by Stephen Zunes
In Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton lied again about Iraq.
At the forum in Los Angeles, Hillary Clinton declared, “We bombed them for days in 1998 because Saddam Hussein threw out inspectors.”
That statement was totally false. The bombing campaign had been planned for months and the inspectors were not thrown out. They were ordered out by President Bill Clinton in anticipation of the four-day U.S.-led bombing campaign.
The chronology, which is on the public record, is as follows:
In early 1998, the Clinton Administration began to raise concerns about Iraq’s refusal to allow inspectors of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) to visit so-called “presidential sites,” a liberally-defined series of buildings and grounds across the country that Iraq claimed were used by government officials. Even though subsequent evidence has revealed that the Iraqis had nothing to hide, since all proscribed weapons and weapons material had long since been eliminated, Saddam Hussein held firm. Given that a number of prominent American political leaders from both parties had called openly for assassinating him, however, the Iraqi leader’s reluctance to allow Americans into presidential palaces may have been a result of concerns that such access would make him and other top officials personally vulnerable. Furthermore, the Iraqis had complained that, despite a stated policy of avoiding staffing UNSCOM with experts from “intelligence providing states,” there was a disproportionate number of Americans involved in the inspections, who would deliberately prolong the process and could potentially provide information to the U.S. military. The Iraqi dictator also reportedly had an obsessive compulsive disorder which led him to order that his palaces be kept meticulously clean and made him particularly reluctant to allow large groups of foreigners to move about his homes.
The Clinton administration’s insistence upon raising this issue at that time was rather suspect: Such Iraqi restrictions on these “presidential sites” had existed since the beginning of the sanctions regime nearly seven years earlier without any concerns publically expressed by United Nations officials. Yet suddenly, in January 1998, the Clinton administration decided that it had become an intolerable violation of UN Security Council resolution 687, which called upon Iraq to verify its disarmament, and warned Iraq that the United States - despite the lack of Security Council approval as required - would engage in a sustained bombing campaign against their country if the Iraqis did not allow these inspections of presidential palaces to go ahead. By February, a large-scale U.S. military assault seemed likely. However, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan was able to broker a deal late that month that opened the presidential palaces to UN inspectors, but with an additional diplomatic presence in recognition of the sites’ special status.
The disappointment by Clinton administration officials that the bombing campaign would not be able to go ahead as planned was palpable. Clinton did not give up on its search for an excuse to attack Iraq, however.
At the end of October, Iraq imposed new restrictions on UNSCOM as a result of revelations that the United States was indeed illegally using UNSCOM as a vehicle for spying on the Iraqi government. On November 10, in response to pressure from President Clinton, UNSCOM chairman Richard Butler announced his decision to pull UNSCOM out of Iraq without the required authorization from the Security Council. Iraq then reversed itself and agreed to allow the inspectors to resume their activities. The United States, however, was eager to launch military action, particularly by mid-December in order to take advantage of overlapping American military units on rotation in the Persian Gulf, which made it a particularly auspicious time for major air strikes.
According to former chief weapons inspector Scott Ritter, Clinton’s National Security Advisor Sandy Berger - now a major advisor for Senator Clinton - met with Butler on November 30, when the UNSCOM director was instructed to provoke Iraq into breaking its agreement to fully cooperate with UNSCOM. Without consulting the UN Security Council as required, Butler announced to the Iraqis that he was nullifying previously agreed-upon modalities dealing with sensitive sites that limited the number of UNSCOM inspectors. He chose the Baath Party headquarters in Baghdad as the site to demand unfettered access, a very unlikely place to store weapons of mass destruction but one very likely to provoke a negative reaction. The Iraqis refused to allow the large group into their party headquarters, but did allow them unrestricted access to a series of sensitive military installations.
At that point, Butler and the Clinton Administration unilaterally ordered UN inspectors out of Iraq in order to remove them from the risk of being harmed by the massive U.S. air and missile strikes that were forthcoming. Back in New York, American officials then helped Butler draft a report blaming Iraq exclusively for the impasse in a late night session at the U.S. Mission across from the United Nations headquarters. As the UN Security Council was meeting in an emergency special session on how to implement a unified response to Iraq’s non-cooperation, the United States - with support from Great Britain - launched an unauthorized four-day series of sustained air strikes against Iraq in what became known as Operation Desert Fox. In response, Iraq forbade UNSCOM from returning.
Surely Senator Clinton knew all this, since she has emphasized as evidence of her supposed experience in foreign affairs her close consultation with her husband and his national security advisors during these crises. Her claims during the debate, then, that the bombing took place because Saddam Hussein “threw out inspectors” is a boldface lie to rationalize for a four-day bombing campaign that killed hundreds of people, many of whom were innocent civilians, and which gave Saddam Hussein an excuse to refuse to allow inspectors to return to Iraq for the next four years. A number of strategic analysts (including me) publically warned prior to the December 1998 attacks that launching such massive air strikes would result in an end to the UN inspections and would result in reducing Iraqi compliance from 95% to 0%. President Clinton clearly wanted the inspections regime to end, however, presumably because - as Senator Clinton has acknowledged - the administration had shifted U.S. policy from containment of Iraq to regime change. Indeed, the resulting absence of inspectors became the principal rationale for President George W. Bush, Senator Clinton and others to support an invasion of Iraq four years later.
Indeed, in Thursday night’s debate, Senator Clinton claims that she voted to authorize war against Iraq in October 2002 because “we needed to put inspectors in.” However, this was also a lie, since Saddam Hussein had by that time already agreed for a return of the weapons inspectors. Furthermore, Senator Clinton voted against the substitute Levin amendment, which would have also granted President Bush authority to use force, but only if Iraq defied subsequent UN demands regarding the inspections process. Instead, Senator Clinton voted for the Republican-sponsored resolution to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq at the time and circumstances of his own choosing regardless of whether inspectors returned. Indeed, unfettered large-scale weapons inspections had been going on in Iraq for nearly four months at the time the Bush administration launched the March 2003 invasion that Senator Clinton had voted to authorize.
This is part of a longstanding pattern of Senator Hillary Clinton misleading the American public about Iraq in order to justify her militaristic policies. It is important to remember that, back in October 2002, despite widespread and public skepticism expressed by arms control experts over the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had somehow re-armed itself, Senator Clinton was insisting that Iraq’s possession of biological and chemical weapons was “not in doubt” and was “undisputed.” She also claimed, despite the reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iraq’s nuclear program had been completely eliminated, that Iraq was “trying to develop nuclear weapons.”
This inevitably raises concerns that if Hillary Clinton is elected president, she will have no qualms about lying once again to the American people in order to justify going to war.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco.