Tribune leader, 5 April 1991
It should now be abundantly clear why so many on the left were sceptical of American claims that the war to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait marked a new concern for the rights of small nations to self-determination. In the past week, United States forces in southern Iraq have sat back and watched while the erstwhile foe ruthlessly suppressed popular uprisings which had been encouraged, if not inspired, by the rhetoric of the US President.
George Bush is not the main villain of this piece: it is Saddam who is directly responsible for the butchery of the Shia and Kurdish revolutionaries. But Bush must take some responsibility for the bloodshed. He did not make it clear to the Kurds that all the stuff about “national self-determination” during the crisis over Kuwait was largely for domestic consumption (and certainly did not apply to nations unlucky enough to be stateless).
He never declared publicly that an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq – which is all the Kurds realistically hoped to secure – was not hi the interests of the US and her allies, nor did he tell the Shias that the Americans would prefer virtually any government in Iraq to one politically close to Iran.
Instead, Bush gave the Kurds and Shias the impression that he backed uprisings against Saddam, then failed to provide even minimal support. Rarely can the democratic politician’s need to sound good on television have had such tragic results.
The Americans have already claimed that their unwillingness to take action was based on the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. But there are circumstances in which this principle has to be over-ridden by other considerations. Apartheid is one such case; Pol Pot’s barbarism in Cambodia was another. In the past fortnight, the very least the Americans should have done was to shoot down the helicopter gunships used by Saddam to destroy the Kurdish uprising.
This might appear to sit uneasily with Tribune‘s opposition to the war in the Gulf and its calls, once the battle for Kuwait had commenced, for the fighting to be ended as soon as possible and for the limitation of the anti-Iraq coalitions war aims. But it is entirely consistent. Our opposition to the war was based not on outright pacifism nor on admiration of Saddam nor on a belief that the international community has no right to intervene in defence of national self-determination.
Rather, it was motivated by concern at the human and environmental costs of war to remove Iraq from Kuwait, and a conviction – right or wrong – that rigorously enforced sanctions would, given time, secure Iraqi withdrawal without resort to war. Once the fighting had started, we believed that the priority was to minimise suffering and loss of life. At the beginning of this week it became obvious that similar humanist considerations demanded at least some military action to protect the Kurds and Shias against Saddam’s assault.
But nothing was done, and it now seems that it is too late to come to the Kurds’ and Shias’ aid militarily. Their brave revolts have been crushed, and the refugees are fleeing Saddam’s bloody revenge. Our political masters should be hanging their heads in shame.