them, since this was part of the war against terrorism and payback time for 9/11.

Or was the war really for democracy? Well, up to a point. It appears that someone had forgotten that in chaotic conditions, well-organized faith-based groups, such as the neocons in Washington and the Shi’as in Iraq, tend to seize the day and take over, with unforeseen consequences, so democracy may need expedient reinterpretation.

Reality becomes blurred when we are presented with so many mutually contradictory excuses and abrupt turnarounds that George Orwell’s 1984 seems positively optimistic. At least Big Brother cared enough about history to want to rewrite it. Looking at the TV treatment of the White House, they seem to be in a confident conspiracy that most people will not remember what was being said yesterday, let alone last year. History, no matter how recent, has been dropped into the memory hole of collective electronic amnesia, which is really ironic considering that with the Internet, it is easier than ever before to resurrect the buried misstatements of yestermonth.

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However, while this black memory hole is expanding cancerously out from Washington, its event horizon is in New York, at the United Nations, where people seem to have longer memories. They recall that it was the United States that wanted Iraqi sanctions, and fought long and hard to maintain them until the U.N. weapons inspectors would give a clean bill of health to the country. They remember Washington’s insistence on the Oil for Food revenues being under the close control of the United Nations. Indeed, even their short term memory seems to be intact: They remember the Blair-Bush declaration of a vital role for the United Nations in reconstruction, and that Iraqi oil was the property of the Iraqi people.

In this context, the French call for the suspension of sanctions, shortly after Bush had demanded their lifting, was actually very consistent. France had opposed sanctions for a long time. It is of course true that their motives were not totally unalloyed, and oil contracts for French companies helped boost their concern for the Iraqi population. The immediate cause for Bush’s conversion was the belated realization that, while Washington sees the U.N. as nothing but a handy scapegoat and occasional excuse for war, the rest of the world takes the U.N., the rule of law, and indeed reality more seriously. No one will buy oil from Iraq without the U.N. lifting the sanctions, unless it is through the Oil for Food program. As long as that program is running, it gives leverage to the international community to put truth in Bush’s promises about a vital role for the U.N.

The Pentagon seems to have beaten the State Department on this issue inside the White House, which is why Washington is now wallowing diplomatically in its attempts to get U.N. recognition and an end to sanctions. As the world has noticed, the Pentagon is not big on interactive diplomacy. But despite their bluster, the Americans still need the United Nations and the Oil for Food program, because no one else, not even Halliburton or Bechtel, has the expertise and means to feed the 60 percent of Iraqis who were totally dependent on it even before the disruption of war. Baghdad, in one of Saddam’s few wise moves, distributed months of rations in anticipation of the war, but they will be running out soon. The program has outstanding contracts for commodities that Iraq needs, and for which the contractors need to be paid.

In addition, there is the ticklish problem of reparations. Despite all this guff about the oil being the property of the Iraqi people, currently a quarter of the revenue from sales goes into the trough where Kuwait and major corporations have been dipping their snouts for “reparations,” on a scale unprecedented since the Treaty of Versailles laid the groundwork for World War II. Only last month, with a potential humanitarian crisis, U.S. delegates at the United Nations insisted that the current tranche of reparations had to be paid.

The Iranians have noticed the honeypot next door, and there are clamors in Tehran for a share of it. They have an excellent case. The resolution that ended the original Iraq-Iran war called for the United Nations to determine who was guilty of aggression. The U.N. report, which unsurprisingly found Iraq responsible, came out as reparations were being imposed on Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait. Since Kuwait—and the United States—helped Iraq in its war against Iran, it would be very unfair to pay reparations to Kuwait and not Iran.

In reality, of course, it is very unfair to make the people of Iraq collectively guilty for the sins of a regime that repressed and gassed them with the full support of both nations now at the core of the famous coalition. While reserving judgment on reparations to Kuwait, Washington has called for creditor countries to wipe the slate clean—at least when it comes to debts to countries like France and Russia. This is, of course, the opposite line to what it took in Nigeria, Congo, South Africa and, for that matter, Russia itself.

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So while U.N. delegates have been very flexible about allowing the Oil for Food program to cooperate with the “authorities” in Iraq, the Security Council will not countenance any legitimation of the U.S. occupation. They may suspend the sanctions, but the final lifting will depend on the United States accommodating other countries’ concerns. Those concerns range from nobly altruistic to sordidly self-interested, but the people who seek to bring democracy in one hand and Bechtel in the other can’t really complain about that.

However, while most of the members of the Council are glad to see the end of Saddam Hussein, and may even be quietly amused at the hole in the sand the White House is digging for itself, they want to see a legitimate government in Iraq, and do not believe that the United States is capable of achieving that. They are equally concerned about trying to patch up the huge rent that the invasion tore in the fabric of international order.

That means that they would go a long way to overlook and legitimize this one, if they could be persuaded that it was a one-off. It is because of a mixture of this hope, and, to be honest, outright cowardice, that no country has yet put down a resolution at the General Assembly, nor indeed in the Security Council, condemning the invasion. The more they are persuaded that the United States will call a halt, the more they will be prepared to shove the Iraq invasion down their own collective memory hole.

But the Pentagon has hardly been on a winning-hearts-and-minds mission. It has been more of a head hunt. Following George W. Bush’s amazing discovery that there are Baathists in Damascus, one fears the worst. Missing weapons will move, like the pea under the shell, from Iraq to Syria, to Iran to Libya or Cuba, wherever the neocons feel the need for regime change.

Ian Williams is the author of Desert­er: Bush’s War on Mil­i­tary Fam­i­lies, Vet­er­ans and His Past, now avail­able from Nation Books.
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