No Cause For War: Pretexts, Preemption and the Prospects for Peace
An Interview with Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., has been a writer, analyst and activist on Middle East issues, especially Israel-Palestine, for 25 years. Based at the United Nations, she began working on U.S. domination of the UN at the time of the run-up to the Gulf War, and has stayed involved in work on Iraq sanctions, disarmament and U.S. policy towards Iraq. Bennis is the author of several books, and is frequently published in the Baltimore Sun, Middle East International, Middle East Report (MERIP), TomPaine.com and many other publications. She is appears regularly on U.S. and international media.

Multinational Monitor: What kind of nuclear capacity does Iraq have?

Phyllis Bennis: As far as we know, Iraq has no nuclear capacity.

Prior to the Gulf War, Iraq had a nuclear weapons program. They never built a nuclear bomb, they never had fissile material, as far as we know. That's pretty easy to spot with satellite and other technologies. Unlike with chemical or biological weapons, you can't put a nuclear facility on the back of a truck, or do it in a basement. It takes huge facilities that are very hard to hide. If Iraq had nuclear weapons, we would have known about it long ago.

MM: Is there any reason to believe that Iraq is close to acquiring nuclear weapons?

Bennis: No. There has been a great deal of scare-mongering, but the reality is that all of the estimates--whether that they're two years away, six months or five years--are predicated on the idea that they are going to get fissile material from outside.

The embargo on Iraq is the tightest and most comprehensive embargo in history. If we can't stop nuclear fuel at least from going to Iraq, then we're in serious trouble.

It's not surprising that countries around the world want to get nuclear weapons. The reason that North Korea is not facing imminent invasion by the United States is because it appears the country may well have a nuclear weapon. Iraq can be invaded with impunity, because it doesn't. That is a terribly dangerous lesson to send to the rest of the world: If you want to protect yourself from U.S. invasion, get yourself a nuke. It sets the stage for the end of disarmament efforts as we know them.

MM: Does Iraq have a biological or chemical warfare capacity?

Bennis: As far as we know, there are no viable biological or chemical weapons programs now.

We know that Iraq did have biological and chemical weapons, because we sold supplies to them. The Brits sold the growth medium, we sold the biological seed stock for things like anthrax, E. coli, botulism and a host of other diseases, the Germans sold the chemical weapons. This was when Iraq was on our side throughout the 1980s. That was also the period when Iraq used those weapons, both against Iranian troops and against Kurdish civilians.

MM: How much of Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons program was uncovered by UN inspectors in the 1990s?

Bennis: When the inspectors left Iraq in 1998, they said that they had found and destroyed or rendered harmless 90 to 95 percent of Iraq's chemical/biological capacity. There are some unresolved questions, for example about warheads Iraq said they destroyed but for which they do not have a paper trail.

The inspectors said they had found and destroyed 100 percent of Iraq's nuclear capacity.

What's important to remember is that Iraq had those weapons at the time of the Gulf War in 1991. The Iraqis did not use them precisely because they knew there would be consequences. Unlike the decision to use chemical or biological weapons against what we might call unpopular victims like Iranian troops or Kurds, who nobody cares about in the West, using them against American troops, Israelis or Saudis would have brought instant and drastic consequences. The Iraqis knew that and they didn't use them. Deterrence worked.

MM: Why did the inspections stop in 1998?

Bennis: They stopped because there was a crisis engendered in the relationship between the inspectors and Iraq based on the revelations that the inspectors, known as Unscom [the United Nations Special Commission, established after the Gulf War to oversee the destruction of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction], were acting as spies for the United States and Israel. The inspectors confirmed this.

The United States in early 1998 had threatened to attack Iraq. That was averted at the last minute by a trip to Baghdad by Kofi Annan, who negotiated a kind of stand down. He negotiated a new arrangement for the inspectors, which worked for most of the rest of that year.

By November, there was another stalemate, and another conflict, which was actually rooted in this question of what the inspectors were doing. The Iraqis were concerned that along with these very intrusive inspections, the U.S. and Israel were getting access to what the inspectors found, including information on the location and presence of Saddam Hussein.

This at a moment when the U.S. was publicly proclaiming its interest in overthrowing the regime, hinting that it was prepared to assassinate the Iraqi leader. So obviously there was a great deal of concern in Iraq about the UN inspectors looking for information about the whereabouts of the Iraqi president, his travel arrangements, his security, etc.

As the crisis was growing, Richard Butler, who was the last director of Unscom, issued a report with a very apocalyptic tone. And the summary of the report basically said, Iraq is preventing the inspections from going forward. In fact, the text of his report was very different, and far more nuanced. Among other things, it said that Iraq was cooperating in the majority of inspections.

