Stalking Moby Dick:

The Coming Chaos in the Middle East

Oliver Clubb

The following article is excerpted from the author's August, 2002 essay. For the entire text of this 17-page resource for activists and journalists, see Iraq History.

When George W. Bush came to Washington in January 2001, he brought Dick Cheney with him as Vice President. Cheney was George Bush senior's secretary of defense during the initial phase of the crusade against Saddam Hussein. Two of the most hawkish national security bureaucrats who had also served earlier, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, reappeared as key Defense Department officials in the new administration. By this time Bush senior's and Bill Clinton's "war by other means" had produced well over 500,000 dead Iraqi children _ but had utterly failed to achieve the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Thus, Wolfowitz and Perle began to call, almost from the moment they took office, for an armed attack against Iraq. Mr. Bush himself took to publicly proclaiming, repeatedly, that there had to be a "regime change" in Iraq. The charge that Saddam Hussein had secretly continued to manufacture weapons of mass destruction, insisted upon for years to keep the economic sanctions from being lifted, was now advanced as a rationale for launching an armed attack against Iraq.

There had been, however, no overt act by Iraq that could be cited, in Gulf of Tonkin incident style, as justification for assaulting that country _ apart from the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, which Mr. Bush tried but failed for lack of any evidence to pin on Iraq. Accordingly, in a June 1, 2002 commencement address at West Point, Mr. Bush advanced the doctrine that to "defend America and our friends" the United States had to be prepared to take "pre-emptive" military action against "unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction." Even earlier, as Bob Woodward revealed on June 16 in the Washington Post, Bush had signed an intelligence order giving the CIA and US Special Forces authority to capture or kill

Saddam Hussein.

"Weapons of mass destruction"

In fact, the destruction of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had been verified by the UN weapons inspectors charged with the task. Writing in the Boston Globe this July, Scott Ritter, former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq for seven years, noted that the Bush administration had failed "to detail any factually based information to bolster its claims concerning Iraq's continued possession of or ongoing efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction." As for the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein could acquire nuclear weapons "in the not too distant future," Republican Senator Chuck Hagel stated on August 15 that the CIA has "absolutely no evidence" that Iraq has or will soon have nuclear weapons.1

Hans Blix, currently the UN's chief weapons inspector, told the Associated Press that he couldn't say with certainty that Baghdad actually possesses weapons of mass destruction. "If we had real evidence here that they have weapons of mass destruction," said Blix, "we would bring it to the Security Council."2 Quoted on National Public Radio, Blix expressed his readiness to go to Iraq to ascertain whether or not the Iraqis in fact still possess weapons of mass destruction. Such an investigative visit, he said, could help to defuse the crisis.

But a visit by Blix remained hung up on Iraq's insistence, rejected by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, that the UN's arms experts would have to specify what they were looking for before searches for weapons of mass destruction could resume. As Scott Ritter noted, most targets bombed by the United States and Britain during Operation Desert Fox "were derived from the unique access the UNSCOM inspectors had enjoyed in Iraq, and had more to do with the security of Saddam Hussein than weapons of mass destruction."3 With the United States now poised to launch a major assault aimed at destroying Saddam Hussein's regime, it is hardly surprising that Iraq would demand details about what a new contingent of UN weapons inspectors would be looking for.

Hans von Sponeck, the UN's humanitarian aid coordinator for Iraq from 1998-2000, observed: "The US Department of Defence and the CIA know perfectly well that today's Iraq poses no threat to anyone in the region, let alone in the United States."4 Indeed, there has been substantial opposition by supposedly threatened Arab states, not to mention European governments, to a US attack against Iraq. At the end of July, King Abdullah II of Jordan also warned that a US attack on Iraq would "destabilize American strategic interests even more in the Middle East." In a Washington Post interview, he called that prospective attack "ludicrous."

Gearing up for war, the Bush Administration has pointedly ignored the reports by such men as Ritter and von Sponeck challenging the Administration's claims that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction and threatens to use them. Moreover, the Administration has endeavored to head off any independent investigation of the situation in Iraq that might undermine its publicly offered rationale for going to war. When Iraq recently invited UN weapons inspectors to return there to investigate Bush Administration allegations, the Bush Administration rejected the Iraqi invitation out of hand. In mid-August, when Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri sent a letter offering to resume discussions with the UN on weapons inspections, the United States, holding the UN Security Council presidency for the month, stated that the Security Council had no plans even to discuss the letter.

