The U.S. Marines’ on-camera killing of an unarmed and wounded Iraqi prisoner inside a mosque has escalated the visibility of the humanitarian catastrophe and the crisis of international illegality inherent in the Fallujah assault. Whatever the individual legal culpability of the shooter, the killing of an unarmed injured prisoner is a clear violation of international law – a war crime. The Marines’ abandonment of injured prisoners (the group of five were shot, disarmed, allegedly treated, and then left behind by a different unit the day before) is another clear violation of international humanitarian law – also a war crime. The Pentagon’s response, describing the shooting as a “tragic incident,” indicates a much greater concern about the impact of the shooting on public opinion in Iraq and in the Arab world in general, than about holding the military accountable for war crimes. The message of the killing seems to be that the only safe Iraqis in Fallujah are dead Iraqis.

We do not yet have good information regarding the number of civilians left in the devastated city, but it is clear that however many they are, they face catastrophic conditions with the U.S. military still refusing to allow aid convoys into the city. The New York Times described the city as “the other side of Armageddon.” Uncounted buildings have been completely demolished, with many more damaged and rendered unlivable from massive firepower and holes blasted through walls to allow GIs to traverse areas without venturing into unsafe streets. The Pentagon has allocated only $40 million for the reconstruction of the destroyed city and its population of 300,000.

According to the Iraqi Red Crescent organization, no international relief organizations have been allowed to enter the city since before the U.S. assault on Fallujah began on November 7th. According to Rana Sidani, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, “we are sure that there are civilians in Fallujah. There are injured without access to medical care.” She said that people who reached safety outside Fallujah have told the Red Cross they had to leave civilians behind in the city. “They tried to leave but were prevented from doing so,” she said. Marie Heuze, spokeswoman for the UN offices in Geneva, said the entire “United Nations is following what’s happening in Fallujah with deep concern.”

The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, denounced the killings of civilians and injured people in Fallujah, and said that all violators of international humanitarian law must be brought to justice. She also registered a complaint regarding the lack of access to civilians by independent international humanitarian aid workers. While she did not make the further assessment that the Fallujah attack itself (let alone the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq over all) represents a violation of international law, she did essentially equate the occupying forces and the resistance fighters as equally bound to abide by international law. “All violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law must be investigated and those responsible for breaches – including the deliberate targeting of civilians, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, the killing of injured persons and the use of human shields – must be brought to justice, be they members of the multinational force or insurgents,” she said. In the context of international diplomacy, asserting the equivalence of the U.S. occupation forces and the Iraqi resistance represents a major political accomplishment.

The U.S. claim is that the invasion of Fallujah was necessary to insure free and fair elections. But Iraqi elections held under the boot of U.S. military occupation will not be legitimate, whoever is in control of Fallujah. Iraq commander General George W. Casey Jr., observing the destruction of Fallujah, said that “this whole operation was about the rule of law.” Given the totality of Fallujah’s destruction at U.S. hands, his remarks reflect the legacy of the Viet Nam War’s infamous “we had to destroy the village in order to save it”

The Fallujah attack has severely undermined the already-eroded legitimacy of the U.S.-installed “prime minister” Iyad Allawi, whom the U.S. insisted take responsibility for the decision to invade Fallujah. The cost to Allawi will be high – not only with the kidnapping of his relatives but in the loss of any remaining claim that he is an Iraqi patriot. It is likely that his legacy (aside from having been an intelligence operative for the CIA, the British MI6 and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party) will focus on his role as the man who gave U.S. troops permission to destroy Fallujah.

Yasir Arafat and After

The U.S. media and official comments following the death of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat reflected the profound racism endemic in U.S. relations with Arabs, and in particular Palestinians. There was virtually no recognition of, let alone respect for, the profound depth of grief among Palestinians around the world, including those many who spent years criticizing the policies and governance of Arafat.

