Skip to Content

Features Features Australia

Others can do the caring

Mark Steyn says that the scare stories are wrong: there is no humanitarian disaster in Iraq

21 June 2003

12:00 AM

21 June 2003

12:00 AM

New Hampshire

On Monday the Daily Telegraph gave a big chunk of its comment-page real estate to Mr Will Day of something called Care International. I’ve never heard of it myself but doubtless that’s because I’m a fully paid-up member of Don’t Care Unilateral. Anyway, the headline on Mr Day’s column read: ‘Things Are Getting Worse In Iraq, So Give The UN A Chance’.

You can guess how it went from there: ‘Something in Iraq is going fundamentally wrong…. Did the coalition planners think things through..? They can’t have …Nobody is safe …complete breakdown in security …making their lives a misery …almost total lack of basic services…’.

I didn’t see any of this during my stay in western and northern Iraq last month. I went to quite a lot of effort to look for complete security breakdowns, miserable lives and total lack of basic services, but I couldn’t find them in Tikrit or Rutba, Kirkuk or Ramadi, Samarra or even Fallujah, where they’ve had one or two little local difficulties but nothing like the widespread civic collapse Mr Day confidently asserts. Perhaps he’s referring to different parts of Iraq. Hard to know, since he cites no specific examples and, indeed, names no Iraqi cities apart from the capital. He includes one hard statistic, in the midst of a paragraph claiming that Iraq is ‘on its knees. The supply of electricity is erratic and unreliable, clean water is fast becoming scarce and rubbish is piling high in streets flooded by sewage – an estimated 500,000 tonnes of raw sewage, at least, is being poured into the river daily. In the soaring summer temperatures, this is a recipe for disaster. How long will it be before we see this contamination seriously affect the health of the population?’

This passage rang a bell with a correspondent of mine, Nicholas Hallam, who sent me the following press release from the self-same Care International:

Sewage treatment has collapsed, resulting in 500,000 tons of raw sewage being discharged into water sources every day…. Electricity, essential for many services and previously enjoyed by the remotest villages, is now generally available for less than 12 hours per day in many parts of Iraq. This has an obvious impact on water quantity and quality, sewage treatment, health facilities, education and overall quality of life….

That was Care International’s assessment of the situation in Iraq on 31 January this year, at least according to Margaret Hassan, the director of the Baghdad office, in her testimony in New York before a bunch of UN bigshots. Mr Day’s Telegraph column of 16 June cheerfully recycles his colleague’s January press release, differing only in the root cause of the problem: now, instead of UN sanctions being to blame, it’s the American administration. Other than that slight modification, however, far from the headline’s claim that ‘Things Are Getting Worse In Iraq’, things seem to be pretty stable. In January, there were 500,000 tons of raw sewage. By June, there were 500,000 tonnes of raw sewage.


As far as I remember, a ton is either just a wee bit more than a tonne or just a wee bit less. But a little research never hurts anyone, so I looked it up and it turns out I’m both right. A British ton is a wee bit more than a metric tonne but an American ton is a wee bit less than a metric tonne. So, giving Ms Hassan the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume she was speaking in US tons. That would mean there’d been roughly a 10 per cent increase in the amount of raw sewage from 500,000 tons to 500,000 tonnes.

But you know what? When you keep seeing the same big, fat, awfully round number and only the unit of measurement varies, you can’t help feeling that, whether in metric or American or imperial, nobody at Care International has a clue about how much raw sewage is being pumped into Iraq’s water sources. And while I wouldn’t want to find 500,000 tons or tonnes of sewage dumped in my favourite swimming hole, I wonder what exactly the public-health consequences are of putting it in the water network of a country the size of Iraq. For purposes of comparison, the Chinese city of Chongqing puts a million tons of raw sewage into the Yangtze each day. In the year 2000, China put 23.5 billion tons of sewage into the Yangtze – that’s 63 million tons a day. In Mexico, 100 million tons of raw sewage are said to flow down the Rio Grande every day. Mexico, like Iraq, is pretty hot. My advice to the NGOs is that these big, round Iraqi scare numbers need to be rounded up a lot more. Five hundred thousand tons is chickenfeed or, in this case, chickenshit: it’s like that moment in Austin Powers when the newly defrosted Dr Evil threatens to destroy the world unless it pays him a ransom of $1 million, and everyone at the UN laughs. You’re thinking too small, you Care guys. If half a million tons of raw sewage per day was hitting the Tigris in January, now that the Yanks have been there a couple of months it should surely be at least half a billion.

I can only report my own interaction with Iraq’s drinking supply. I crossed into the country from Jordan and stopped for lunch in the first town I came to – Rutba – and the first thing that happened was that the young slip of a lad plunked down on my table a grubby plastic Thermos of water with an encrusted spigot and a metal goblet. He seemed to be hanging around and I didn’t want him to think I was some sort of NGO nancy boy, so I filled up the goblet and drained me a skinful. Not as good as the stuff from my well in New Hampshire, but better than municipal water in Montreal – or in London, where I believe it’s mostly recycled Welsh urine these days. This ritual repeated itself across the country and by the third day I was a dab hand, ostentatiously tasting the water and then sniffing to the sommelier: ‘Hmm. I was hoping for a soup’on more coliform bacteria and a rather more playful parasitic worm. Oh, and stick a cocktail umbrella in the human faecal material….’ But everywhere I went I drank the water and, aside from mild side-effects like feeling even more right-wing than before, I’m fine and dandy.