The report documented, I believe, five specific examples of inspections that the Iraqis had blocked. This was clearly a violation of what Iraq had agreed to accept, which was unconditional inspections. But it was hardly the kind of apocalyptic rejection that was being presented.

As that crisis was emerging, the U.S. notified Butler that they were about to begin bombing Baghdad, and advised him to remove his inspectors. He did that, and said at the time that he was doing it for the protection of his inspectors. One might have hoped that he would have passed on that information to the UN humanitarian team who was working in Baghdad at the same time, from the same headquarters, but he never mentioned it. Three hundred fifty international UN staff and 850 Iraqi UN staff spent the four days of what became known as Desert Fox, the massive bombing of December 1998, cowering in the hall of UN headquarters.

So you have this scenario where the inspectors pulled out, the U.S. begins a massive bombing raid, destroying much of the rehabilitation work that had been done after the Gulf War, and after that the Iraqis refused to allow the inspectors to return. That's what led to the four-year-long stalemate that was only ended in November 2002, when Iraq agreed to let the inspectors go back in.

MM: What threat does Iraq pose to the United States?

Bennis: Iraq poses no threat to the United States.

Iraq doesn't have missiles capable of reaching the United States, and doesn't have delivery systems for chemical or biological scraps that may be left around. They simply are not a threat. They have been qualitatively disarmed and are probably now one of the weakest countries militarily in the entire region.

Unfortunately, the disarmament resolution that the U.S. drafted, Resolution 687, has been implemented only in part. One of the key parts that has not been implemented, is Article 14, which says that the disarming of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction should be seen as part of a goal toward establishing a Middle East region-wide zone free of all weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them. That part of Resolution 687 would require an end not only to the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, but all the others in the region, meaning Israel's nuclear arsenal, Iran's and Israel's and Syria's efforts at chemical and biological weapons, all of them.

In my view, that's the recipe for a much more stable, demilitarized Middle East.

MM: What threat does Iraq pose to any of its neighbors?

Bennis: I don't think Iraq poses a serious threat to any of its neighbors. It has a big army, which is very badly equipped, badly motivated, and has been devastated from the 12 years since the last war.

Are there 18 missing scuds? Yes there are. Could they still be in existence? Yes they could. Could they be fired at Saudi Arabia or Israel? That's possible, although it's not at all clear that they are in any shape to be fired. Does this represent an existential threat to these countries? Absolutely not.

We know that the Iraqi anti-aircraft equipment, which has presumably been paid more attention to, has not been capable of shooting down any of the myriad of U.S. and British planes patrolling illegally in the so-called no-fly zones, including the planes bombing Iraq on a several-times-a-week basis for the last three years.

MM: Is there any legitimacy to any of the stated rationales for going to war with Iraq?

Bennis: I don't think so. The stated rationale that one would wish to be legitimate is the question of the human rights of the Iraqi people, who have suffered terribly under this regime.

But the U.S. has been too hypocritical on this issue to take this rationale seriously. For example, Donald Rumsfeld, who is now the secretary of defense, in 1983 and 1984 was the special envoy of President Reagan. In that position, he visited Baghdad, and shook hands with Saddam Hussein in order to reorder full diplomatic relations between the two countries. He never said a word of concern about the fact that Iraq was using illegal chemical weapons.

If he said today, "You know, I was wrong, I made a big mistake back then and I really want to rectify it now," one might be tempted to want to believe that. But there has been no acknowledgement that that was wrong. There is no recognition of the complicity of the United States in those terrible crimes that the Iraqi regime committed, let alone accountability for what the U.S. has done in Iraq.

All of a sudden after 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, this long time ally, who had been a terrible human rights violator throughout the 10 years of that alliance, suddenly becomes an enemy, suddenly becomes Hitler. Only in that context does the U.S. hold up Iraq as the symbol of human rights violations.

And then the U.S. says, "OK, this is a country that is systematically violating the political and civil rights of the Iraqi people. What are we going to do in response? We're going to impose crippling economic sanctions violating the economic and social rights of the Iraqi people." Now people in Iraq still don't have a free press, still don't have free speech, still don't have an opposition party, but now they're also starving.

That to me is not a legitimate human rights strategy.

MM: What forces in the United States are advocating war?

Bennis: The main forces are the ideologues in the Bush administration who have had their eye on Iraq and have wanted to go to war in Iraq for years. These are people like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle. They are driven by a vision of empire. They are trying to expand U.S. military and economic power.

The problem is that those goals don't benefit ordinary people in the United States. They largely benefit the oil interests, the arms industries and those already rich and powerful and influential.

Many of these ideologues were part of a campaign that was launched back in the late nineties by a group in Washington, D.C. called Project for the New American Century. They were calling for a much more aggressive U.S. foreign policy.

