The "R" Word - Reparations for Iraq
Americans of all political persuasions are slowly beginning to face the enormity of what their government and their armed forces have done to the country and the people of Iraq. Out of the emerging awareness that we have been responsible for the destruction of a country and for at least a million human casualties, we are trying to come to grips with precisely what obligations and responsibilities our government’s actions have placed upon us, both collectively and as individuals.
Millions of Americans are now participating in various forms of political action to oppose escalation, end the war and bring U.S. forces home. Smaller numbers are active in the movement to hold American politicians responsible for their actions through a process of congressional hearings, impeachment and prosecution.
The Iraq Study Group co-chairs prefaced their report, “Because of the role and responsibility of the United States in Iraq, and the commitments our country has made, the United States has special obligations.” But the question we are all grappling with is the precise nature of these obligations, and the answer must be based on the actual moral and legal nature of our country’s actions rather than on political rhetoric.
American rhetoric surrounding the war has claimed a baffling array of motivations for the invasion, from destroying weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to establishing a democracy. But American evidence for the existence of the dreaded WMD was shamelessly fabricated, and the U.S.-backed “Iraqi Parliament” has rarely made a quorum because so few of its members even live in Iraq. Its composition is as much of a fabrication as General Powell’s speech at the U.N. Other justifications presented by U.S. officials at different times have proved just as misleading. So we cannot base a serious effort to understand our responsibilities on any of these improvised political expedients.
The bare facts are that the United States and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003 and have waged a war there for four years that has killed between 500,000 and a million people and has progressively destroyed much of the physical, governmental and societal infrastructure of that country.
It is generally accepted that a nation that inflicts war on another country brings on itself an obligation to provide compensation to repair the damage it has caused. In recent years, these obligations have increasingly been interpreted to include payments to individual victims as well as to governments.
Arguments that have been made against reparations in other cases do not apply to the U.S. war in Iraq. The United States will not emerge from this war as an impoverished country that cannot afford to pay for the costs of its actions. Neither would this be a case of arbitrary justice -- there is no question that the United States attacked Iraq and not the reverse. Nor would this be a case of an innocent people being forced to pay for the actions of a dictatorial government that they had no control over -- we elected Bush and Cheney, or at least failed to effectively challenge their declared election victories, and our elected representatives voted to let them take us to war.
So, in this case, the question really becomes: “Why would the United States not owe reparations to Iraq?” International law does not allow for a great diversity of legitimate reasons for the use of military force -- it’s pretty much self-defense or collective action by the Security Council; and, if only one thing is clear about the reasons for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is that neither of these justifications existed.
The only conceivable argument against reparations would have to be that the United States was not acting as an aggressor in its own interest, but was somehow acting in good faith on behalf of the international community in the interest of peace or security, albeit in defiance of its partners on the U.N. Security Council and the judgment of almost the entire world. Many Americans still cling to some variant of this view, in effect that the war was a terrible and tragic mistake, but not a deliberate international crime.
Although the war clearly violates the letter of the U.N. Charter, could it nevertheless mitigate our moral and legal responsibility to some degree if our leaders had some good faith rationale for their actions? But, if so, what was it? If there is a saving truth hidden somewhere among all their lies and evasions, what could it be?
Three years into the war, the U.S. government’s failure to offer any serious or credible justification of its policy led veteran correspondent Helen Thomas to ask Mr. Bush directly at a White House press conference, “Why did you really want to go to war with Iraq?” Predictably, Mr. Bush did not even attempt to answer her, but she has explained in subsequent interviews why she asked him that question, “I think the astounding thing [is that] if you were in a room with many people and you went to 10 people and asked them why we're in this war, you would get 10 different answers . . .”
If we don’t even know why our country attacked and occupied Iraq, and our leaders won’t tell us, on what basis can we absolve ourselves of the obligation to compensate Iraq and its people for what we have done to them? The simple truth is that we allowed the damage to be done, in our name, and it is now our responsibility.