Others will have their own experience. Robert Fisk of the Independent bought 25 loo rolls at the beginning of the war, evidently anticipating a far more gruelling campaign intestinally speaking. But let me make a prediction. However much raw sewage is actually getting pumped into the Tigris and Euphrates, it’s never going to be enough to cause a genuinely widespread public-health crisis – no matter how much Will Day would like one. ‘How long will it be before we see this contamination seriously affect the health of the population?’ Seriously? Never.

I would be interested to know, by the way, which streets where are actually ‘flooded’ by sewage.

After I wrote about my trip to Iraq in the Sunday Telegraph and its sister papers, I received quite a few emails from US troops in the country, the gist of which was summed up by one guy with a civil affairs unit near Baghdad: ‘I’m glad to hear somebody report what’s really going on …the fact that there isn’t anything going on.’ I saw no anarchy, no significant anti-US hostility, and no hospitals at anything like capacity. In other words, I was unable to find Will Day’s Iraq. I don’t honestly think it exists outside his head: as Dinah Washington once sang, ‘Water difference a Day makes’; he has miraculously transformed Iraqi water into whine.

But these are the times we live in. There have always been issues on which the differences are so huge that they’re beyond discussion: generally speaking, it’s not worth an American and a European getting into a dinner-party debate over the Israeli/Palestinian question; neither is ever going to change the other’s mind because the shared assumptions necessary to engage in argument don’t exist. The problem now is that the Israeli/Palestinia
n template has spread to whole other areas, not least Iraq and the war on terror. In October 2001 Faizul-Aqtab Siddiqi, president-general of the International Muslim Organisation, said bombing Afghanistan would create a thousand bin Ladens. It didn’t. In March this year President Mubarak of Egypt said bombing Iraq would create a hundred bin Ladens. So right there you’ve got a tenfold decrease in the bin Laden creation programme. But even that modest revised target wasn’t met. There’s widespread starvation and disease and millions of refugees in Iraq. Except there aren’t. The Baghdad Museum was looted of its treasures. Only it wasn’t.

What all these fictions have in common is the prejudice behind them: the article of blind faith that the Americans are blundering idiots who know nothing of the world. It was this that led Robert Fisk, whom my colleague Stephen Glover regards as a ‘genius’, to suggest in print that when the Yanks claimed to be at Baghdad International Airport they’d in fact wandered by accident on to an abandoned RAF airfield many miles away. Nobody who knows anything about a modern military or even the kind of GPS technology that Chevrolet now include in their mid-price trucks and SUVs would say anything so stupid in print – unless he were so blinded by irrational Yankophobia that he was impervious to anything so prosaic as reality. Likewise, the Guardian’s ‘Gotcha!’ scoop, in which they brayed that Paul Wolfowitz had finally fessed up: the Iraq war was ‘all about oil’. The Guardian was forced to back down when it was pointed out that all Wolfowitz had done was to observe that America had economic leverage against North Korea that it didn’t have against Iraq, because the latter ‘floats on a sea of oil’.

But, as with Fisk, it’s the headlong stupidity that startles. Anyone who’s spent even a few minutes listening to Wolfowitz knows that he’s actually quite soft-spoken and tonally benign, and that he’s a thoughtful fellow who has better contacts among Iraqi political groups than any other Western politician. But the deputy defence secretary’s sinister reputation depends on little other than the fact that his name starts with a ferocious animal and ends Jewishly. (Christopher Hitchens noted the other day the curious habit of BBC correspondents of referring to the fellow as ‘Vulfervitz’, declining to accept the bearer’s own pronunciation of his name.)

The honourable exception among this company is my colleague Matthew Parris, who beginning some months ago declined to sign on to any of the bogus objections of the anti-war crowd – the millions of civilian deaths, etc. Matthew cut to the chase: he was against the war because he thought the real issue was American power in the world. Fair enough. If you believe that, don’t duck behind non-existent rubbish like rampant cholera and all-about-oil fantasies. Last week Matthew said that, had he been president, he would not have invaded. That way, ‘international law would not have been violated, swollen-headed neocons would not have gained sway, the yee-hah tendency in US foreign policy would have been restrained, precedents for future unilateral regime-changes would not have been set, Nato would be intact, the UN Security Council would not have been damaged, America’s relationship with Europe would have remained good, and Britain would still be on speaking terms with our EU partners.’

Actually, aside from anything else, they’re all reasons why I was in favour of war. If the overriding issue for M. Parris is American hegemony, the issue for me is the rise of transnational neo-imperialism. I’d rather take my chances with nation-states and great power politics than submit to ‘international law’. I think Nato and the UN Security Council need ‘damaging’, and so does America’s relationship with ‘Europe’. And the jet-set humanitarians, as represented by Will Day, might also benefit from being forced to rethink their act. There is, of course, a real humanitarian crisis in the world today – in the Congo, an environment blessedly free of blundering Yanks, where ‘international law’ has ridden to the rescue and, as in the Balkans and elsewhere, the UN is providing the usual genteel multilateral cover for ethnic slaughter. But, because it doesn’t accord with the New Universal Theory of Texan-Zionist neocon aggression, nobody cares.

In Iraq, the Americans and British are muddling through; in the Congo, ‘international law’, as represented by the French and the UN, is failing big time. That’s my view and it happens to fit my prejudices. But it also fits the facts.


Show comments
Close