MM: How involved are the oil and defense industries in promoting the war?

Bennis: I think they are very involved. I'm not very conversant with the details of who is lobbying whom, but I think that it's important to recognize that within the Bush administration there is a host of people that come directly out of the oil industry. These are people who made their personal fortunes in the oil industry, starting of course, with George Bush himself. You have Dick Cheney, who spent his years as the CEO of Haliburton, the oil services industry, you have Condoleeza Rice, who played such an active and useful role on the board of Chevron Oil that they at one point named an oil tanker after her. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans is also linked to the oil industry. Because there is a very direct link, it requires less lobbying.

MM: Do you see any in the oil industry who are opposed or worried about the war?

Bennis: I can't imagine that there is not.

The question of how this war is going to affect the oil industry is a very tricky question. Certainly a quick U.S. strike and new U.S. control of Iraq's systems and oil reserves would be a boon to the U.S. oil companies overall, because they would get the contracts that have now gone to Russian, French, Malaysian, Brazilian and Italian and other oil companies. But if there is a sudden explosion of access to oil, the price would be lowered, and how that plays out in the medium- and longer-term is still a question.

But so far we certainly have not been hearing from within the oil industry any significant opposition.

MM: Do you think there are any fears of scenarios that the war in Iraq will spur internal conflict in Saudi Arabia and threaten the regime there, or that Iraq might blow up the oil fields?

Bennis: I don't think there's a danger that Iraq is going to blow up the oil fields. Whoever is in control of Iraq needs the oil there.

But I think instability in neighboring countries is a very serious threat. One of the things the U.S. policy makers have to be considering is: Are they prepared to demand of our allies in the region the kind of broad public support involving use of bases, airspace, overflight rights, troop positioning, all of those things, when the cost might be the overthrow of those very regimes that are closest to us?

That is a very serious question, I think, for governments in places like Saudi Arabia and Jordan and elsewhere. At the end of the day, they will have no choice but to do what the U.S. wants; they are fundamentally dependents of the United States. The question is, what price will they pay.

MM: What do you think might be the consequences of a war, if there is one, for the Iraqis?

Bennis: The Iraqis will pay the highest price for a war. All of the competing military strategies that are being debated begin with some version of a massive bombardment against Baghdad.

The theory is that Baghdad is studded with anti-aircraft weapons, and surrounded by the crack troops of the Republican Guards. Some or all of that may be true. But Baghdad is also a city crowded with 5 to 6 million people--ordinary people, grandmothers, babies, people trying to live a normal life in these profoundly abnormal times--who will be the victims.

However smart the U.S. bombing campaign is, it's not going to be smart enough to hit an anti-aircraft battery in a garage next to a house and leave that house standing. We learned that in Afghanistan. We killed 4,000 civilians that we know of in Afghanistan--not one of them was named Osama Bin Laden. I don't think we're necessarily going to do much better in Baghdad.

Some of the weapons that the U.S. is talking about, or not talking about very loudly, because they're trying to keep them secret, are things like new carbon fiber weapons. Everyone in the Pentagon seems very proud of these weapons because they do not destroy buildings. It is dropped and it has the effect of taking out the electrical grid, so it cuts the electricity to things like the military communications systems. The problem is those same electrical grids are what fuels the water pumps, they're what provide power for the sewage treatment plants, they power the hospitals. So as soon as the electrical grid is knocked out, you have no medical care, you have no clean water, you have no sewage treatment. You have a humanitarian disaster.

The United Nations, which has been developing secret contingency plans, is anticipating that as many as 10 million people in the first days and weeks of a U.S. war will become immediately food insecure, meaning they will be dependent on outside sources of food aid, mainly from the United Nations. The UN is putting in place as massive a program as they can that would make it possible to feed people, but even that program is only going to be able to provide for roughly half of those, 4.5 million people. What's suppose to happen to the other 5.5 people who will be food insecure, but will not have access to UN food? No one is saying.

MM: What consequences do you anticipate for the United States, for the troops who might be involved in fighting or in a potential blowback effect with terrorism in the United States?

Bennis: I think there are going to be a number of effects and they are all bad.

For the troops, this is not going to be an easy, clean war. We were led astray during the Gulf War. The number of people killed directly among the U.S. and allied troops was very low--though the number of Iraqis killed was very high. There probably will not be such a low U.S. casualty rate this time, because we are not talking about an air war and a minimal ground war, we're talking about a potentially very bloody urban fight in Baghdad and other cities.

There is also concern about depleted uranium. The U.S. has not learned its lessons from the first Gulf War and from the Kosovo bombing, where it used depleted uranium weapons as harder shells to pierce tanks and that sort of thing. The problem is depleted uranium has a half life of several billion years, it dissolves into dust which people ingest and may create a host of devastating cancers.

