TFF logoFORUMS Meeting Point

The most common misunderstandings
about Iraq

Speech given by Jan Oberg in Berlin, November 2002




Jan Oberg

TFF director


December 27, 2002


Peace operations successful, the patients unfortunately died…

Thank you very much, herzlichen Dank. It's about 30 years ago that I spoke German, so I don't want to make you a victim of whatever might be left of that language in my hard disk!

I am honoured to be invited and discuss with you what is so terribly important and urgent, and could have such disastrous consequences for many. May I suggest to you that each one of you promise yourself to speak with at least ten people next week and discuss what you heard and learned during this conference? There's only one way compatible with democracy: to spread the word and work with nonviolent means. Also, to show the contrast with the undemocratic leaders - including those in so-called democracies - who get their point through by violence.

I'm not an expert on Iraq. I happen to know a little bit about conflicts as I have worked with conflicts during the last 25 years, but predominantly in the Balkans, in the Caucasus, in Burundi and elsewhere.

We have just seen the deeply moving pictures of the children and adults who suffer so terribly in Iraq. I've seen those children too, but that is not what I am going to address here. I've been to Iraq once, I've been there for two weeks. With my colleague from the Transnational Foundation I spent day and night talking with as many and different people as possible, among them the deputy Prime Minister, the Chairman of the National Assembly, the women's organisation and university scholars. We went to the countryside to meet ordinary citizens in the historic town of Babylon.

We had one thing in mind that Westerners are not good at, but which you can learn if you want, perhaps with a little help from Gandhi or Buddhism: to listen to what is said and not said instead of imposing you own preconceived ideas. Western conflict (mis)managers are now known around the world as those people in three-piece suits who come rushing into the airports in trouble spots and, almost before they have set foot on the ground, declare something like, "Hey, you guys, we know who among you are the good guys and the bad guys! We also know what's good for you! If, therefore, you don't sign this peace agreement that we wrote up on the plane coming here, you're gonna be bombed..!"

It's not that respectful of people's feelings and suffering. It lacks every diagnostic curiosity and, of course, it ignores the root causes, although it may sometimes stop the fighting, at least for a while and as long as there are heavily armed "peace"-keepers flown in.

The so-called international community - it is not a community but a handful of self-asserting presidents and prime ministers…- has left behind an ethnically poor Croatia, a non-viable Bosnia and put itself in prison in Kosovo; in the latter place, there are no more solutions that will provide for co-operation, trust or reconciliation and forgiveness between Serbs and Albanians living there. But there could have been. I have been working there since 1991, so I know a little bit about the place.

Last year this quite ignorant international "community" came disastrously close to demolishing Macedonia. We've not solved that many problems in Somalia either - another country I have worked in (1977-81). And if you think there's peace in Afghanistan, you have been a victim of Western propaganda. Probably Mr. Karzai controls some 15 kilometres around Kabul, a civil war-cum-hunger catastrophe looms around the corner. Well, since I haven't been there, I should not say too much - like a doctor should not speak about a patient he/she has never seen. But it looks quite gloomy even in Western media reports.

In summary, I am afraid that many "patient" countries and peoples have more or less died under the peace surgery of the international community. With these experiences of failed peace-making during the 1990s, I predict that there is hardly one single problem that will be solved by a) bombing, b) invading, c) occupying, and d) controlling Iraq. But there will be no limits to the new ones we will all face in the aftermath of the unwise, un-stateman-like and ill-intended policies of the Bush regime (In what follows I shall call it a regime as it was not democratically elected but selected).


Leila and Saleih: Iraq means people like you and I

I would like to start out with a little quotation from one of my own articles about two people I met in Iraq. Then I'll go on to the misunderstandings or, rather, propaganda points. (It's not on manuscript yet, because the way I work is to speak with people first at opportunities like this one and to listen and then get it onto paper). Here is the quotation:

"The United Nations Development Program, UNDP, takes me to various micro credit projects outside Baghdad. Leila is a young woman, sitting in her wheelchair, she tells me that she recently completed her computer engineering education at the university of Babylon. She then applied for UNDP's small learn program and received 750 US dollars or the equivalent of that and got recognised by the Iraqi Labour Ministry. She is now in charge of various courses for all sorts of students in her combined shop and classroom in Babylon. A humble young woman who has been given a chance of education and investment of capital to start her own business and help young people &endash; and older people &endash; work with computers and get access to the world.

I'm also taken to visit Saleih, a middle aged single carpenter, born without legs in 1964. He's fixing a huge rococo chair with a thin coat of gold on it as I walk into his shop. He has received in the same program a 500 dollars equivalent, and he is paying back 25 dollars a month. Lying on the floor is an enormous cabinet that Saleih is working on nowadays, and it's worth approximately 80 dollars, that's what he sells his products for.