The speaker of Iraq's parliament, Saadoun Hammadi, on August 5 invited Congress to send a delegation to investigate those same allegations. The delegation, Hammadi said, could comprise "whatever number of Congressmen you see fit, accompanied by experts in the fields you deem relevant to the purpose of the visit, i.e. chemical, biological, or nuclear." The invitation, delivered to the Polish ambassador in Baghdad (the Polish embassy being in charge of US interests in Iraq), said the delegation would be given "every facility needed to search and inspect any plants and installations allegedly producing, or intended to produce, chemical, biological or nuclear weapons."5

Had its allegations been true, presumably the Administration would have welcomed the opportunity for Congress to see for itself the evidence substantiating them _ for a war against Iraq would need support from Congress and the American people. However the Bush Administration immediately rejected it, effectively forestalling a possible congressional fact-finding visit.

So, too, the Bush Administration dismissed concerns by:

• the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the implications of going to war with Iraq;

• leading economists about the potentially ruinous economic consequences of such a war;

• legal authorities about the illegality under the UN Charter and under international law of attacking another country without provocation;

• men such as Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under President Bush senior, that "an attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counter-terrorism campaign we have undertaken" and risk "an Armageddon in the Middle East."

The Obsession

The "problem" underlying the Bush Administration's determination to go to war with Iraq, very clearly, was not the continued existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or any real Iraqi threat to other countries. Rather, that was the pretext to justify an attack on Iraq for an entirely different reason: Saddam Hussein's success, for more than a decade, in resisting every previous effort to bring him down by other means. Plainly, that's what George W. Bush and his national security advisers felt they could no longer tolerate. Their blind determination to do in Saddam Hussein, whatever the consequences, has acquired the obsessive character of a Captain Ahab in pursuit of the great white whale.

Richard Perle, chair of the Defense Policy Board and a driving force behind the campaign to go to war with Iraq, has offered an optimistic view of what it would take to achieve victory. On ABC's This Week, he asserted that, "Millions of Iraqis have suffered for years under Saddam Hussein. They are eager to liberate their country and we are not talking about a massive invasion along the lines of 1991. We are talking about a much more modest effort in which the United States would assist Iraqis in freeing their country."

This was the same kind of thinking that caused US officials of an early time to believe that putting a modest number of Cuban exiles ashore at the Bay of Pigs would spark a popular uprising against our hated enemy Fidel Castro and that sending a modest number of US advisors to train the "brave people of South Vietnam" would give them victory in "their war" against the "Communist aggressors." And it was precisely the kind of illusory thinking underlying the earlier Bush Admin-istration's failed strategy of economic strangulation aimed at inducing rage against Saddam Hussein _ accompanied by exhortations to the "suffering people of Iraq" to rise up against him.

A decade earlier, George Bush senior had shied away from attempting to conquer Iraq itself, or intervene subsequently in support of the Kurdish and Shiite rebellions his Administration had incited, because of "his passion to avoid `another Vietnam.'" Administration officials declared that "in order to make the rebellions succeed…we would have had to engage fully in the civil war, march on Baghdad, install a new regime, protect that regime (which would have lacked legitimacy because of our participation) _ and we certainly would have had a Vietnam on our hands."6

The current Bush administration is undeterred by such considerations. George W. Bush (who had avoided Vietnam War service with safe "duty" in the Texas Air National Guard) and his national security advisers are now prepared to plunge our own nation into war _ and the Middle East, very possibly, into bloody chaos.


1. New York Times, August 16, 2002

2. Syracuse Post Standard, August 18, 2002

3. Newsday, July 30,2002

4. The Guardian, July 22, 2002

5. Reuters, August 5, 2002

6. The New Yorker, May 6, 1991

Ollie is a retired Syracuse University professor and long-time community activist. He is the author of KAL Flight 007: The Hidden Story (Permanent Press, 1985).