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The Costs of War

Shankar Mukherji

On April 9, news headlines around the world sounded the death knell of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime in Iraq. As Saddam’s statues came tumbling down around the city of Baghdad amidst jubilant residents, Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations Mohammed Aldouri announced that “the game is over.” And though fierce fighting will undoubtedly continue throughout the country in the immediate future, it is clear that the nation of Iraq has turned over a new leaf in the annals of history. The task now becomes one of rebuilding, and not only in the sense of broken houses and felled power lines. For even at the cusp of military victory, we must now comprehend the magnitude of our moral defeat.

The fall of Baghdad, unless one has buried his head in the proverbial sand, has less to do with the liberation of the Iraqi people and more to do with testing a new brand of realpolitik tailored for our unipolar state of geopolitical affairs. By now I am sure that everyone has heard of the New American Century, of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowicz’s September 12 demand to level Baghdad, of George W. Bush’s vow to strike back at the man who plotted his father’s attempted assassination. These are not the voices of liberation, but instead the clarion calls of a new world order viewed through an American sense of so-called moral clarity and backed up by the American military-industrial complex.

The fall of Baghdad also had little to do with the purported failure of diplomacy, as reported in the global press, but instead reflected another facet of administration policy: use the most convenient means possible to justify the goal, a war in Iraq. We all watched with shock and awe as the United States and Britain defied the United Nations at every turn, and at the end in a cowardly manner even refused to offer up their much-touted second resolution to the Security Council. In the process Washington and London not only marginalised the U.N. as an effective counterweight against an increasingly aggressive U.S. administration, it also violated the very spirit of the U.N. Charter and of international law as a whole.

The question now becomes how do we reclaim the moral high ground for our country, how do we mold our nation into the humble leader of the free world as George Bush promised in his campaign? Both the United States and United Kingdom are homes to decent, hard-working people who surely would not support many of the military misadventures undertaken by their governments were they only trusted with the truth. The path to our salvation leads to scene of our very crime -- the streets of Baghdad itself. The rebuilding of the nation that we have so wantonly destroyed offers the only hope we have to reclaim our nation in the eyes of the world.

The question of rebuilding, however, has become highly politicised, especially with respect to how it will be funded and how postwar Iraq will be governed. Current plans involve using the Iraqi oil-for-food account as funding for the reconstruction process. This money, I argue, must not be touched whatsoever by the occupying powers -- it belongs to the Iraqi people who innocently stood by as their homes were turned to rubble.

The only viable option is to force our government and that of Britain to pay reparations to the people of Iraq. And, barring the unlikely event that both countries will simply acquiesce, this means that the United Nations Security Council must impose economic sanctions against our governments, who acted as the aggressor states, equal in amount to recover the cost of rebuilding the nation of Iraq.

The levying of sanctions against the perpetrators would raise the much-needed funding necessary to rebuild the nation in an equitable fashion -- those who cause the damage are required to pay the cost. If the United States and Britain are serious about discussing this conflict as partly a humanitarian mission on behalf of the Iraqi people, then how is taking away their cash earmarked for desperately needed food and medical supplies a fair solution to the destruction caused by U.S. and British armed forces? The only humantarian solution must allow the Iraqis to keep their wealth while not being left to deal with the aftermath of war.

Most importantly, however, the levying of sanctions against aggressor states, whether victorious or not, stands clearly in line with standards of international decency and sends a clear message that the United Nations will not tolerate the employment of military force against sovereign states except out of self-defense. Just as economic sanctions were justifiably placed on the Saddam Hussein government in 1991 after his invasion of Kuwait (though needlessly sustained), the belligerents in this matter must not be rewarded financially for their willful flouting of international law, and certainly the international community cannot be held responsible for picking up the pieces left by the invasion force. The United Nations cannot suffer such violations of the very reason for its existence, for it alone -- and the moral force it has the potential to bear -- gives hope to militarily weaker countries against the caprice of the powerful, who justify armed aggression with such comforting phrases as “regime change.”

As responsible citizens of the 21st century, it is imperative that we begin to take on a more global outlook in our affairs. Though the economic sanctions would undoubted hurt our short-term economic interests, it is likely that any other outcome would leave us devoid of a lesson to learn from our belligerence, and perhaps we will not tread the warpath so lightly and embrace responsible alternatives to death and destruction.

Shankar Mukherji ’04 is co-president of the MIT Chapter of Amnesty International.