On June 18, former President Bill Clinton will speak in Grand Rapids at the Economics Club of Grand Rapids’ annual fundraising dinner. According to the Grand Rapids Press, President Clinton will discuss “the war in Iraq, the work being done through his foundation, and his work with former President George Bush raising money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.” In light of Clinton’s appearance in Grand Rapids, it seems fitting to examine the Clinton legacy, starting with the Iraq War. While individuals like President George W. Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney have been protested by the antiwar movement when they come to West Michigan, little attention has been focused on so-called “moderates” or “liberal” proponents of United States imperialism (for example, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen) when they come to West Michigan.
Over the past two years, former President Bill Clinton has positioned himself as a liberal critic of the Iraq War. He has objected to the manner in which the war has been conducted, but has largely refrained from criticizing the entirety of the war or providing a more comprehensive analysis of US power in the Middle East. This is not surprising given that in 2004 while promoting his autobiography My Life, President Clinton defended President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq arguing that he has “repeatedly defended President Bush against the left on Iraq.” In a Time magazine interview in 2004, Clinton said that he “supported the Iraq thing” because of Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), although he would have preferred that the United States wait for the weapons inspection process to finish.
In 2005, President Clinton changed his position and argued that the United States made “a big mistake” when it invaded Iraq. Clinton criticized the post-war planning stating that the United States government “made several errors” in Iraq including a failure to anticipate “how easy it would be to get rid of Saddam and how hard it would be to unite the country.” Clinton argued that it was a mistake to “dismantle the whole authority structure of Iraq. … We never sent enough troops and didn’t have enough troops to control or seal the borders.” In the same speech, Clinton declared that “Saddam is gone. It’s a good thing, but I don’t agree with what was done,” while stating that the ratification of the Iraqi constitution and the holding of parliamentary elections were “good things” the United State has done in Iraq. In 2006, Clinton argued that resources used in Iraq have hurt the war in Afghanistan and described the situation in Iraq as a civil war.
When he speaks himself on the Iraq War or is interviewed and asked his thoughts on the war, Clinton is almost never challenged on his policy in Iraq, nor is there much discussion of Clinton’s Iraq policy. This is unfortunate, because much of the current policy towards Iraq had its origins in the administration of President Bill Clinton. During his eight years in the White House, President Clinton over saw an Iraq policy that killed over 350,000-500,000 children via sanctions, repeatedly bombed Iraq out of concern over WMD, and made regime change the official policy of the United States.
The most notable aspect of President Clinton’s Iraq policy was his maintenance of a sanctions regime that decimated Iraq’s economy and that was estimated to have killed 500,000 children. While the figures would later be disputed with lesser estimates of 350,000, their destructive impact is undeniable. Responding to concerns over the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children, Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would famously state “I think it is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.” Ordinary Iraqis reported significant hardship from the sanctions, while food and medicine were lacking and the economy crumbled. Scholars of United States foreign policy including Edward Said and Edward Herman described Clinton’s Iraq policy as a “war crime.” It must also be remembered that the sanctions came on top of the devastation of the first Gulf War.
Despite the horrific impact of the sanctions regime on a generation of Iraqis, Clinton has been fairly silent on the impacts of the sanctions. While former Secretary of State Madeline Albright eventually said that she regretted her statement about the deaths being “worth it,” Clinton has not shown similar remorse for his policy. In an interview in 2000 on Democracy Now, Clinton disputed the numbers over how many children died in Iraq under sanctions saying “that’s not true.” Clinton argued that Hussein “butchered the children of his own country” and that “if any child is without food or medicine or a roof over his or her head in Iraq, it’s because he is claiming the sanctions are doing it and sticking it to his own children.” Clinton accused Saddam Hussein of squandering the money and withholding it from children to create a death toll that would “build up pressure” to end the embargo so that he could rebuild his weapons programs. He further dismissed claims by two United Nations officials that quit their jobs because the sanctions were genocidal as being “wrong” to make such statements. Clinton’s comments reflected what became the United States official response to critics of the sanctions blaming Saddam Hussein rather than acknowledging the United States’ role.
The economic sanctions against Iraq during the Clinton administration were a product the same hysteria about WMDs that prompted Clinton to repeatedly bomb Iraq throughout the 1990s. In December of 1998, Clinton launched a three-day bombing campaign against Iraq. Clinton justified the bombing by claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and that the United States had to enforce the will of the United Nations after the UN pulled its inspectors out of Iraq due to a lack of cooperation from Iraqis. At the time, the United States failed to show that the weapons existed, though it was willing to launch attacks to destroy both the weapons and the infrastructure necessary to manufacture them despite Pentagon estimates that the attacks could kill as many as 10,000 civilians. According to international law scholar Phyllis Bennis, the bombings were a violation of international law. Under Clinton, the United States repeatedly bombed Iraq in the US-imposed “no-fly zones,” with the bombings reaching a high point in 1999.
In 1998, the Project for a New American Century— involving many of the architects of the Iraq War including Paul Wolfowtiz, Donald Rumsfeld, and William Kristol–wrote a letter to Bill Clinton urging him to make removal of Saddam Hussein a foreign policy goal of the Untied States. While the Clinton administration responded that it believed containment was the best way to deal with Hussein, later that year Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act later that year. The Iraq Liberation Act made regime change the official policy of the United States.