Arafat’s legacy among Palestinians will not be that of someone who “refused to say yes” or who “rejected Barak’s ‘generous offer’,” but rather will be that of the one individual capable of uniting the three diverse sectors of the Palestinian nation: those living inside Israel; those under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem; and those in near-by refugee camps or scattered around the world in far-flung exile. Arafat kept the issues of Palestinian national and human rights, and the urgency of ending Israel’s occupation, on the agenda not only of the Palestinian community but of the world as a whole.

There is no evidence so far of a likely shift in U.S. policy towards the Israeli occupation. Bush’s refusal, in the face of Tony Blair’s abject plea, to commit to any specific action aimed at “re-engaging” with the so-called peace process, indicates that Bush sees his accountability far more to his pro-Israel supporters in the U.S. (primarily the right-wing Christian Zionists) than to the British prime minister facing massive domestic pressure for providing international cover to the U.S. by embracing Bush’s war in Iraq. The modest commitments Blair sought were only for U.S. endorsement of an international Middle East conference (presumably hosted by the UK) and for a special Middle East envoy to be sent. Bush explicitly refused to commit to either.

The possibility of the Palestinian elections set for January 9th being anything close to legitimate will depend on Israel’s willingness (so far unseen) to withdraw troops from the occupied territories within the next few days or weeks, to allow for campaigning, voter registration and preparation. There is no indication so far that Washington has any intention of exerting serious pressure on Israel for such a withdrawal; without it, the elections will have little legitimacy.

The demand for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails should be renewed. This is particularly relevant regarding the call to release Marwan Barghouti, the most popular, and widely recognized as legitimate, leader of the new generation in Palestine. He is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison, convicted of having supported the killing of several Israelis. General Sharon has stated his refusal to release anyone “responsible for the deaths of Israelis inside Israel,” but the precise language of his refusal may indicate some wiggle room if a serious international campaign to free Barghouti and allow him to run for Palestinian president were launched with the participation of both civil society and key governments. At the end of a “Larry King Live” interview on CNN, former Secretary of State James Baker called on Israel to release Barghouti.

The UN is Under Attack

The Bush administration appears to be moving towards a resumption of their pre-war campaign that “the UN is irrelevant.” But the even harsher attack is coming from right-wing elements in the U.S. media and in Congress. Their focus is the fabricated “scandal” involving allegations of diversion of funds, kickbacks and oil smuggling during the years of U.S.-orchestrated UN sanctions against Iraq and the UN’s oil-for-food program.

In principle everything the United Nations does should be absolutely transparent. The UN is not the CIA or MI6 – it should not have secret files. So the documents of the oil for food program should all be made public. However, the U.S. congressional demand is not for public access to all UN documents, it is for privileged, special access not available to any other government or non-governmental actors. And that is unacceptable.

If the relevant UN documents – all of them – were made fully public and available, what we would learn is that it was the most powerful member states of the UN Security Council, most importantly the U.S. and Britain, that were primarily responsible for the kickbacks and smuggling that characterized the oil-for-food contracting process from the beginning. The power to approve contracts for Iraq to sell its oil or purchase humanitarian supplies rested with the UN’s “661 Committee,” made up of all members of the Security Council – not with the UN Secretariat. The U.S. and Britain routinely used their power on that committee to delay or cancel contracts, often for medical or pharmaceutical goods, on the rarely substantiated claim of “dual use,” meaning potential military as well as civilian use. There is not a single report of an American or British representative putting a hold on a contract because of the widely-known (and typical of the global oil industry) practice of kickbacks. U.S. oil companies purchased Iraqi oil throughout the years of U.S.-orchestrated sanctions; there is little likelihood such sales would have continued if those U.S. petro-giants were the only ones refusing to participate in the kickback schemes.

If the reports were made public we would also see the evidence that the large-scale sale of Iraqi oil to Turkey in particular, as well as Jordan and other countries, outside the oil-for-food program, was public knowledge among Security Council member countries. They chose to look the other way. It was widely understood, for example, that Turkey’s decision to allow the U.S. Air Force to use Incirlik as a base to patrol the illegal non-UN “no-fly zones” the U.S. and Britain established in northern and southern Iraq was based partly on Washington’s acquiescence in Iraq’s off-the-books sale of cheap oil to Turkey.

