The Clinton campaign’s decision to put Madeline Albright on the stump has reminded many Arab Americans and other long-time observers of U.S. Middle East foreign policy of the 13-year-long Iraq sanctions regime that killed some 1.5 million innocent Iraqis, including a large number of children. In 1996, Albright, a staunch supporter of the Iraq sanctions while serving during the Clinton administration as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, told Leslie Stahl of CBS’s 60 Minutes that, despite the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children, “We think the price is worth it.”
Albright has since characterized that comment, but not the Iraq sanctions policy itself, as “one of the worst mistakes I ever made.” In 2003, with the assistance of a collaborator, Bill Woodward, Albright wrote a memoir, Madam Secretary. In 2006, she followed that with another book, described as an amplification of her earlier work, also written with Woodward’s help, focusing on religion, foreign policy, and statecraft.
Albright was in Ames on September 14, speaking in the Memorial Union’s Sun Room at Iowa State University, following speaking engagements on Hillary Clinton’s behalf in Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Grinnell, and West Des Moines. The Independent Monitor caught up with Albright in Ames, where the subject of her presentation was “Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs,” which is the subtitle of her 2006 book, The Mighty and the Almighty.
Welcome to Iowa, Madam Secretary. … I know you get a lot of political questions, obviously, and I thought I would ask a philosophical question.
In your 2006 book, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, you argue that the successful practice of statecraft requires understanding foreign countries and cultures and you say, “that cannot be done without taking religious tenets and motivations fully into account.” This is a new perspective in foreign affairs and statecraft.
Some religionists teach that God establishes a mercy credit of lavish proportions and sufficient grace to insure the survival of every rational creature who sincerely desires eternal life. And on the secular side, Shakespeare wrote that, “the quality of mercy is not strained.”
So, my question is, Do you believe that genocidaires strain the quality of mercy? Or exhaust their mercy credit? Or, put more simply, in terms of your book: Does the Almighty have mercy on the mighty who seem to have none?
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Not one but two United Nations officials responsible for the U.N. humanitarian aid program in Iraq during the sanctions regime resigned in protest, both citing their terrible human cost. Dennis Halliday was U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq for 13 months during 1997 and 1998. Halliday, whose career in the United Nations spanned 34 years, characterized the sanction as “a totally bankrupt concept” that violated the U.N. Charter and U.N. conventions on human rights. Halliday said he “could not continue to take part in a policy that was deliberately causing grave and widespread suffering throughout Iraq, while failing to address the root causes of the humanitarian crisis.”
According to journalist Michael Jansen, writing in The Daily Star (Lebanon) in 2000, Halliday also said he believed there were some in Washington who wanted to bring sanctions to an end. “These people, he said, have come to realize that the US, and specifically the Clinton administration, could ‘be blamed for crimes against humanity, including possibly genocide’ because of the sanctions,” wrote Jansen.
From 1998 to 2000, Hans von Sponeck held the post from which Halliday had resigned. When von Sponeck resigned in protest after 15 months, he said, “As a U.N. official, I should not be expected to be silent to that which I recognise as a true human tragedy that needs to be ended.”
“How long should the civilian population, which is totally innocent on all this, be exposed to such punishment for something that they have never done?” asked von Sponeck.
Days after von Sponeck’s resignation, Jutta Burghardt, head of the U.N. World Food Program in Baghdad, offered her resignation in protest of the economic sanctions against Iraq and their effects on innocent civilians.
In February 2000, seventy members of the U.S. Congress, who had earlier signed a letter urging President Clinton “to do what is right: lift the sanctions,” held a joint press conference with Arab-American groups in Washington. The group’s spokesperson, David Bonior, House Democratic Whip who represented Michigan’s 12th Congressional district, described the sanctions as “infanticide masquerading as policy.” Bonior added, “Our message is simple. We’re saying millions of children are suffering and we refuse to close our eyes to the slaughter of innocents.”
The Iraq sanctions regime was established during the administration of the first President Bush, but if Madeline Albright was its staunchest and most visible supporter during the Clinton administration, she was not the only Clinton administration figure to defend the sanctions policy. As recently as September 22, 2005, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, now a presidential candidate, defended the Iraq sanctions when questioned by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!
