International Distractions Caused by War in Iraq

By Gabriel I.H. Williams

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 23, 2003

With the war in Iraq winding down, the United States is expected to institute swift measures aimed at easing international tension, and providing leadership and the necessary support to get the international system fully back into business. The need to refocus on other issues could not be more pressing, as the global economy is in a slump and the lives of millions of people worldwide depending on emergency relief are at risk due to shortfalls in donor aid, among others.

There can be no question that the Iraqi conflict has seriously disrupted the international order, and significantly undermined the United Nations as a pact universal. The bitter division on Iraq within the world community, which was played out at the U.N. on live television beamed worldwide, underscore prevailing world-view that the war is illegal. Having failed to get the U.N. endorsement for military action against Iraq, the U.S. and Britain decided to act unilaterally.

Since the United States-led military action in Iraq began March 20 (March 19 in the U.S.) to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein from power, other crucial international developments have virtually ended up on the back burners. With the spotlight focused on Iraq, the U.N. and the international community, as well as the leading global media, have been preoccupied with that conflict. There seems to be a "stop action" on other matters of significant global importance, while developments around the world have fallen below the media radar.

The war started after the U.S. and Britain failed to get a resolution through the U.N. Security Council authorizing the use of force to disarm Iraq of "weapons of mass destruction." This was due to opposition from France, Russia, Germany and most of the other U.N. member countries. Nations that opposed the war favored UN weapons inspection process that they believed would have brought about the disarmament of Iraq without use of force. However, the U.S. and Britain, supported by Australia, Spain, Italy and a few other countries, strongly favored the use of force as the only means to rid Iraq of "weapons of mass destruction." Iraq, which the U.S. accused of sponsoring terrorism, was found to be in violation of U.N. resolutions authorizing its disarmament, thus continuing to remain a danger to regional and world peace. However, countries opposed to the use of force regarded the U.S. and British-led policy for a regime change in Iraq as a violation of international law and a major destabilizing factor.

Around the world, millions of people took to the streets to protest against the war, which they said would destroy innocent life and property and place the world in greater danger. The U.S. and Britain have been accused of "invading" Iraq for control over its oil wealth. Opponents of the war have noted what is seen to be double standards in U.S. foreign policy in which Washington supports certain friendly dictatorships, while seeking the removal of unfriendly despots.

In the U.S., most Americans are puzzled as to why Americans appear to be so hated around the world. Most people around the world do not necessarily hate Americans, but there is clearly anger and frustration over official U.S. policies and activities that people in those parts of the world consider unjust, and against their interests and wellbeing. There is also a huge factor of information gap between Americans and people in most part of the world. It is mind boggling that despite having the most sophisticated mass media in the world, there is a great degree of ignorance within general American society regarding developments in the rest of the world. The corporate controlled mainstream American media is accused of being in partnership with the establishment to keep the American people in the dark about global developments. A recent example is what was seen as the "tailored" or "stage-managed" coverage of the Iraqi war, in which certain images and developments were kept off the television screen and not reported. Whereas, people in other parts of the world with access to various alternative media sources, including Al Jazeera and other recently established Arab broadcast networks, were getting a different picture of the death and destruction.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., the foundation of America was seriously shaken and the future of the democratic world threatened. This is understandably a key factor in current U.S. policy of preemption. The U.S. is seen to be using pre-emptive strikes to avoid another tragedy similar to 9/11 that could destroy more lives and leave the country devastated. The lack of a major U.S. military response to previous terrorist activities is said to have encouraged Osama bin Laden and other terrorist masterminds to execute more daring acts because they felt that America was weak and would not react. It is hoped that the demonstration of U.S. power would be tempered with policy reforms that would seek to address pressing global problems that are the source of insecurity and instability.

The mainstream American media also have a very crucial role in breaching the information gap by changing the pattern of and improving their coverage of global issues. After the tragedy of 9/11, Americans have been wondering, "how come we didn’t see this coming?" Well, because the American media, arrogant because of their technological sophistication and privileges, failed to provide realistic coverage of developments around the world, including the Middle East and Africa. The upsurge of anti-American sentiments around the world is not just against U.S. government policies, but against America’s corporate media that are seen to be biased. As part of the effort to ensure balanced global coverage, the media should seek to employ more journalists from other parts of the world resident in the U.S. Europeans, for example, are better informed about the world because of their media.

Another suggestion is for institutions and individuals with the resources to contribute toward the expansion and establishment of alternative media outlets throughout the U.S. with a focus to help reshape the thinking of Americans toward world issues. There are hundreds of journalists from foreign parts, including many well accomplished journalists exiled from their native countries, who cannot gain employment with news organs in the U.S. due to reasons including prejudice. Worst affected are journalists from Africa who, no matter how good you were in your native country, you never seem good enough to be given an opportunity in American newsrooms. It does not matter whether many of these journalists have had some form of education either in the U.S. or in Europe. A similar situation regards publishing, where there is very little support to publish books and other materials that are essential for public information and education. The prevailing perception is that Americans are not interested in African issues, for example. Such perception, not just about Africa but other parts of the world, has to change if Americans would have a better understanding of the world.

Meanwhile, as the international community remains focused on Iraq, the plight of hundreds of millions of people around the world who are victims of the AIDS epidemic, hunger, starvation and poverty continues to receive less attention. So have efforts toward multilateral collaborations aimed at bringing about global economic progress, peace and stability, good governance, and respect for human rights.

According to Amnesty International, human rights violations are on the increase worldwide. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, many countries have instituted measures to restrain civil liberties or clamp down on dissent. There have been terrorism-related executions in Cuba, where about 80 civil rights activists, including journalists, lawyers, opposition politicians, and others have been detained, some already tried and sentenced to years in prison for conspiracy.