He will probably be able to pay back his loans within a few years. He's also supporting his whole family and many others on this income, since his enterprise is slowly growing. Saleih recently invested in a saw - it's quite good to have a saw as a carpenter - but his highest hope is to be able to buy a wheelchair that costs about 75 dollars. A man with no legs since 1964, and he wants to buy a wheelchair that costs 75 dollars! I leave him with a feeling of hope; he has a chance to succeed, because he's working hard and creating incredible things with his hands, moving around on his floor with no legs. And no wheelchair. It is impossible not to see the sense of pride in his brown eyes when he looks up on me when I leave and seems grateful that I have come the whole way from Sweden to speak with him. Not that many foreigners have done that, particularly not academic foreigners.

Here like everywhere else in Iraq I met friendly and welcoming people. I would not have been surprised, if someone among them had believed - since I'm European, I look like a European, even like an American - I was somehow responsible for the sanctions and the suffering they have caused. But I felt safe. Everywhere. Shop owners smilingly said "Welcome, welcome, where 're you from?" - and asked me to visit their shops and stalls, invited me to sweet teas and showed me their neat and tidy goods.

It is to people like Leila and Saleih that my thoughts and emotions go when I listen to Western leaders saying that Iraq must be bombed and destroyed. It is their hopes and dreams that the war will kill - along with the dreams and hopes of 25 million other innocent Iraqi civilians! But Bush wants you and I to think of only Saddam, that one person, and not of the rest of the people.

And that's the dangerous thing: that image of Iraq in the Western media and the Western discussions.

Until we learn to talk about human beings in politics, things will go increasingly mad toward the dissolution - at some point, finally of civilisation itself.


The common mistakes, or propaganda points, about Iraq and the conflict

1. The sanctions do give Iraq a chance of development.

They don't! The Oil-for-Food Program also does not. There is no cash component in Central Iraq (there is in the North). There is virtually nothing that comes in legally that is not decided by the United Nations Sanctions Committee. The reason they have some money available - as far as I have understood - is a) the Mafia, b) private trade over the border, i.e. people driving their cars over, taking the goods in and selling them, and c) there is some secret oil export and a secret pipeline that the West more or less turns the blind eye to in order to have some cash coming in to the Iraqi system. This is a DE-development and a socio-economic destruction of a country. It would be good if people in the West would understand that there is something more important than money: there is also social structure, and there are things we cannot count in money terms. Iraq is a country that cannot develop, although no doubt some goods do reach the people.


2. It is Saddam's fault that children are dying.

It's often said in the media that Saddam deliberately (mis)uses the sanctions as an excuse and causes the suffering we have seen on the pictures earlier today. Some add that his regime sees to it that the medicine does not reach the people. I can't say that I investigated that or did research on it. But I can tell you that I heard only one story about that from one person in one international aid agency among all and among other international organisations working in Iraq. All the others told me straight away, no hesitation: that the regime is remarkably efficient in getting those food packages and that medicine out to all corners of society. But of course there is mismanagement, lack of resources as well as human failures - - as can be expected of a country in war.


3. The UN inspectors were thrown out by Saddam Hussein in 1998.

They were not. I'm not going into this detail, I'm sure Scott Ritter will do that much better. But the basic thing is: there was somebody who insisted on investigating, having access to the Baath party headquarters and somebody said 'no' at the same time as they found out that some of the inspectors were also spies. With inspectors present who are also spies, you please mention a country that would not have a right to ask them to leave. But they were not thrown out, they were withdrawn on the recommendation of Mr. Butler and because heavy bombings were resumed.

By the way, may I tell you what the leaders I met said about letting the inspectors back in. They said, "We have no problems with the inspectors coming back, but we insist on two conditions be fulfilled: 1) there must be a time table, we would like to know before they come, whether they want to stay here for three days, five months, one year, two years, whatever. We must have a deadline, because we just can't keep on twelve more years having this game going on. And point 2) we will not accept a single spy. No more people who work to find out something about the Iraqi society instead of doing the inspection of our weapons as is intended."

I don't think there is any Western government that would not put up at least these two conditions too were they ever to be the object of such inspections.