“...many say that, although President Bush led this invasion, that president Clinton laid the groundwork with the sanctions and with the previous bombing of Iraq. You were President Clinton’s U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. … the U.N. sanctions, for example … led to the deaths of more than a half a million children, not to mention more than a million Iraqis.”Governor Richardson:
“Well, I stand behind the sanctions. I believe that they successfully contained Saddam Hussein. I believe that the sanctions were an instrument of our policy.”
“To ask a question that was asked of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright, do you think the price was worth it, 500,000 children dead?”Governor Richardson:
“Well, I believe our policy was correct, yes.”Libertarian journalist and author James Brovard reported in 2004 that, “One major reason for the animosity to U.S. troops is the lingering impact and bitter memories of the U.N. sanctions imposed on the Iraqis for 13 years, largely at the behest of the U.S. government. It is impossible to understand the current situation in Iraq without examining the sanctions and their toll.
“President Bush, in the months before attacking Iraq, portrayed the sufferings and deprivation of the Iraqi people as resulting from the evil of Saddam Hussein. Bush’s comments were intended as an antidote to the charge by Osama bin Laden a month after 9/11 that ‘a million innocent children are dying at this time as we speak, killed in Iraq without any guilt.’ Bin Laden listed the economic sanctions against Iraq as one of the three main reasons for his holy war against the United States,” wrote Brovard.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) cited Rahul Mahajan in Extra! in late 2001: “Then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s quote, calmly asserting that U.S. policy objectives were worth the sacrifice of half a million Arab children, has been much quoted in the Arabic press. It’s also been cited in the United States in alternative commentary on the September 11 attacks (e.g., Alexander Cockburn, New York Press, 9/26/01).
“But a Dow Jones search of mainstream news sources since September 11 turns up only one reference to the quote — in an op-ed in the Orange Country Register (9/16/01). This omission is striking, given the major role that Iraq sanctions play in the ideology of archenemy Osama bin Laden; his recruitment video features pictures of Iraqi babies wasting away from malnutrition and lack of medicine (New York Daily News, 9/28/01). The inference that Albright and the terrorists may have shared a common rationale — a belief that the deaths of thousands of innocents are a price worth paying to achieve one’s political ends — does not seem to be one that can be made in U.S. mass media,” wrote Mahajan.
Albright seems to be keenly aware that her support of the Iraq sanctions regime, an instrument of U.S. policy that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent children and perhaps more than 1.5 million Iraqis, goes to the heart of the charge of American exceptionalism. During her prepared remarks prior to the Q&A at Iowa State University last Friday, Albright unsuccessfully attempted to defuse that issue. Employing language crafted to both affirm and qualify American exceptionalism, Albright seemed to want to have it both ways.
“We are an exceptional country. I believe that. But we cannot ask that exceptions be made for us. We are the ones that have set a lot of the international norms, and therefore we have to obey them ourselves,” said Albright, conveniently neglecting to mention the Iraq sanctions regime or her own singularly important and active role in support of the sanctions during the Clinton administration.
Let’s look at Albright’s answer to The Independent Monitor’s questions:
“Do you believe that genocideaires strain the quality of mercy? Or exhaust their mercy credit? Or, put more simply, in terms of your book: Does the Almighty have mercy on the mighty who seem to have none?”Albright:
“… I think that it is important for people to understand the motivation of religion, and we could talk more about that, but to answer your question, I think that we cannot possibly exist in a world where people think that God’s commandment is, ‘Thou shalt kill.’ And therefore, those who kill for no other reason except to satisfy some primeval urge, I think God’s mercy runs out on — that’s my own personal opinion.Albright might be commended for pointing out that all three Abrahamic faiths include extremists who justify murder by citing the language of their Holy books. She might be commended as well for noting that it is wrong to stereotype a whole religion on the basis of the acts of a few extremists, a reference, apparently, to attempts by some in the West to equate Islam with fascism and terrorism. But one can only wonder why she thinks “the hardest part is to understand what it is that is motivating some people to think that when they kill they are doing it on God’s behalf.” It is, after all, common knowledge that Old Testament writings considered Holy by both Christians and Jews contain numerous passages with explicit language attributing to God acts of mass murder, which today we refer to as genocide, as well as commandments supposedly issued by God to his followers to commit mass murder.
