opinion

Still paying for mistakes of Gulf War

Peter Lems, Mary Zerkel

Updated: Tuesday, January 19, 2016, 10:32 AM

A line of captured Iraqi soldiers are marched through the desert in Kuwait past a group of U.S. Marine Second Division vehicles on Feb. 24, 1991, after the ground offensive got underway during the Persian Gulf War.

Saturday marked 25 years since the 1991 launch of Operation Desert Storm with bombing attacks against Baghdad and other cities in Iraq. U.S. ground troops entered the country by late February and a cease-fire agreement was signed in March.

A quarter century later, Iraq is still spiraling down, the United States is still bombing, and a devastating war rages in Syria, further destabilizing the region.

Twenty-five years ago, this country could have chosen another path — away from a militarized foreign policy that served the Pentagon’s priorities and toward meeting human needs using the peace dividend transferred from war making to peace building.

The consequences of this squandered opportunity are many, broad, and deep. To start correcting them, the United States must stop bombing, withdraw its military from the region, and cease the horrifying practices of secret prisons, torture, targeted assassinations, and more that have corrupted our democracy and destroyed our moral standing.

Consider Iraq then and now. In 1991 a U.N. report found that Iraq had been reduced to a “pre-industrial age” citing the immediate, devastating effects of the war and sanctions. Those strategies are now being duplicated throughout the Middle East. The majority of Iraqis today weren’t born when the war started. They are growing up in a time when the borders of the region are threatened and 15 countries remain engaged in military action. Many have family members who were killed or displaced, and they witness the chaos of the Syrian war and the rise of ISIS.

Meanwhile, a generation of young Americans is witnessing the impact of the country’s militarized foreign policy. Some results are easy to see: We now spend more than $1 trillion a year to sustain the world’s most powerful military and send powerful weapons to our allies in the region. Others are hidden, like the decision to starve the resources necessary for diplomacy and bridge-building. The scale, scope and style of the fighting itself have set back internationally recognized human-rights standards.

More ominously, the American generation coming of age views U.S. military involvement as constant, distant, and normalized. That’s because in large measure the wars in Iraq — the ones of 1991 and 2003 — were wars of choice sold to the American public through sophisticated propaganda that rested on demonizing the enemy and exaggerating threats to convince people the only response to opponents was overwhelming military force.

It’s easy to forget about that other path. In 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, there was an opportunity to move away from a militarized foreign policy, to actively reduce the terrifying threat of nuclear war, and to transfer spending from Pentagon priorities to meeting human needs. There was talk of a peace dividend, reallocated funds that could support peace building, peacemaking, and peacekeeping instead of war.

We can’t turn back the clock. But we can take concrete steps now to help create the conditions for reconciliation and repair. The United States must halt bombing immediately, remove its military forces, and support a comprehensive arms embargo, including stopping the flow of weapons from countries in the region.

In March 2003, the American Friends Service Committee joined with Quakers worldwide to say the choice of war “will have enormous and tragic consequences — many as yet unimagined — for the Iraqi people, for our nation, and for the world. It is a choice we believe was unnecessary, immoral, and unwise.”

This position was tragically as true in 1991 as it was in 2003, and as it is in 2016. It is time to face the consequences and begin the healing sorely needed, not only in the United States, but also in the Mideast and around the world.

Peter Lems (plems@afsc.org) and Mary Zerkel (mzerkel@afsc.org) coordinate the Wage Peace campaign of the American Friends Service Committee (www.afsc.org).

Peter Lems, Mary Zerkel

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