Reaping the Whirlwind: The Shadow Side of Imperial Bullying

Reaping the Whirlwind: The Shadow Side of Imperial Bullying by Steve Clemens. November 4, 2011

It was in conversation with the Iraqi doctors visiting from Najaf that I inquired about Muqtada al-Sadr and the role he and his militias might play in Iraq after the U.S. uniformed troops leave by the end of this year. [Note: we leave behind close to 6,000 mercenary “contractors” – mostly ex-military personnel hired at enormous cost to provide “security” for U.S. State Department and other American personnel remaining in Iraq.] Soon after the Saddam Hussein regime toppled, the Iraqi cleric and political leader, son of the murdered Grand Ayatollah Mohammad al-Sadr, formed his youthful followers into a political group which included a fighting force called the Sadr Brigades or the Madhi Army and declared the Coalition Provisional Authority as illegitimate. Al-Sadr’s forces were a key factor of what has been called the “insurgency” in Iraq along with uprisings in Sunni areas as well.

What I was told by one of the physicians who works in Najaf, the city known as the home base for al-Sadr [who is now studying in Iran to become an ayatollah himself] is that most of his followers are “ignorant young people”. The doctor went on to explain that one of the consequences of the economic sanctions put in place at U.S. insistence by the United Nations in 1990 was a severe devaluation of the Iraqi dinar as the ability to import and export goods became increasingly difficult. Although the declared purpose of the sanctions was to force Saddam Hussein from power, the actual effect led to a black market that only further solidified the power of the dictator as he controlled what underground economy existed. As a result, he and his cronies got even wealthier while the middle class and the poor bore the brunt of the devastation that ensued.

To “connect the dots”, the economic catastrophe which hit Iraq destroyed much of the infrastructure as spare parts or key ingredients were embargoed. Baghdad was well known as “the” place to go for quality medical care in the Middle East before the sanctions. Less than 10 years later, doctors had to scrounge for the tubing needed to administer IV fluids, let alone the critical ingredients for drug cocktails used for many cancer treatments. Water treatment plants and electrical power stations which were bombed in the 1991 war were left in disrepair when the spare parts or critical components were denied importation by the sanctions committee dominated by the US and the UK. But even more tragic was the impact on the “human resources” of the country.

Children often went to bed hungry after only one or two meager meals a day that stunted both their mental and physical growth. As the dinar’s value was rapidly deflated, the schoolteachers were forced to take additional jobs to support their families. One doctor told me his history/geography teacher took a “job” selling tobacco on the street corners in order to feed his family. With both inadequate food and schooling, it is no wonder many of Iraq’s precious resource of children, now young adults, remain “ignorant” and are easily swayed by the persuasive powers of leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr. We have reaped the whirlwind in allowing a whole generation to be inadequately schooled, thus unable to help discern what leaders might be worthy of following.

Speaking of leaders, one of the primary charges leveled against Saddam Hussein in the run-up to war was that “he killed his own people” – referring to his chemical warfare attacks against the Kurdish population in the northern part of Iraq. Never mind that the Kurds, a ruggedly independent people, never really considered themselves as “Iraqi” but rather “Kurdish”; they suffered mightily under the Baathist regime as well as the “Marsh Arabs” and other Shia groups in the south. Is in not ironic (and certainly a revealing shadow-side of our empire) that we now have a U.S. President openly bragging about killing a U.S. citizen last month? Yes, Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemani-American cleric was considered by many as a “terrorist” or at least an inspirer of terrorists but he was a U.S. citizen who supposedly has a constitutional right to arrest and trial rather than summary execution. Saddam also accused the Kurds of “terrorism” and saw no need for a trial. Now we emulate those we say are our enemies; now our leaders “kill their own people” as well.

All in the name of “national security”. This idol, this obsession, has led us to the shredding of our civil liberties and our constitution. We continue to tremble in fear and obsequiousness whenever our leaders or corporate media tell us of another “threat”. We take off our shoes in the airport and trip-over ourselves in trying to be “more-patriotic-than-thou” by not only having the National Anthem played at the ballgame but have to add “God Bless America” to the seventh-inning stretch! All the lip-service given to “honoring the troops” is a mask to cover the shame many of us feel because these wars have cost us nothing as we go shopping at the President’s beckoning – leaving the bills for these wars as debt for the future generations.

We are a nation/empire in serious decline yet we live in denial. But the cracks are showing: the Occupy Wall Street movement and its metastatic-like spread around the country and the globe signals a stirring, possibly an uprising. Our Iraqi friends, in telling us their stories and experiences of sanctions, invasions, and occupations, can hold a much-needed mirror up for us so we can begin to see both the whirlwind and the shadow of empire.