4. Iraq is a threat to her neighbours and to the world

It is often said that Iraq as it is today and has acted the last twelve years is a threat - to its neighbours, to the region, to the Western world and to the United States. To the best of my judgement: it is not. It is true that Iraq invaded Kuwait, it was stupid and in contravention of all international laws even if they had their reasons and another interpretation of history than the rest of the world. But Iraq is no longer in Kuwait and it works to repair that relationship through talks with Kuwait. You just do not hear about it in the media. And not even the Kuwaiti foreign minister thinks it is a good idea to bomb Iraq. If anybody should be enthusiastic about bombing Iraq and getting rid of Saddam, it would be Kuwait, would it not?

Iraq has not invaded anyone since that. To the best of my knowledge, the Iraqi regime has not threatened anybody. Some experts believe that Iraq might have a military system that is about a fifth of its capacity then - - in terms, that is, of military quantity and quality. It is hardly higher when it comes to human strength and fighting moral of what it had ten or twelve years ago. Further, even if you have nuclear devices - - remember, no research institute or intelligence agency has proven that Iraq has - - it would take some means to fire it over there, on Israel or wherever else you might think Saddam Hussein would strike. The Israelis obviously think that he might use biological weapons, because they are one of three countries that have now purchased practically all vaccine against smallpox available. The other two are Great Britain and the United States. Which leaves their friends and allies much closer to Iraq unprotected…

As far as we know from research institutes, Saddam Hussein does not have anything with which he can threaten Western Europe and nothing with which he can threaten the United States. And even if he did have, international law does not permit us to bomb, commit aggression, invade, occupy and control a country just because we think there is reason to believe that sometime into the future that country may become a threat. This is a weird theory that exists only in the minds of the clique surrounding George W. Bush. The idea of preventive conventional and - God forbid! - mass-destructive war or the exercise full-spectrum dominance does not exist in international law. Some may not like it, but to attack a country before it has committed aggression makes the aggressor a threat to international peace and security - as did NATO/the U.S. on Yugoslavia and the U.S. on Afghanistan. But that does not seem to bother too many people, presumably because it's a bit difficult to imagine how we should organise a UN-sanctioned bombing of the United States followed by a peace-keeping mission on the ground. In short, we all feel powerless somehow when confronting the strongest military power in human history that incidentally happens to also be deficient, even depleted, in terms of moral and intellectual power.


5. Inspectors will be able to write a report permitting the UN to lift the sanctions.

It's an absurdity to believe that you can send a number of inspectors to a territory which has - if I remember correctly - a million square kilometres, much of it desert, and that they would one day write a report stating that "we have now investigated every square inch of this territory and we solemnly declare to the world that there is not as much as five hundred gram of some kind of substance that could be used for the production of nuclear weapons, chemical weapons or biological weapons." In and of itself this is an absurdity. It is Mission Impossible and it always was. And if this is so, you will NEVER see a Security Council Resolution that lifts the sanctions. Because, as you all know, these two things are tied to each other; it is only when the inspectors report that they know Iraq has disarmed completely, has no means and substances for mass destructive weapons that the sanctions shall be lifted.

This is the ideal game for keeping on annoying, bothering and harassing one another for years, no end. Of course they are playing a cat and mouse game. And of course the Iraqis will not let foreign inspectors with bodyguards and armed people get into the sleeping room of Saddam Hussein and his wife. Who in this room would accept, without advanced notice or warning, strangers coming into your private home? Which government would accept their most sensitive laboratories being inspected meticulously? To my knowledge there is no other country in history in which such an inspection has ever taken place. In spite of the terrible invasion of Kuwait, we must ask: why Iraq and only Iraq?


6. International law permits this kind of war.

Some seem to think that international law makes it legitimate to bomb a country because of what it has done in the past, because it has a dictatorial leadership, because it has violated human rights or because it looks like it could become a threat to the international peace and security. However, neither the Charter of the United Nations nor other parts of international law support such arguments.

On the website of the Transnational Foundation,…you know, every serious subject has to be interrupted by commercials nowadays…you'll find a number of the world's leading scholars on international law such as Richard Falk, David Krieger, Lawyers Against the War and several others we have collected, who unanimously come to the conclusion that according to what we find in international law you cannot bomb Iraq , or any other country, for the reasons I just mentioned.


7. The decision by the UN to bomb can be delegated to a member state.

Some may also believe that a mandate or the decision to use violence by the UN can be delegated to a member state. It can not! The United States tried to force through a resolution in the Security Council stipulating that if Iraq doesn't comply and behave themselves, then the U.S. would have the powers to make that judgement and proceed automatically to warfare. This would be a violation of the Charter! And nothing in the Charter can be interpreted to support such a delegation. Neither the UN nor the Security Council as such can delegate a decision that authorises single countries or coalitions to use violence in the name of the United Nations. Now, ask yourself why this has not been brought up in the Western press as an attempt to violate the Charter


8. A UN mandate makes this war OK.

You have probably seen many editors and columnists write that if only there is a Security Council Resolution endorsing the bombing, then it becomes acceptable. It is as if a "UN mandate" should be a magic formula helping us to feel better about this war. The Swedish government, for instance, seems to hope that it will not be forced to criticise the United States. Because if there is such a UN mandate, it would be possible for it to say, "well, we don't like wars, but this one has a UN mandate, the Security Council is behind it, and therefore it is acceptable to us."

