Posted on August 02, 1999 in Washington Watch

I recently participated in a live debate carried on one of the Arab satellite networks. It was not so much a debate, however, as it was an exercise in frustration–for both my opponent and myself. The difficulty was not that we disagreed, rather, it was that we spent the better part of our hour-long discussion, talking past each other.

My opponent was the editor of a pan-Arab newspaper. Our topic was U.S. policy toward Iraq and Libya. He was eloquent and forceful in making his case–one that is, no doubt, shared by many in the Arab world.

He argued, for example, that the United States maintained a double standard in dealing with the Arab world, and with the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions and international law. The United States, he claimed, was the world’s sole super power, bent on imposing its political will not only on a weak Arab world, but on Europe, Asia, and Africa as well. In too many instances, he argued, the United States turned a blind eye to violations of human rights and international law when these were committed by U.S. allies or when they occurred in regions of the world not critical to U.S interests. He further argued that the United States reserved its wrath for Arab countries, especially for those that did not bend to U.S. dictates.

The United States’ determination to indefinitely continue economic sanctions against Iraq and push for the overthrow of the regime in Baghdad and the commitment to continue sanctions against Libya despite that government’s decision to turn the Lockerbie suspects over for trial, both, he concluded, undercut the authority and legitimacy of the United Nations and transformed the UN into a powerless tool which the United States used for its own purposes.

This I believe was the essence of his case, which I hope I have conveyed correctly. In my response, I could not present the hollow rationalizations for U.S. policy that all too frequently are used to justify U.S. actions. In some instances I would not refute his observations about U.S. policy–because, as observations, they were legitimate.

I would, if I had so desired, make some of the same criticisms of U.S. policy that he had made. For example, there is a double standard–I cannot argue with that. But an endless recitation of criticism, I believe, accomplishes little. The point (to paraphrase the German philosopher) is not to observe or criticize reality–the point is to understand and then to change reality.

What I, therefore, sought to do in my rebuttal was to explain the “why” of current U.S. policy toward Iraq.

In the case of Iraq, in particular, it is important to understand the extent to which this issue has become a matter of U.S. domestic politics. At one point, I described the Iraqi leader as the “Willie Horton” of U.S. foreign policy. Horton was a convicted murderer who was released from prison in the 1980s by then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. A short time after being freed, Horton murdered again. During the 1988 presidential campaign Republican candidate George Bush used the Willie Horton issue in television debates against his Democratic opponent, Dukakis.

The message of the ad was that Dukakis was a weak leader, soft on crime. He freed Willie Horton once, he’d do it again. Could you trust him to be President?

The impact of the ad was devastating to the Dukakis campaign.

Shortly after his election in 1992, President Bill Clinton indicated that he might rethink U.S. policy toward Saddam Hussein’s regime. The reaction was swift and quite forceful. To let the Iraqi out of his box was a political risk–like freeing Willie Horton. Clinton learned the lesson and did not repeat his “mistake.”

A powerful coalition of domestic political forces has formed against the Iraqi government. It is now led by a Republican majority in Congress, which has, at times, used Iraq policy as a wedge against the President’s party. They have argued for increasingly tougher policies against Iraq. Having virtually no opposition, this majority has now gone so far as to pass the Iraq Liberation Act–which requires the United States to support the overthrow of the regime.

This is, like it or not, where the political debate is in the U.S today.

The regime in Iraq, with its bloody and brutal past and present, doesn’t present a compelling counter argument. It has no defenders, nor has its behavior earned it any.

Where there is U.S. concern, and some U.S. debate, is over the fate of the millions of innocent Iraqi people who are, in effect, hostage to their regime and its policies. Given the limits on what the U.S. Administration has felt is possible, they have argued for a substantial increase in the oil for food program–ever careful to ensure that the regime is not seen as benefiting from this program.

As the human toll of sanctions continues to mount, a legislative effort has been mounted by a small, but courageous, group of Congressmen. They are introducing a bill to end sanctions. But it is a politically risky move since they are all aware of how their domestic opponents may seek to use the “Horton” arguments against them.

This is where the debate is, at this point. One can, if one wishes, argue that it is unfair, but that will not change it.

Policy in the United States is always a function of politics and politics is a function of several factors that politicians must consider when shaping policy. The most critical of these factors is how the majority perceives an issue.

Unfortunately, policy is not based on whether an issue is right or just or even consistent. More important consideration is given to how an issue is understood and whether or not voters will be supportive of a specific action or will punish the politician who takes that action.

Saddam’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, his refusal to leave, and his bizarre behavior (burning the oil fields) when he was forced to leave, established his reputation in the United States. Since then, the regime has continued to confound efforts to change policy by changing public perception. At every turn, the Iraqi regime has acted in a manner that has reinforced the arguments of its enemies, by reinforcing public perceptions of its irredeemable nature.

Even those U.S policy makers who are uncomfortable at being in the position of enforcing the Iraq Liberation Act, are hard pressed to see a way out of the bind created by the real circumstances that define the current debate: the powerful domestic political pressures that are driving the U.S policy debate and the continued hostile behavior of the Iraqi regime that only serves to spur that debate forward.

This is the situation, as it exists, that I sought to explain during the television debate. I could not argue, as my opponent had sought to, the merits of this or that Security Council Resolution on the standing, or lack thereof of, this or that statute of international law.

My political arena is within the United States. It is the context in which I operate and it is the policy made here that I seek to change.

If it is true, as my debate opponent would have it, that the United States is the sole superpower imposing its will on the world, than it is important for me to understand my political world and its dynamics in order to help in the process of changing it.

Criticizing reality doesn’t make it change–engaging it does. My opponent and I participate in very different worlds and face such very different challenges. That is why we were talking past each other.

For comments or information, contact

comments powered by Disqus