A Message to Hillary from an Iraqi Doctor

A Warning to Secretary Clinton: Economic Sanctions Kill the Innocent by Steve Clemens. November 1, 2011
I sat across the table from my new friend, Dr. Ali, an Iraqi Radiologist who was visiting Minneapolis as part of the Sister City delegation from Najaf, Iraq. We were between scheduled appointments in a busy schedule which was set up by The Iraqi & American Reconciliation Project, the sponsoring nonprofit organization which helped bring 8 medical personnel and a journalist from Minneapolis’ newest Sister City to the country that continues to occupy his nation and people. What he told me yesterday morning serves as a cautionary tale that our Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, must weigh before she continues her threatened assault on Iraq’s neighbor – and our latest nemesis – Iran. Her proposed weapon of economic sanctions should not be cavalierly invoked before we learn the lessons from our most recent experience in Iraq.
Dr. Ali was only 11 years-old when President Bush the Elder led the movement to place economic sanctions on the people of Iraq, hoping to force the withdraw of Saddam Hussein’s troops from neighboring Kuwait in 1990. An unprecedented bombing campaign and a very brief 3-day land war in 1991 that left Iraq in shambles but Saddam remaining in power quickly followed it. The U.S.-led economic sanctions remained in place for an additional 12 years until President Bush the Younger decided to complete his daddy’s war with his own. In the interim, President Bill Clinton kept the comprehensive economic embargo in place despite the cries from humanitarian officials who pointed out the consequences to the people of Iraq, especially the children. Hillary Clinton’s predecessor, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, serving under her husband’s presidency, notoriously observed that she thought “it was worth it” when asked by a journalist about the excess deaths of more than a half-million Iraqi children midway through this cynical attempt to have the Iraqi people rise up to overthrow the brutally repressive Saddam regime.
I visited Iraq in December 2002 as part of the Iraq Peace Team just a few months before our present long war was reignited the following March. For many of the Iraqi people, economic sanctions, combined with U.S. bombing on average every three days during the Clinton years, were just a continuation of war in a lesser form. I visited hospitals and schools, water treatment plants and homes and talked with Iraqis during that trip, shocked at the devastating toll the Iraqi people paid from wars and sanctions. I had no idea that almost 10 years later I’d be sitting across the table at the Riverside Perkins restaurant over coffee and hearing another personal story of the continuing tragedy.
At age 11, and coming from a Kurdish family now relocated just outside of Baghdad trying to avoid the bombing campaign, Ali had neither the power or the ability to rise up to overthrow the oppressive dictator, ostensibly the goal of the economic sanctions campaign – but he now bore the brunt of it. He told me that he often only had one or two meager meals a day for many years. In school he noticed how his teachers often had to take second jobs to support their families and his father had to take second and third jobs to support his large family which included four brothers and three sisters – with Ali as the oldest sibling.
He went on to tell me about his mother’s breast cancer that was diagnosed in 2000 while Ali was in Medical College. Her cancer remained untreated because no chemotherapy or radiation treatment was available due to restrictions under the economic sanctions. She died 1 ½ years after diagnosis, at age 40, from lack of proper treatment; her youngest child just over one-year old. The frustration and horror of not being able to get the medical care she needed was a major factor in Dr. Ali choosing to make Radiological Medicine his specialty after he graduated and completed his two-year medical internship. After six years of Medical College and two years of government-mandated internship, Dr. Ali worked another four years to become Board Certified as a Radiologist. He now must work five years in a placement approved by the Ministry of Health (based on need and his ranking in exams) before he is free to practice wherever he’d like in Iraq.  
Although he doesn’t speak the Kurdish language, Dr. Ali hopes to learn it and someday move back to the northern region of Iraq where his relatives come from. He would like Americans to better appreciate the suffering the Iraqi people have undergone not only from the wars but also the economic sanctions which so degraded and destroyed his country in less dramatic and slower (but as deadly) a way.
Now, if only Secretary Clinton and President Obama would take the time to talk to everyday Iraqis before threatening the mothers and children of Iran with the same failed policies. Hillary Clinton talks about empowering girls and women yet her strategies make them some of the first victims. One of the greatest tragedies from our wars is that we either learn nothing from them or learn the wrong lessons. As Armistice Day approaches on November 11th, let us join with my friends of Veterans For Peace to remember and reflect rather than glorify war and our warriors.