Wrong again! The Bush regime plans to bomb, destroy, invade, occupy and control Iraq. It plans to install a U.S. general to run Iraq for 5-6 years, presumably building on the model of MacArthur in Japan in 1945. This is the present plan in Washington! Getting a UN mandate for THAT will do nothing but undermine the United Nations, the finest organisation we have.

If you think war against and occupation of Iraq is immoral, inhumane, counterproductive, dangerous, or a violation of international law, it does NOT become legitimate, even if it has the support of the Security Council. Neither is that 15-member body identical with "the international community."

To put it crudely, if George W. Bush wants to destroy Iraq, he should go it alone! The UN must never be misused to provide fig leaves for bellicose policies of any member state. The UN must not be undermined even more than it has already been during the last ten years in Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Somalia, Afghanistan. I prefer our world to be running according to the norms of the UN, not the US! If the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, makes use of Chapter 99 and 100 of the Charter, it will not happen. But - will he?


9. This is rational policies operated by psychologically balance people.

A further misunderstanding is that these types of policies are rational and made by accountable people. I would argue that these are psychologically distorted policies. Those who plan this war are, as I see them, not people in psychological harmony and balance with a normal capacity for empathy. As you know I am not a psychologist, but I believe that what we see here is what Janis years ago called "group think". This little group in Washington is increasingly autistic (= does not take in information from the outside); whatever slips through is interpreted as favourable. Even information that might be scary from the viewpoint of their own policy and decision-making is added as proof that might makes right. They are totally convinced that they have the truth on their side and the moral right to do what they do. They live and operate, it seems, in their own world.

It does not seem to me when I watch and listen to Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush, Wolfowitz, Perle etc. that there is the slightest sense of dignity or seriousness, let alone any kind of awareness how complex the situation is, what terrible human suffering and other consequences their actions may have. In short, I don't think they are up to it in terms of human maturity, given the power of death and destruction they command. Frankly, they make me scared.

I would not be surprised if what we see is some kind of sadism and one not necessarily unrelated to the fact that Bush Jr. may want revenge for the attempt, allegedly by Saddam Hussein, to kill his father in Kuwait. Isn't it reasonable to call it paranoia when the United States today stand for half of the world's military expenditures, more than US$ 400 billion? Are the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq attempts to deal with a suppressed feeling of guilt, of having caused at least some of the conditions of the terrorism it says it is fighting? Why, we must ask, is it so impossible for the Americans - that open society - to discuss the possible links between its own global policies and terrorism? I cannot tell the degree to which this paranoia holds the entire American people collectively in its grip or only the American leadership, but the sheer intensity of the hate, demonisation, blaming, projection, black-and-white reasoning, revenge, self-righteousness, etc. are the kinds of psychological mechanisms that catastrophes are made of. How, I ask you, could this regime's policies ever be a blessing to humanity?

Contrast this with what we can read in "Wilson's Ghost," a marvellous book by former U.S. secretary of state, Robert McNamara. Here you find transcripts of some of the discussions going on in the Oval Office during the Kennedy administration, in the Cuban Missile Crisis days. (It's one of the best and most positive books about what we should all learn from the 20th century and what the United States should do now. It's written by a man born in 1916 who has repented for what he has done and has tried to achieve some kind of reconciliation with the Vietnamese. Reading it you will experience how, in contrast to the Bush regime, these people KNEW that they were playing with the future of humanity, they knew the risks they were facing, they knew that their decisions could have terrible consequences! I am not saying they were right, but at least some of them could think complex thoughts and act as serious human beings (although also lacking in empathy, for sure, when it comes to the Vietnamese). They seem to have faced the real world, not one of games, and they seem somehow to have believed in what they did and in their visions of the future.

On the other side, of course, we face the psychology of Saddam Hussein. He got his first revolver when he was ten and was beaten up on his way to school, allegedly because he was what they call an illegitimate child of a lonely mother in Tikrit. He is protected 24 hours a day, allegedly sleeping in different locations every night and having done so for years. Heroism, splendid isolation and brutality sometimes go hand in hand. What do we think a person ends up like when he or she can never feel secure, never take a walk around the corner, never be spontaneous and never deal with what we must believe is a feeling of guilt?

