There are so many problems with Chesa Boudin and Sarah Stillman’s column (“Humanitarian acts in Iraq? Drop sanctions,” 2/21) that I’m not sure where to begin. I may as well start with the claim that the U.N. sanctions against Iraq are one of the greatest acts of “biological terrorism” (which the authors seem to define rather broadly, and as I’ve never seen the term defined before) in modern history. This is laughable — or would be, were it not so mendacious. Forced starvation on a massive scale is not unique to Iraq; I would direct the authors’ eyes to the present regime of North Korea and the great famines under Stalin in the Soviet Union for two particularly vivid — and hard-to-miss — examples, which rather dwarf the sanctions imposed o Iraq.
Of course, to do so would mean acknowledging that there are villains in the world other, and worse, than the U.S. government — some of whom even claim to be, and are supported by, leftists. I know this is hard for the authors to conceive of; alas, it is true.
The authors suggest that we should focus on our own government’s, and not Saddam’s, culpability for sanctions — apparently because we should only judge our own government, and not others. By this logic, we should be more upset by the Allies’ failure to bomb Auschwitz than by the Nazi genocide itself (as, for all I know, the authors are). This seems to me a dubious principle.
We should instead ask ourselves, in judging culpability for the infant mortality rate and other heart-rending problems besetting Iraq, who is most responsible — and not who it is easiest (or most politically advantageous for us) to blame. The fact that the problems that the authors describe are so much worse in those areas of Iraq controlled by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime than in those areas of Northern Iraq controlled by Kurdish groups, even though both areas labor under the same sanctions, suggest that such suffering need not result from the sanctions — but Saddam and his goons allow it to. And the fact that, while his people sicken and starve, Saddam builds himself scores of lavish palaces and continues to seek weapons, whether of mass destruction or not, also suggests that Iraq has money — and the government chooses to use that money for purposes aside from helping its people.
Saddam should invest the money that he spends tormenting his people in prisons and torture chambers, and having his private army terrorize and execute them, in hospitals and water treatment plants. If he does so, and his people continue to suffer from sanctions, we can then blame the United States.
The authors suggest that the United States’ targeting of water-treatment plants, involving as it did a total lack of concern for innocent human life, is incompatible with humanitarian justifications for intervention. I certainly agree that such actions are abhorrent, and believe that the U.S. government should refrain from such policies in the future. But I would also ask the authors what, then, they think should be done about a regime that starves, terrorizes, tortures, and murders its own people and, when it can, its neighbors. And I would have them ask themselves: Is failing to address the crimes of this regime, or to suggest any way of dealing with them, compatible with their own high-minded, and higher-handed, condemnation of American action on humanitarian grounds?
What is sad, and disgusting, in all of this, is that anti-war activists like Boudin and Stillman, no less than the administration they so abominate, are using the people of Iraq as a rhetorical weapon with which to advance their own ideologically-defined ends, whether those ends be war, or mobilizing opposition of U.S. government policy and military intervention abroad no matter what. I believe that we should do all we can to free the people of Iraq from slavery and terror and relieve them from sickness and pain; but until we can find a way to do so, we might at least have the decency not to use them as rhetorical pawns in our own game of partisan bickering.
Joshua Cherniss ’02 is a graduate student in modern history at Balliol College, Oxford.