January 05, 2009

The 'slander' of Madeleine Albright

In The Divine Comedy, Dante puts the violent sinners in the seventh circle of hell, a step above liars and fraudsters, whom he relegates to the eighth circle. I can't disagree. The settlers of Hebron, for example: we know what they are. They're Jewish supremacists. We know that. They know that. They say that. Of course people in Hebron will never have peace until each of these fruitcakes is put in a straightjacket or cell. The settlers would be the first to admit that.

More harm is caused by those for whom the supreme political manifestation of a conscience is the act of splitting hairs, and who spend their energy "exposing" those who "lack nuance" and dare take sides. Edmund Burke's pithy remark that "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" is one of the most popular quotes on the internet. But Burke was only half-right. It is not the "only" thing needed. In order for good people to do nothing, there need be an army of wordsmiths toiling to convince that sitting on one's hands is the mark of the good person, the badge of the thoughtful and the nuanced, the essence of wisdom in short.

In our society, this is the often the job of the liberal. One such liberal who rolls today into our analysis room is a chap called Adler. We had once a run-in because he believes that everybody should express his (Adler's) views, and he criticized an article I wrote for not expressing his moralizing convictions. You can find it with Google if you want. But it isn't worth it. Adler's list of dislikes is both large and distinguished. It includes George Galloway, Harold Pinter, Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Arundhati Roy, and many more. I'm in good company. I don't know whether Adler's fear of any challenge to the empire is the result of his pathetic need to rescue some idea of a decent Zionism from the "black hole unto the nations" that is Israel. Zionism has this corrupting effect on people, that so many who dived into the brackish waters to save it from itself never re-emerge. But in all honesty, it also attracts those who are so predisposed.

Just so you know, Adler "disagrees with the actions of Israel in Gaza". But that lame statement takes him to the verge of the abyss of commitment. Frightened of himself, he soon regained his balance by attacking Nir Rosen. Rosen dared to express an uncomfortable truth: that Zionism will only survive through genocide. Rosen's piece is a showcase of lucidity as well as courage for someone who makes a living as a journalist. I recommend you read Rosen in full, but let me quote the main "offending" paragraph:
A Zionist Israel is not a viable long-term project and Israeli settlements, land expropriation and separation barriers have long since made a two state solution impossible. There can be only one state in historic Palestine. In coming decades, Israelis will be confronted with two options. Will they peacefully transition towards an equal society, where Palestinians are given the same rights, à la post-apartheid South Africa? Or will they continue to view democracy as a threat? If so, one of the peoples will be forced to leave. Colonialism has only worked when most of the natives have been exterminated. But often, as in occupied Algeria, it is the settlers who flee. (Nir Rosen, Comment is free).
99% of Adler's "critique" of Rosen is irrefutable, in the sense that it contains no arguments that one could refute (at one point he even accuses Rosen of being "unoriginal"). But Adler claims to lay bare Rosen's "intellectual dishonesty". It is worth taking that apart in order to figure out what Adler's kind of liberals mean by "honesty."
...Rosen also repeats a malicious slander against Madeleine Albright: "When you impose sanctions, as the US did on Saddam era Iraq, that kill hundreds of thousands, and then say their deaths were worth it, as secretary of state Albright did, then you are deliberately killing people for a political goal." Arundhati Roy used the same out-of-context quotation from Albright to smear the former Secretary of State as a murderer. Ian Buruma set the record straight:

This sounds pretty horrible. In fact, Albright had already made it clear to Lesley Stahl of CBS, who asked the question, that the Iraqi children were not dying because of the sanctions. Iraq can buy as much medicine as it wants. She admitted that sanctions did have negative consequences, but she argued that this was a price worth paying for containing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. (Adler's Blog)
Note that Adler has nothing to say beyond quoting Buruma (who I guess is kind of the Moses of the hair splitters), and on the strength of that quote alone he calls Rosen "dishonest" and says that Albright was "maliciously slandered." And what commitment to liberal ideals! Unless you agree with an obscure convoluted interpretation of Albright's very plain words, an interpretation that practically nobody, including she herself, supports, you're not just wrong, you are "intellectually dishonest" and a "malicious slenderer." Some nuance! Some civility!

So let's take a look at Buruma. But let's establish some facts first, because we cannot judge what Albright said as if it didn't matter what happened before and after.

The U.S. led the imposition of U.N. sanction on Iraq immediately before and together with a war that the U.S. itself probably helped instigate. In that war, the US (a superpower fighting a small stretched out conventional army,) obliterated, unnecessarily and not for military reasons, a good part of Iraq's civilian infrastructure.
...on January 16, coalition forces began a military assault, and between this date and February 27, 1991 they subjected Iraq to one of the most intensive bombings in history. Violating international law, US forces targeted water treatment facilities, reservoirs, and water distribution systems as well as the electrical power plants crucial to the water treatment system. (War, Water, and Ethics: Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities, Peace Magazine)