When I was there I talked with people who believe that the single wish of Saddam Hussein is to stay in power, no matter how empty that power is, power for the sake of power. The regime has no more visions (as it actually did have in the past) for the Iraqi society. If you have been in power for more than 35 years and have abolished all serious opposition, how do you develop, get new ideas, face new challenges? Right, you probably turn intellectually and morally dead, lose hope, humanity and honour. And under strong pressure from the outside you don't need any visions because they can't be realised, so you become a custodian of the empty museum! I went to Babylon on the walls of which the visitor will see numerous small brass plates that tell that Saddam Hussein, the protector of the nation, is rebuilding Babylon; his role model seems to be king Nebuchadrezzar II (born 630 BC). Add to that the thousands of sculptures, monuments and pictures, sometimes 3-4 in the same little room, and you are coming closer to the perverse psychology of the struggle for immortality. I am not sure this is healthy; it seems like Saddam Hussein is less interested in the present but obsessed with securing immortality.

For these and several other reasons, I tend to see George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein as some kind of Siamese conflict twins. They need each other and fit each other excellently. They may both be psychologically distorted. However, we in the West should be more concerned about the former than the latter, because George W. Bush is destroying some fundamental values of Western civilisation; in addition he is the more dangerous of the two because of the weapons he has at his disposal. On that scale, Saddam Hussein is a military dwarf.


10. The war is about noble aims rather than mundane interests.

The PR image of this war is that it is basically about human rights, democracy, stability and peace. I think it is about none of it! To the Bush regime, it is rather about oil, strategic gains and some kind of weird perception of a future civilisational confrontation with China and other non-Western actors.

What we hear leaders talk about at press conferences is motives, and they are all noble, of course. But it's public relations and psycho-warfare with you and I as target groups. The United States today has a propaganda campaign going worth US$200 million to influence people like you and me and the Arab world to be in favour of the war. I wonder about the free press that is not present here today: is it able to select news and manuscripts according to whether they are true and genuine or the products of PR companies, propaganda, deception and worse? (I always say: use the internet which is the most pluralist and free medium we have, far more so than your local or national newspaper).

This coming war is also about the expansion of the Western market, Western liberal capitalism, which is the largest killing system ever invented in human history, because it takes the lives of between 60,000 to 100,000 innocent people unnecessarily every a day! They are the civilian 'damned of the earth' who still cannot get pure drinking water, food, medicine and shelter in this world. (Compare with 3,000 human lives lost one time on September 11).

This coming war is about keeping Russia down once and for all, exploiting that Russia is on it's knees right now. It is about a strategic game of which Iraq is only one piece; it was initiated by Bill Clinton and heavily influenced by Zbigniew Brezinski's book "The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives." An Iraq that is not obedient to the West is lying in the way and must be controlled somehow. Furthermore, look at the triangle of the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus/Central Asia and you begin to see single events as part of a larger pattern - which is what the media prevent us from with their modus operandi of one-event-at-one-place-and-at-one-time.

This coming war if about the Middle East and it is about Saudi-Arabia and its oil. It's about the forthcoming, let's say 20 to 30 years ahead, conflict the two large civilisations of the Orient and the Occident. The Occident could turn out to be an Accident!… if we continue to have this U.S. leadership and these NATO-allies and friends of the United States and security experts none of whom have the civil courage to present alternatives to these terrible perspectives for the future.

We have not done our duty for peace. It is not enough to say no to war. We must say yes to honest information and open debate and use that to present the alternatives to warfare. Conflict-resolution, mediation, diplomatic pressure, together with face-to-face exploration with "the other" of what it is all about: these are some of the alternatives that provide for civilised conflict-management.

We are living in increasingly dark times and therefore we must constantly remind ourselves of the fact that those of us who want peace is a majority. Very few people on earth want war. Wars come to an end, peace never does; we can always do better and work harder for peace.

We must eradicate the mistakes, the propaganda and the deliberate lies on which all wars are based. They must not continue to blind us and to hide that there are always alternatives to war. Gandhi argued that the coward should take to violence because nonviolence requires a lot of courage. May I add that the intellectually lazy fellow chooses violence before even thinking of nonviolent options.


© TFF & the author 2002  


Tell a friend about this article

Send to:


Message and your name





Photo galleries

Nonviolence Forum

TFF News Navigator

Become a TFF Friend

TFF Online Bookstore

Reconciliation project

Make an online donation

Foundation update and more

TFF Peace Training Network

Make a donation via bank or postal giro

Menu below












The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512

© TFF 1997-2002