Nick Cohen of the Observer on Iraq, Chomsky and Pilger

Referring to the prospect of yet another U.S. assault on what is left of Iraq, Nick Cohen wrote in last Sunday’s Observer:

“I look forward to seeing how Noam Chomsky and John Pilger manage to oppose a war which would end the sanctions they claim have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would have had happy, healthy lives in a prison state (don’t fret, they’ll get there).” (Blair’s just a Bush baby, the Observer, March 10, 2002)

We have sometimes admired Cohen’s work in the past but are dismayed by this comment.

First, the “claim” that sanctions have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of children is not Chomsky’s or Pilger’s; it is the claim of aid agencies, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and of senior UN diplomats Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck (unmentioned by Cohen in the Observer since September 1998), who have described sanctions as “genocidal”. In 2000, Pilger reported estimates by Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, that the number of children under five dying every month in Iraq was 4,000 higher than prior to the imposition of sanctions, totalling some half a million extra child deaths over eight years. Pilger quoted Unicef:

“Even if not all the suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivation in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of war.” (Pilger, the Guardian, ‘Squeezed to Death’, March 4, 2000)

Richard Garfield, Professor of Clinical International Nursing at the University of Columbia and co-chair of the Human Rights Committee of the American Public Health Association concluded that “most” excess child deaths between August 1990 and March 1998 were “primarily associated with sanctions” (Garfield, ‘Morbidity and Mortality Among Iraqi Children from 1990 Through 1998: Assessing the Impact of the Gulf War and Economic Sanctions’, March 1999, available on-line at

Save the Children Fund UK have described the economic sanctions against Iraq as “a silent war against Iraq’s children”. The Catholic Relief Agency, CAFOD, have described the economic sanctions against Iraq as “humanly catastrophic [and] morally indefensible.” (Source: Voices in the Wilderness UK, email to David Edwards, March 2002:

According to Human Rights Watch: “the continued imposition of comprehensive economic sanctions is undermining the basic rights of children and the civilian population generally” and “the [Security] Council must recognise that the sanctions have contributed in a major way to persistent life-threatening conditions in the country”. (August 2000, ibid)

As readers of Media Lens will know, the mainstream is given to talking of a “propaganda war” between Iraq and the West, ignoring all of the above or slandering it as mere “propaganda”. Thus ITN’s John Draper reported that “the Iraqi leader” has been “blaming the West for the hardships they [the Iraqi people] are suffering”. (John Draper, ITN, 10:30 News, February 20, 2001) Draper assigns the origins of a damning truth to someone with zero credibility, with the result that the truth itself can be dismissed as incredible.

Cohen mocks the idea that the children who have died as a result of sanctions would otherwise “have had happy, healthy lives in a prison state”. Cohen knows he is on safe ground in casting pre-Gulf War Iraq as a hellish gulag – the regime has been consistently damned by politicians and the media for exacerbating and exploiting the suffering of its own children for propaganda purposes. Propaganda aside, what +was+ the reality of pre-war Iraq?

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, prior to the imposition of sanctions the Iraqi welfare state was “among the most comprehensive and generous in the Arab world.”(Iraq: Country Report 1995-96)

In a December 1999 report the International Committee of the Red Cross noted that “Just a decade ago, Iraq boasted one of the most modern infrastructures and highest standards of living in the Middle East”, with a “modern, complex health care system” and “sophisticated water-treatment and pumping facilities.” (ICRC, ‘Iraq: A Decade of Sanctions, December 1999’)

According to the Centre for Economic and Social Rights:

“Over 90% of the population had access to primary health-care, including laboratory diagnosis and immunisations for childhood diseases such as polio and diphtheria. During the 1970s and 80s, British and Japanese companies built scores of large, modern hospitals throughout Iraq, with advanced technologies for diagnosis, operations and treatment. Secondary and tertiary services, including surgical care and laboratory investigative support, were available to most of the Iraqi population at nominal charges. Iraqi medical and nursing schools emphasised education of women and attracted students from throughout the Middle East. A majority of Iraqi physicians were trained in Europe or the United States, and one-quarter were board-certified specialists.” (UN Sanctioned Suffering, May 1996

Iraq was (and is) certainly governed by a brutal dictatorship – as are most countries in the Middle East – but this is not quite the hellish “prison state” conjured by Cohen’s words.

According to Garfield the 1980s saw an “accelerated decline” in infant and child mortality rates in Iraq. This was “dramatic, especially in the light of the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988”. Despite “a major diversion of economic resources to war” and “limitations on social investments during these years, education levels of the population improved, access to doctors and hospitals improved, the population continued to become more urban, clean water became more accessible, food prices remained stable and immunisation coverage improved”.

By contrast, Unicef’s 1999 survey found that child mortality rates had more than doubled between 1989 and 1998.

