On the Invasion of Iraq
Originally written September 26, 2002
The drumbeats of war are getting louder, the Bush Administration’s asking to be granted even more control, and everyone seems to accept that an invasion of Iraq is both inevitable and probably a good idea. I dissent. Herewith, for the few who care, an argument against invasion.
Reasons for Invasion
On the side of war, Bush and his boys have offered essentially four reasons to invade. They argue that: 1) Saddam Hussein’s a bad man, 2) Saddam’s repressed his own people, 3) Saddam’s got weapons of mass destruction (WMD), 4) Saddam’s a terrorist and/or terrorist supporter.
Corollary threats have been mentioned, although they haven’t been identified in formal resolutions, either to the UN or congress. They include the sense that Iraq contributes to instability in the Middle East and that any restructuring of that region must begin with Iraq. In his words, “In one place, in one regime, we find all these dangers in their most lethal and aggressive forms [that is, again, in his own words ’plotting further destruction and building new bases for their war against civilization’] —exactly the kind of aggressive threat the United Nations was born to confront.”
That’s pretty much it. Bush has hedged his bets by demanding “action” from the UN—mainly in the form of following through on its pre-existing resolutions against Iraq, though even this may not be enough, for “the purposes of the United States should not be doubted.” The language he submitted to Congress for action against Iraq was so broad it has failed to garner wide support in the Senate. Then, on September 19th, the Administration issued the official US policy for National Security which included the imperialistic assertion of the right of pre-emption giving itself the power to defend:
“. . .the United States, the American people, and our interests at home and abroad by identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders. While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country.” [Italics added.]
Essentially, the Administration has identified Iraq as a target and gone about convincing everyone that it is dangerous, or failing that, convincing them to just let the Administration handle it anyway.
On the points Bush has provided, we can grant every single one without drawing the same conclusion that invasion is the best way to address them. Rather, one should assert that unilateral invasion would result in catastrophe. While Bush’s case to the UN was as close to surgical in its precision as he’s ever dared go, it left a lot of assumptions hanging in the air. If these assumptions turn out to be faulty, cue the catastrophes. Among the assumptions I question:
Hussein can be killed. We can crush Iraq. We can turn Baghdad into Dresden. But that’s a different thing from killing Hussein. Implicit in the invasion is the assumption that the Iraqi people will join US forces and “liberate Iraq” the way they liberated Afghanistan. Because, without that support, the invading forces will be looking for a specific man. This means house-to-house warfare and a likelihood of success far lower than the likelihood of locating Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Will the Iraqis support the invading forces? Not a shred of evidence has been offered to support this. Instead, we have a society twice oppressed—first by their leader, and second by unwanted US intervention which has left the country impoverished for the past dozen years. Even if the invasion is wildly successful and Iraqis join the liberation effort, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get Saddam. If he sneaks out the back door like bin Laden, many will regard the whole operation as a failure. (And, to hide it, like they hid the failure of finding bin Laden, does that mean talk of war with Iran is next?)
Invading Iraq will stabilize the Middle East. In the outcomes Bush identified in his speech to the UN, “regime change” would bring “reforms throughout the Muslim world.” Actually, it’s the UN action that will bring the reforms throughout the Muslim world, but failing that, it’s the US who “will make that stand” (all quotes Bush’s).
Never mind the details, what about the prediction? Invading Afghanistan was a far less controversial move—the Taliban had only been recognized by two other governments (needless to say, they were our allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). Yet that invasion sparked violence in South Asia and Israel, and has subsequently been used to justify aggressive action against “terrorists” by Russia. In fact, there is almost no scenario one can imagine in which an invasion of Iraq does anything but further destabilize the region.
Iraq, which Bush declares is in possession of WDM, will not use them during a US invasion. Err, okay.
World opinion is irrelevant. Admittedly, this is a more subtle threat than Bush should be expected to understand. Invading Iraq without a world mandate (Tony Blair alone does not count) would essentially turn the US into a rogue nation. While world opinion would not translate into any kind of overt action, it is clear that continued US “interventions” are dependent on soft support, at a minimum. Wave bye-bye to all that, particularly in Muslim countries.