For Americans in general, a war is going to make our lives much less secure. This is going to escalate the level of antagonism toward the United States throughout the region and internationally. That means that the threat of terrorism goes up, it means that ordinary Americans will be faced with being a target.

There is also the broader question aside from the potential rise in terrorism. I think most Americans do not want to live in a country that is known as a rogue state. I don't think we want to be accountable for killing perhaps 100,000 Iraqis, similar to the number who died in the first Gulf War.

MM: What do you anticipate a war meaning in terms of governance and arrangements in the region, particularly within Iraq, and for Israel-Palestine?

Bennis: I think the effect inside Iraq is very hard to know. Certainly there is an almost desperate effort going on right now by the external opposition to try to position themselves for power when and if the U.S. takes over. What their relationship will be to people living in Iraq who have gone through this 12 years of sanctions and war is not at all clear.

I think what stands the best chance of changing the terribly repressive system that now prevails in Iraq is lifting the economic sanctions and allowing the rebuilding of the social infrastructure of Iraq's intelligentsia and middle class. Once their lives were stable and they didn't have to worry about where they were going to get clean water for their kids, these groups would be in a much better position to challenge the government and make serious changes from within, rather than having them imposed from outside.

The impact on Israel-Palestine, I think, is going to be a disaster. I think Israel intends to use what is known as the "fog of war," the confusion and the chaos that comes with a U.S. war, to attack. Not to attack Iraq, but to attack the Palestinians, to significantly escalate that attack. It may be in the form of what many in Israel are calling "transfer."

Transfer is a euphemism for ethnic cleansing, and the notion is now popular in Israel, where 40 percent of the population say they support transfer. I don't think there is any clarity about what it will really look like. I don't think it will look 1967 or 1947-8, where a total of a million Palestinians were expelled from their land in the context of those wars. I think what's possible is either a wholesale expulsion perhaps of one village as an example, or one area, possibly identifying 1,000 individual Palestinians who will be named to be transferred, including perhaps intellectuals and political leaders, grassroots organizers, militants, or those claimed by Israel to be militants. It may be a much smaller scale operation that has more symbolic than generalized impact.

MM: What do you think are going to be the factors that determine whether or not there is a war?

Bennis: The most important factor is going to be the U.S. political calculations of the cost of war. Right now there is already deep concern about the breadth of anti-war sentiment in the United States. It's hard to know how Bush reacts to the notion that there are 100,000 mobilized outside his door protesting the war.

They have to be concerned in the White House when you have a group of Republicans taking out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, saying, we are Republicans, we have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party, we supported the Gulf War, we support the war in Afghanistan, but this war we do not support, you have not made your case, we want our money back, we want our country back. Those are very strong words coming from that kind of a group.

They have to be concerned about the public level of dissent within the military, with many retired generals and admirals saying there is no military necessity for this war. They have to be concerned about the fact that 50 cities have passed resolutions opposing a war.

They have to be concerned that people are drawing the links between the cost of this war and the fiscal crisis of the country. Cities and states right now are facing a $68 billion budget shortfall. If this war, for example, cost a hundred billion dollars--and that is one of the lower estimates--the people of New York state will have to pay $7 billion. What could New York state do with $7 billion if they had it available for schools and for hospitals? People in the mainstream press are starting to make those links.

I think all of those factors become very important when we look at what the U.S. goals are and how the White House weighs them against the fact that there is massive opposition in this country and that internationally the U.S. stands alone.

The U.S. is already talking about a "coalition of the willing" being a better option than going to the United Nations. That is a reflection of the fact that they may not be able to get even enough positive votes in the Security Council. There could be as many as eight abstentions in the Council, which would mean that they don't have enough positive votes to go forward even if nobody vetoes.

I think while the ideologues may be committed to going ahead on a unilateral basis, there are some slightly saner voices in the administration that have to be weighing those consequences. Unlike the decision to use chemical or biological weapons against what we might call unpopular victims like Iranian troops or Kurds, using them against American troops, Israelis or Saudis would have brought instant and drastic consequences. The Iraqis knew that and they didn't use them. Deterrence worked.

Iraq poses no threat to the United States. Iraq doesn't have missiles capable of reaching the United States, and doesn't have delivery systems for chemical or biological scraps that may be left around.

Now people in Iraq still don't have a free press, still don't have free speech, still don't have an opposition party, but now they're also starving.

The problem is that those goals don't benefit ordinary people in the United States. They largely benefit the oil interests, the arms industries and those already rich and powerful and influential. We killed 4,000 civilians that we know of in Afghanistan - not one of them was named Osama Bin Laden. I don't think we're necessarily going to do much better in Baghdad.

© Multinational Monitor January/February 2003