...Some targets, especially late in the war, were bombed primarily to create postwar leverage over Iraq, not to influence the course of the conflict itself. Planners now say their intent was to destroy or damage valuable facilities that Baghdad could not repair without foreign assistance. Many of the targets in Iraq's Mesopotamian heartland, the list of which grew from about 400 to more than 700 in the course of the war, were chosen only secondarily to contribute to the military defeat of Baghdad's occupation army in Kuwait. Military planners hoped the bombing would amplify the economic and psychological impact of international sanctions on Iraqi society, and thereby compel President Saddam Hussein to withdraw Iraqi forces from Kuwait without a ground war. They also hoped to incite Iraqi citizens to rise against the Iraqi leader...Because of these goals, damage to civilian structures and interests, invariably described by briefers during the war as "collateral" and unintended, was sometimes neither. (Global Policy Report)

Sanctions were imposed in 1990. But, already in 1991, critics warned that, for example,
...the lack of electrical power, fuel and key transportation links in Iraq now has led to acute malnutrition and "epidemic" levels of cholera and typhoid. In an estimate not substantively disputed by the Pentagon, the team projected that "at least 170,000 children under five years of age will die in the coming year from the delayed effects" of the bombing. (Global Policy Report)
By 1996, when Albright made her famous remark, a number of respectable studies have reported excess child mortality figures ranging from 170,000 to 500,000. The apologists, naturally, argued that these studies were flawed. And perhaps they were flawed, as every honest attempt to represent reality is. The fact, however, confirmed since then beyond any reasonable doubt, is that
UN economic sanctions, bombing by a US-led UN coalition in 1991 and the policies of the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein have combined to produce a dramatic increase in the Iraqi death rate, including 500,000 deaths above the anticipated rate among Iraqi children under five years of age between 1991 and 1998. ( Eric Herring, Between Iraq and a hard place: a critique of the British government’s case for UN economic sanctions, Review of International Studies (2002) 28, 39.)
The highest U.N. officials and professionals responsible for the administration of the sanctions recognized that continuing the sanction was criminal: In 1998, The outgoing coordinator of the UN oil-for-food deal in Iraq, Denis Halliday, resigned saying that "maintaining the crippling trade embargo imposed on Iraq for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait was incompatible with the UN charter as well as UN conventions on human rights and the rights of the child." Thus, according to the person who managed the sanctions, the sanctions were crimes against humanity, resulting in "4,000 to 5,000 children dying unnecessarily every month due to the impact of sanctions because of the breakdown of water and sanitation, inadequate diet and the bad internal health situation" (BBC) His successor, Hans Von Sponeck, also resigned, saying that "As a UN official, I should not be expected to be silent to that which I recognise as a true human tragedy that needs to be ended." ( BBC ) Soon afterward, the head of the World Food Program, Jutta Burghardt, resigned, citing similar concerns.

As a report of the Global Security Forum noted:
Civilian suffering in Iraq is not an unexpected collateral effect, but a predictable result of the sanctions policy. Security Council members have received warnings of the humanitarian emergency in Iraq and the damage done by sanctions since shortly after the Gulf War. Warnings have come from three Secretary Generals, many UN officials and agencies including UNICEF, WHO and WFP, and two Humanitarian Coordinators who have resigned in protest. A Select Committee of the UK House of Commons offered a very negative judgment as well.
(Global Security Forum )
That helps put Albright's famous quote in context. So now let's see what she said.
Q: "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And -- and you know, is the price worth it?"

Madeleine Albright: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it."

And now stack it up aginst Buruma:
This sounds pretty horrible. In fact, Albright had already made it clear to Lesley Stahl of CBS, who asked the question, that the Iraqi children were not dying because of the sanctions. Iraq can buy as much medicine as it wants. She admitted that sanctions did have negative consequences, but she argued that this was a price worth paying for containing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
The first thing to note is that Buruma thinks that it only sounds very horrible. The implication is that in fact it isn't. Albright herself disagrees. Albright thinks what she said was 'terrible, clumsy and wrong'. She wrote later, far later, in 2003:
As soon as I had spoken, I wished for the power to freeze time and take back those words. My reply had been a terrible mistake, hasty, clumsy and wrong. Nothing matters more than the lives of innocent people. I had fallen into the trap and said something I simply did not mean. That was no one’s fault but my own. (Her Memoir p. 275, quoted by Shedon Richman)

That is, in 2002, Buruma defended Albright for making a statement that Albright herself later admitted was utterly indefensible. There are some professional risks to being an apologist.

Now look again at what Albright said. It is a cut and dry admission of responsibility. She was asked if the sanctions were worth it despite the enormous child mortality that ensued. The interviewer did not state that the sanctions caused the deaths directly. That was Albright's own mind that made the link. She implicitly accepted, correctly but stupidly, I would add, that whatever responsibility Saddam had for not surrendering did not make any difference for the responsibility of those imposing the sanctions. The interviewer even gave her a context by comparing it to Hiroshima. (And the context was perfect, since Hiroshima is another case of deliberate harm to civilians that U.S. decision makers thought "was worth it") Albright's answer referred to the "moral dilemma" head on. It was, she said, a "hard choice." That is, she directly, and without being prompted, admitted that she (or the administration) weighed, in advance!, the harm that would befall Iraqi civilians against the policy objectives and decided that it was worth it.