“I think the hardest part is to understand what it is that is motivating some people to think that when they kill they are doing it on God’s behalf. And to then, also, stereotype a whole religion as a result of the actions of some people. And the tragedy is that all three of the great Abrahamic religions have extremists in them, who are using the language of their Holy books to justify killing when in fact God’s commandment is ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”
According to author Walter Wink, Biblical scholar Raymond Schwager, “… has found 600 passages of explicit violence in the Hebrew Bible [the Old Testament], 1000 verses where God’s own violent actions of punishment are described, 100 passages where God expressly commands others to kill people, and several stories where God irrationally kills or tries to kill for no apparent reason. Violence … is easily the most often mentioned activity in the Hebrew Bible,” wrote Wink. Could it be that the reason Zionists so often use the argument that “The only language the Arabs understand is the language of force,” is that force is Christian and Jewish political Zionism’s language of choice?
Albright must also be aware that Jewish and Christian fundamentalists and conservatives generally believe that the authors of the Bible were inspired by God and that their writings are perfect, without error. Inerrantists believe that the genocides occurred exactly as described in the Bible, and some apparently view Biblical commands to commit mass murder as being valid today, just as the authors of these ancient texts believed them valid when they wrote them. And surely Albright knows, as the Ontario Conference on Religious Tolerance points out, that the Book of Revelation in the Christian New Testament, “interpreted literally, predicts that a massive genocide will occur at some time in our future, in association with the war of Armageddon and the end of the world as we know it.”
Somehow, Jesus’s teachings about the ethic of reciprocity seem to have been lost in the theological and ideological shuffle.
Albright’s answer also fails to take into account that, in the modern era, the mighty have often killed for reasons of policy, or have, at any rate, ascribed their forays into mass murder to reasons other than “some primeval urge.” Nor, unsurprisingly, does her response take into account sanctions policies that for the most part kill silently, not with bullets or bombs, but by preventing access, for instance, to chemicals for purifying drinking water and certain medicines and medical equipment, as did the Iraq sanctions, and by limiting the amount of food that could be purchased from abroad, as did the Iraq sanctions. Thus, it would seem that Madam Secretary’s answer was substantially disingenuous.
Albright may wish to clarify her thoughts about the relationship between the “primeval urge” to kill, about which she spoke in Ames, and commandments to commit mass murder attributed to God in the Holy books of Christians and Jews. In the meantime, given Albright’s high-profile role as a champion of one of the deadlier examples of American exceptionalism as policy run amok in the Middle East — a policy that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi children even before George W. Bush unleashed the current war, a policy that many say set the stage for the current debacle — perhaps informed and thoughtful observers can be forgiven for questioning the Clinton campaign’s choice of Albright as a surrogate and an authority on the topic of religion and foreign policy for a campaign that features the motto, “Ready for Change.”
Unless, of course, rather than merely saying that her earlier comments about that policy were mistaken, Madam Secretary is now prepared to say publicly what the world has long known, that the Iraq sanctions were a profoundly flawed and unconscionable policy, the disastrous consequences of which continue to reveberate today. Were the Clinton campaign serious about changing the destructive dynamics of U.S. Middle East foreign policy, that would be a good way to begin.
Michael Gillespie a contributing editor and the Des Moines, IA correspondent for The Independent Monitor, the national newspaper of Arab Americans. His work appears regularly in the back pages of Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Though he studied the history of political terrorism in Extension School at Harvard University many years ago and recently updated his formal training in that area, he does not market himself as a terrorism expert. A 1999 graduate of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University where he was initiated a member of Kappa Tau Alpha, the national honor society in journalism and mass communication, Gillespie served for several years on the cabinet of Ames Interfaith Council.
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