So, what would reparations entail? Ironically, the most appropriate model for a reparations regime to compensate Iraq would be the one imposed on Iraq itself following its invasion of Kuwait. U.N.S.C. resolution 687 established Iraq’s legal responsibility for the losses of Kuwait and its people, and the Iraqi government accepted its responsibility in a letter to the council three days later. The resolution created a compensation fund and directed the Secretary General of the U.N. “to recommend mechanisms for determining the appropriate level of Iraq’s contribution to the fund, taking into account the requirements of the people of Iraq, Iraq’s payment capacity and the needs of the Iraqi economy.”
The details were then spelled out in UNSC resolution 705, which established a U.N. Compensation Commission in Geneva, with representatives of each country that had a seat on the Security Council, but without a veto for permanent members. The U.N.C.C. received claims against Iraq totaling $352.5 billion, and eventually awarded a total of $52.5 billion to settle 1.55 million claims. A harsh 30 percent levy against Iraqi oil export revenues funded the payment of the claims -- this was later reduced to 25 percent, and more recently to 5 percent. The fund has disbursed $21 billion in 16 years, and it was decided from the outset that awards to individual victims would receive priority and be paid before those to governments.
By contrast, the severe damage to Iraq’s infrastructure in the present war would require that the post-occupation Iraqi government receive payment from the compensation fund from the outset, along with individual war victims. Fortunately, the United States is wealthy enough to make substantial payments both to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure and to help its people to bind their wounds at the same time.
Naturally, we may wonder what total Iraqi claims against the United States would add up to. They could quite possibly exceed the trillion dollars or so already spent on the war, but this would be up to the compensation commission. The U.N.C.C. reduced the amount claimed by Kuwait and its people by 85 percent, and it appears to have conducted its deliberations fairly and impartially. We would hopefully have the good grace to accept the authority of a similar compensation commission and to comply with its rulings.
The most compelling reason to pay reparations to Iraq is one of simple justice and responsibility. But there are additional reasons that are worth considering. Nietzsche wrote that “living and the practice of injustice are synonymous . . . For since we happen to be the products of earlier generations, we are also the products of their blunders, passions and misunderstandings, indeed of their crimes; it is impossible to free ourselves completely from this chain.” And yet the whole enterprise of human social progress is an effort to loosen this chain rather than tighten it, and the acceptance of liability and the payment of reparations for our actions would establish a powerful precedent to deter such behavior in the future.
The expectation of impunity for American war criminals and the lack of collective accountability for their actions have granted a freedom of action to American leaders that they have consistently abused in successive military adventures. It has also fueled the development of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about. The presumption of impunity and the profitability of corporate militarism have proved to be a corrupting and dangerous combination, and it would far better serve our own interests as well as our humanity and our foreign relations to once and for all embrace both executive accountability and collective responsibility for our country’s international behavior.
As Hannah Arendt wrote in 1951 in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “We can no longer simply afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition.”
It has continued to do so repeatedly since she wrote that. But the United Nations Charter, the development of international human rights law, war crimes prosecutions and reparations regimes have each played a role in establishing new standards and gradually loosening the chain that ties us to injustice. The weakness in the international system remains the immunity of the most powerful countries, the veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, from rules that have gradually succeeded in constraining aggression by less powerful ones.
It seems counter-intuitive that we can further our country’s interests by accepting constraints and liabilities that no other country has the power to enforce upon us. And yet, this is the nature of the process that President Roosevelt began when he conceived of the United Nations in the first place. When we understand that peace is the overarching international value to be achieved and the precondition for solutions to all our other problems, then we will gladly renounce such dubious privileges as impunity for American war criminals and the freedom to launch devastating attacks on other countries without liability.
So, in the end, American acceptance and payment of reparations would not only provide some compensation to the people of Iraq for what we have inflicted on them, but it would also be an important building block for the more just and peaceful world that we all want to bring about for our children and grandchildren.