In what way does her later "apology" reduces the damnedness, not of what she said, but of the policy decision she was describing? Albright did admit being a lousy diplomat. She says she should have denied, fibbed, challenged the question, etc. That is all good as far as teaching PR is concerned. But does she now claims she did not weigh the "hard choice"? Does she claim the dead are any less dead?

Now check Buruma again:
Albright had already made it clear to Lesley Stahl of CBS, who asked the question, that the Iraqi children were not dying because of the sanctions. Iraq can buy as much medicine as it wants. She admitted that sanctions did have negative consequences, but she argued that this was a price worth paying for containing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
The first argument that Buruma makes, and that he claimed, correctly, that Albright also made before (and after) the quote in question, is that while the sanctions had "negative consequences," massive child mortality was not one of them. And the only problem with this argument is that that other statement is not true, as the many reports quoted above showed. If casually admitting a crime against humanity is shameful, how is denying it by lying less shameful?

Albright herself claimed in her "apology" that
Saddam Hussein could have prevented any child from suffering simply by meeting his obligations....
little effort was made to explain Saddam’s culpability, his misuse of Iraqi resources, or the fact that we were not embargoing medicine or food. (Sheldon, Ibid)
All of her three claims, including the one repeated by Buruma, cannot stand scrutiny. First, to say that the deaths could have been prevented had Saddam met his obligation is to suggest ipso facto that these deaths were not only the result of the sanctions but the very strategy of the sanctions as a way of pressuring Saddam. Second, the claim that "Iraq can buy as much medicine as it wants" is a non-sequitur, (and it also contradicts the first claim, see Sheldon). The chief cause of death was the state of water and electricity infrastructure, and the inability of the collapsed economy to recover with sanctions in place, not the limitations on food imports. As for Saddam's "misuse of Iraqi resources," let's just consider one example cited by Eric Herring:
...Robertson, then British Defence Secretary, stated that Saddam Hussein ‘has in warehouses $275 million-worth of medicines and medical supplies which he refuses to distribute’ and asked rhetorically ‘what kind of leader watches his children die and his hospitals operate without drugs, but keeps $275 millionworth of medicines and medical supplies locked up in a warehouse?’ However, Robertson failed to note that the UN reports from which those figures are taken offer very different reasons for the stockpiling. In the period before such allegations began to be made, not only did the UN favour stockpiling, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) argued for more of it. ( Herring, Ibid, 49-50)
The chief reason for the excess deaths were the combination of the bombing and the sanctions. Saddam could have avoided these deaths by surrendering, and that in itself means that the U.S. led sanctions regime consisted in murdering children as a policy tool. This is what everybody quoting Albright is saying; this is what she admitted to in that quote; and this is the truth.

One more point. We must consider the more general context of Albright's admission. The U.S. political establishment as a whole supported sanctions and systematically ignored the reports about the humanitarian crisis that resulted. Albright was not a uniquely callous voice. She was only a uniquely incompetant voice as a diplomat. Two years after Albright described her own statement as indefensible, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was asked the same question, and answered the same answer.
AMY GOODMAN: But the U.N. sanctions, for example, the sanctions led to the deaths of more than a half a million children, not to mention more than a million Iraqis.

GOVERNOR RICHARDSON: Well, I stand behind the sanctions. I believe that they successfully contained Saddam Hussein. I believe that the sanctions were an instrument of our policy.

AMY GOODMAN: To ask a question that was asked of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright, do you think the price was worth it, 500,000 children dead?

GOVERNOR RICHARDSON: Well, I believe our policy was correct, yes. (Democracy Now)

Being a politician, Richardson's statement did not cause any stir. The political respectability of mass murder as a foreign policy tool in the U.S. is a dog-bites-man story.

Lest we forget, the willingness of U.S. policy makers to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of civilians to advance sundry policy objectives is not exactly world shattering news, nor was it world shattering news in 1996 when Albright admitted to it. In addition to the genocides the U.S. committed itself (in North America, the Philipines, Vietnam, etc.), the U.S. also defended and supported an A list of genocidaires, including the Khmer Rouge, the Pakistani army during the East Pakistan Genocide, the Indonesian genocide in East Timor, and many more. Many books have been written about all this. Here's just one particularly depressing one: William Blum, Killing Hope.

So let's recap.

  • The sanctions and bombing lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths of Iraqi children.
  • Albright (and others) was directly asked about it and said straight on that this result was considered and judged "worth it."
  • At other points both before and after making that admission, Albright also said the very opposite, namely, that the sanctions did not cause these deaths.
  • Those other statements were untrue.
  • While admissions such as that are rare, there was nothing remarkable about the content of Albright's admission. Copious evidence exist that this admission accurately reflected the outlook of policy makers in Washington.
  • Adler (using Buruma) claim that Albright was "maliciously slandered" by those who quote the one occasion in which she told the truth about U.S. foreign policy.
Richardson and Albright, because of their occasional honesty (or in the case of Albright, incompetence), have a place in the seventh circle of hell. Buruma and Adler and all other holocaust deniers belong in the eighth circle.

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