Apparently emboldened by a U.N. battered and seemingly weakened from the Iraqi crisis, other countries have begun to defy mandates of the world body with impunity. The North Korean regime of Kim Jong IL expelled U.N. weapons inspectors from his country, announced resumption of nuclear weapons testing, and also test-fired a missile in the Sea of Japan. Charles Taylor, the pariah leader of the West African country of Liberia, founded in the early 1800s by freed black American slaves, has also announced that he is breaking a UN arms embargo on Liberia, which is blamed for destabilizing several countries in the sub-region, as well as for gunrunning and diamond smuggling. Both Kim Jong IL and Taylor are ranked first and fourth among the "10 Worst Living Dictators" in the world. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was also named third on the list of the world’s most inhuman tyrants, published in the February 16, 2003 edition of Parade magazine.

The reality of the world body is that the U.N. is only as strong as its member countries, especially the major powers, would like it to be, since the U.N. relies on member countries for support and implementation or enforcement of its actions. As a journalism scholar at the U.N. Headquarters in New York in the 1980s, I remember discussions about a possible shutdown of the U.N. Secretariat at one point due to budget shortfalls because the U.S. was seen to have withheld payment of its dues. The U.S., which is the single largest contributor to the U.N. system, long complained about the bureaucracy and waste within the U.N. system. This was underlined by apparent dissatisfaction in Washington over what was regarded to be strong anti-American sentiments amongst most of the U.N. member countries, particularly the developing world. The basis of the anti-American sentiments at the time regarded the U.S. support for the racist exploitative minority regime in South Africa, refusing to support U.N. sanctions against Pretoria. Instead, the Reagan Administration instituted what it called the policy of "Constructive Engagement" with the apartheid regime, which was generally seen to be continuation of normal diplomatic intercourse between both countries. Another serious bone of contention was the Israeli-Palestanian conflict, where the U.S. was seen to be pro-Israel and not working enough to advance peace in the Middle East. President Reagan at the time visited the U.N. Headquarters and addressed the General Assembly, and the U.S. made partial payment of its dues.

While the examples just cited are by no means unique, they provide some lessons for prevailing developments and for the future. There can be do doubt that the difficulties the U.S. and Britain have encountered at the U.N. in building international support for the war in Iraq are underlined by developments in the Middle East, amid suspicions of double standards in U.S. foreign policy.

The Israeli-Palestanian conflict has deteriorated to the worst level, while U.S. backing for Israel is seen to be even more polarizing than before, alienating most of the Arab and Islamic World. The groundswell of discontent has brought about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism or fanaticism, catapulting the likes of Osama bin Laden as some kind of hero fighting against Christian domination of Islam. In the name of Allah, dispossessed and suppressed young people are brainwashed to conduct terrorist acts that kill the innocent, including suicide attacks. This is why the war in Iraq, while being touted by the U.S. and its supporters as the liberation of Iraq from the rule of an evil dictator, it is seen particularly in the Arab or Islamic World as yet another imposition by Christians and Jews. Efforts should be made to ensure that bin Laden and other Islamic fanatics do not exploit the U.S. led military action in Iraq as "Christian Imperialism," so as to further fan the flames of religious war.

It seems obvious that the world is at the crossroads of a new international order, where there is fear about the rise of "Imperial America." Ensuring peace and prosperity in what is becoming a world polarized by religion depend on actions that would be taken to address the fundamental problems that have generated such alienation and hatred. The rebuilding of Iraq presents the U.S. a great opportunity for the political and economic transformation of that country as a model not just for the Arab world but the international community in general. Efforts must also be made to ensure that the U.N. plays a leadership role in the rebuilding of Iraq.

While the U.S. have taken the unprecedented action to removed the Iraqi despot from power, there should be a consistent U.S. policy to take a strong position against all dictators - friends or foes - who sponsor terrorism, export violence, squander the resources of their countries, and maintain a reign of terror to hold on to power.

Lessons from history and the present day world reality are that dictators – from Germany’s Adolf Hitler to Iraq’s Saddam Houssein, or Charles Taylor of Liberia - can never be appeased. Such leaders are bent on destroying their own country and people, if that’s what it would take to remain in power, while invading neighboring countries and sponsoring armed insurrections in others. These are men who have thrived on anarchy, and their rules of repression would intensify until they fall from power, as have been the case with Hitler and recently Saddam.

In Liberia, the increasingly paranoid despot, who is under U.N. sanctions and faces possible indictment for war crimes in Sierra Leone and Liberia for sponsoring wars that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, has become more brutal as the country decays and degenerates into chaos. It is time for regime change in Liberia, whose leader is reported to have secretly withdrawn $3.8 billion from Swiss bank accounts recently, according to the London-based environmental organization Global Witness. The U.S. would find it difficult to be seen as a true partner of Africa as long as Liberia, once a strategic U.S. outpost on the continent during the Cold War, remains abandoned in a state of destitution. Liberia has become a rogue state under Taylor, whose regime has also been accused of diamond dealings with bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network.

Liberia may no longer be of strategic importance to U.S. interests or may not have an oil wealth to justify American intervention. But it would be acting to restore such country that the U.S. could be seen not to be selective in its policy to intervene in another country for resources. Taylor must be indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and there must be a ban on export of Liberian timber to stop the plunder of the country’s pristine forests, as well as a freeze on Liberian assets abroad.

About the Author: Gabriel I.H. Williams is a Liberian Journalist and author of the book, "Liberia: The Heart of Darkness," which provides compelling accounts of Liberia’s brutal civil war and its destabilizing effects in West Africa. He can be contacted at