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What U.S. really fears in papal visit to Iraq

Long before word leaked out that Pope John Paul II was seriously considering a visit to Iraq by the end of this year, Washington had swung into action. In separate trips during the preceding months a veteran diplomat and a high-level White House aid had already gone to Rome to argue against the trip.

Just as was the case when the pope visited Cuba, the Clinton administration was unable to convince the pope to change his plans. If the trip does take place, the world can be assured that John Paul II will not be manipulated, as the White House says it fears, to the political benefit of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. This pope has considerable experience dealing with tyrants face to face, and he usually comes away with the last word. While Saddam might control some of the choreography of the event, he won’t control the papal words.

On the other hand - and this is the real point of concern for Washington - neither will the United States control the pope’s tongue. It is expected that John Paul, a vocal opponent of the Gulf War and the continuation of that war in 10 years of economic sanctions, will speak out strongly against the overwhelming misery of the Iraqi people.

Unfair, some might say. Saddam brought this on himself and he has the means to end the suffering.

Perhaps that is true, but it is just as certainly a wish, not a political or military option. Denis Halliday, the former head of the United Nations’ humanitarian effort in Iraq who resigned in protest of the economic sanctions, said it best. “We are responsible,” he said of the nations enforcing the embargo, for the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children each month as a result of the sanctions. “If you wish, we can share the responsibility with Saddam Hussein, but we have no influence over him. But we certainly have influence over ourselves and those we choose to represent us.”

The most recent U.N. study reported that during an eight-year period, 1991-1998, more than 500,000 children under the age of 5 died as a result of the war and the sanctions. That is in excess of 5,000 per month.

Several years ago, then-U.N. Ambassador to the United Nations and now Secretary of State Madeleine Albright answered a reporter’s question about the child death toll with the reply: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it.”

Accepting that answer means that we accept that the United States has reached the point as a culture where it sees half a million children under the age of 5 as a tolerable price for military victory.

It is a frightening, unblinking-as-daylight admission that, when necessary, moral considerations can be completely stripped from foreign policy.

Being responsible for the deaths of children -- even if it is easy to establish that Saddam Hussein is also culpable -- is simply wrong. And as a strategy, the total economic embargo doesn’t even work. Saddam remains in power. A culture that once was one of the most progressive, secular states in the Arab world, with universal health care and education, is in shambles.

Perhaps the pope’s visit could cut through the din of all the world’s other woes, the spin from Washington and the bluster from Baghdad, and, however briefly, focus attention on the silent, relentless killing of the most vulnerable members of that society. If Saddam were to give up today, their lives would not have been worth it.

We must stop killing the children.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999