Cohen wonders how Chomsky and Pilger will oppose a war that will release Iraq from sanctions. We find it remarkable that Cohen can imagine that the only conceivable alternative to genocidal sanctions is a similarly murderous war that will further demolish an impoverished country, slaughter countless thousands of civilians and conscript troops, and spread yet more hatred around the world.

Cohen seems to believe that U.S. military action will result in freedom from prison conditions to an open and free democracy in which the people can live “happy, healthy lives”. Is this what U.S. military intervention achieved in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile, Panama, Vietnam, Indonesia and so many other countries? It is informative to take a brief glance at U.S. military involvement in the internal affairs of Iraq’s neighbour: Iran.

The result of the U.S. toppling of the Iranian nationalist, Musaddiq, in 1953 was a country that had the “highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture” which was “beyond belief”. This was a society in which “the entire population was subjected to a constant, all-pervasive terror”, according to Amnesty International. (Martin Ennals, Secretary General of Amnesty International, cited in an Amnesty Publication, Matchbox, Autumn 1976)

We can gain an idea of the openness and independence of our press by taking a glance at how the Guardian recently reviewed some of Iran’s history. Simon Jeffery wrote:

“1979 The ruling shah is forced into exile and conservative clerics, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, attempt to crush liberal influences in the country.” (Simon Jeffery, ‘Timeline: British-Iranian relations – A brief history of diplomatic relations between Iran and Britain since 1979’, Guardian, September 25, 2001)

The “liberal influences” in question being those responsible for subjecting the population “to a constant, all-pervasive terror”.

Like so many U.S. interventions around the world, the assault on Iran had nothing to do with the Cold War, or the defence of democracy – it was about profits, power, and the control of oil. Consider Cohen’s words in the light of the conclusions of historian Mark Curtis:

“Since 1945, rather than occasionally deviating from the promotion of peace, democracy human rights and economic development in the Third World, British (and US) foreign policy has been systematically opposed to them, whether the Conservatives or Labour (or Republicans or Democrats) have been in power. This has had grave consequences for those on the receiving end of Western policies abroad.” (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power – British Foreign Policy Since 1945, Zed Books, 1995, p.3)

To expect happy, healthy people to be released from a prison state to democracy in Iraq, or anywhere else in the Middle East, is to be blind to the reality of Western goals in the region.

Although Media Lens is strongly opposed to the use of violence, the absurdity of Cohen’s argument is further revealed by even the less violent alternatives to a massive U.S. assault. In 1998, Cohen’s fellow Observer journalist, John Sweeney, quoted the strategy for removing Saddam favoured by Dr. Ahmad Chalabai, president of the executive council of the Iraqi National Congress:

“I would declare him [Saddam] in breach of the ceasefire resolution and then declare a no-drive zone in Iraq. That means no artillery, tanks, or armour can move at all. Then you put one division in Kuwait and start uprisings. Without tanks, the regime will not be able to crush the people. In 10 days Saddam will be dead.” (Quoted, Sweeney, the Observer, February 8, 1998)

Even this suggests that there are alternatives to the kind of U.S. assault that wrecked Iraq in 1991. There is a problem with this option however, Sweeney notes. Chalabai might have proposed a plausible strategy, but “the West won’t do that because it fears it will not be able to place a Sunni general at the top if a popular uprising succeeds… The number one choice of the British Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department would be a Sunni general – like Saddam, but nicer. The West wants a strong man to keep Iraq from splitting up or being dismembered, and keep the oil running…”

Oil being the real issue in the Middle East, as Mark Curtis makes clear, with everything else mere “gravy”.

Western propagandists need us to believe that options are strictly confined to one or two violent alternatives – the West wields overwhelming military force and is all too willing to play its strongest card in pursuit of power and profit. The big business interests that essentially are the U.S. government also know perfectly well what war is good for – it is good for business, for manipulating the public mind, for stifling dissent, and for facilitating exploitation at home and abroad. It is surely the responsibility of honest commentators to challenge the propaganda steamroller demanding war. This is no academic matter – when we limit our imagination to possibilities demanded by vested interests, thousands of people pay with their lives.

Media Lens asked Noam Chomsky what he thought of Cohen’s comment. This was his reply:

“It’s a convention of intellectual life that those who depart from the Party Line are fair game, and can be slandered at will without evidence; that’s the way to be sure you’re invited to the right parties, etc. One would gain no points by telling the truth about who “claimed” that the sanctions were responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of children, or who opposes the planned war — or both. So therefore it makes sense to follow the conventions, at least for well-practiced liars and cowards.” (Email to David Edwards, March 11, 2002)


Contact Nick Cohen:

Email: [email protected]

Ask Cohen why he stated that Noam Chomsky and John Pilger have “claimed” that the excess deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children are the result of sanctions. Ask him why he failed to mention Chomsky and Pilger’s sources – Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, Unicef and others – who have blamed sanctions for mass death in Iraq.

Copy your letters to the Observer editor, Roger Alton:

Email: [email protected]