It may be because of the involvement of the U.S. oil industry in what is being billed as “UN corruption” that the anti-UN campaign so far involves only right-wing elements in congress and the media — not yet the White House.

After Colin Powell

The replacement of Colin Powell with Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state will make possible a much clearer understanding around the world of the nature of U.S. foreign policy. Without the ostensible “moderate internationalist” Powell, governments (and too many people) around the world will have no basis for illusion – and thus are less likely to hedge their opposition, make more concessions, in the futile hope that maybe, just maybe, the “man of principle” at State would win the inter-agency battle. Without Powell the clarity of U.S. foreign policy – unilateralist, militarist, disregarding international law, and driven by power and empire – will be unmistakable.

This will be particularly significant for Europe, where anti-Bush leaders ambivalent about rebuilding close ties with the U.S. despite popular opposition will have a much harder time reconsidering such a move in light of an unmistakably unilateralist, anti-UN and anti-Europe foreign policy.

Powell’s legacy will likely be one of failure. He was a moderate realist who never succeeded at moderating the actual policies imposed by the ideologically-driven hard-liners who dominated the administration. Key examples include Iraq, where his infamous UN speech justified the illegal war. Regarding Palestine, Powell was the main force behind the so-called “Quartet,” the diplomatic fiction (made up of the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the United Nations) that provided the illusory fig leaf of international involvement in what was actually U.S.-controlled diplomacy. He was touted as a “man of principle” who failed to stand on that principle and resign his position when he was unable to moderate disastrous decisions that led to massive death and destruction. His vast public support, in the U.S. and around the world, was primarily a reflection of people’s eagerness to believe that somewhere in an administration of reckless extremists, there was someone who could be relied on. He was, at the end of the day, a good soldier whose primary virtue was loyalty.

Significant policy shifts are less likely, because foreign policy under Powell was never Powell’s policy. Despite some feints towards multilateralism (such as the charade of “going to the UN” until the global organization refused to endorse war) the actual policy always reflected the hard-line approach of the Bush White House. There was an intriguing reference in the Washington Post to Powell having considered staying on if several conditions were met. Those included more engagement with Iran, and taking a harder line with Ariel Sharon; but clearly the Bush White House, flush with electoral victory for the first time, felt no interest in such moves. There may be some additional rhetorical attacks on Iran and/or North Korea, but the first-term constraints on military force against those countries, primarily military opposition and Iraq-driven limits on military capacity, remain in force.

The appointment of Condoleezza Rice is one more indication that President Bush does not believe his foreign policy has failed – even his disastrous Iraq war. If Bush had dropped Rumsfeld, rather than Powell, or appointed Powell’s deputy or another alleged “moderate” as secretary of state, it would have signaled an admission that Iraq is a failure. And this administration doesn’t believe in or acknowledge its failures. We should also note that the ostensibly brilliant Condoleezza Rice, as a young Sovietologist in the Reagan administration, was one of many of that era who failed to anticipate the looming collapse of the Soviet Union.

One More Word on the Election

If the world could have voted, there is no question that the response to four years of the Bush administration’s policies would have been modeled on that of Spain after the terrorist bombing of the Madrid trains: reject the politics of fear, hold the government accountable for making its people less safe, and vote those responsible out of office. The world would have helped us reclaim our democracy. Instead, the world is already seeing a reempowered American administration claiming a popular mandate, with a strengthened commitment to its illegal war in Iraq, intensified support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, renewed military threats against other perceived “enemies,” the sidelining of the United Nations, and the consolidation of a law of empire to match the rejection of international law. The outcome of the election was based on the fear factor that the Bush administration had manipulated to such great effect. The result will be that around the world people will see Americans as complicit in our government’s wars and other violations. We citizens of empire in this country failed to defend the interests of the subjects of empire in the rest of the world, who are denied even the illusion of a vote. We are all less safe as a result.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

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