This argument is only relevant in the absence of world support—which is, fortunately, the current situation. George W. Bush has very clearly made the argument that the US should move away from international cooperation and adopt a strategy of pre-emption and unilateralism.
In order to do this, the Bush Administration has tried to create some kind of legal claim for its unilateralist agenda. It started by retrofitting its policy with a couple of minimum criteria. The context of 9/11 gave them the first: terrorism. What actions qualify as “terrorism” are not defined; it seems that a simple US designation is adequate. Second, there must be the threat of harm—and this one is easy to meet because not just to the US or its citizens qualifies as a threat, but even “our interests.” This is a wholly bogus extension of the premise of “imminent attack,” which according to international law is a justification for pre-emptive strike.
But in the case of Iraq, there wasn’t until yesterday evening [September 25] a shred of evidence that any of Iraq’s activities—tyrannical though they might be—could be considered to present a threat to the US or its interests. They might be called terrorism, but so far, Hussein had only employed them against his own people. No one has ever made the connection between Iraq and global terrorism. Fortunately for the Bush team, however, one of those “detainees” in Cuba came forward last night with “clear testimony” that there’s a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Not that this is verifiable in any way, as those “detainees” haven’t been afforded their constitutional rights.
(There’s a fascinating article in the September Harper’s that traces the thread of unilateralist thought within the Bush Administration back to Bush I through the writings and policy statements of Cheney, Powell, and Wolfowitz. As it happens, the Nation Security Strategy announced by the President last week didn’t arise from 9/11—quite the opposite. The 9/11 attacks finally enabled a policy that had been in development for at least ten years. Well, suffice it to say that it also poses some issues regarding international law.)
So it is that you make your case, then create the evidence. It seems to work in American opinion polls, but it doesn’t represent legal practice.
No one has mentioned that attacking a sovereign nation—however corrupt the leader—leads to many deaths. Dubya has mentioned frequently his compassion for the Iraqi people. He cites it as one of his principal motives for wishing to attack—“Liberty for the Iraqi people is a great moral cause and a great strategic goal.” One even imagines that he’s sincere.
But there’s a contradiction here. The very premise of invading Iraq is the threat it poses to innocents. History has shown that Americans aren’t in the business of ensuring the liberty of foreign citizens until the safety of its own are at risk. No, Bush wishes to attack Iraq to protect American lives. In prioritizing invasion above non-militaristic approaches, he’s made a clear distinction: American lives are more important than Iraqi lives. Most US citizens would agree with him, but the rub is that Americans aren’t at risk. For the Iraqis it’s damned by the hand of Hussein or damned by the hand of Bush—does anyone think they find Bush’s platitudes just compensation for their lives?
This point is the one that has been well-made by a number of folks, so I’ll go into it only briefly. Sixty percent of Iraq is comprised of Shi’ites who have never held power in the country. Kurds comprise another 19%, and have, of course, never held power. The ruling Baath Party represents a Sunni minority of just 17% of the population. Hussein’s regime gained and maintains control through intense violence, which has left the country seething. If the warlords of Afghanistan are proving more difficult to manage than the American military predicted, how will the US or even the UN manage a post-Hussein Iraq? It is guaranteed to be a mess.
Bush’s most obvious quality is his single-mindedness, his aggressive dismissal of complexity. Probably it is what appeals most to people now, his unequivocal pursuit of baddies. But also, it is what led to all of the fires that erupted after the invasion of Afghanistan: the inflammations in Israel, South Asia, and the pervasive suspicion of the US that increased dramatically in the Middle East and Europe. And that was following a war no one disputed.
If the US invades Iraq—either with or without world support—there will arise situations we don’t currently envision. An example is Pooty-Poot and his delight over the Bush doctrine: if invading “terrorist” aggressors is both moral and sound geopolitics, this whole pre-emption deal might be just what the doctor ordered in Georgia. That is a known by-product, but many others will emerge. Obvious other issues, such as the place Baghdad holds in the Muslim world, the Israeli conflict, tensions in Saudi Arabia, the Musharraf government’s stability, effects on terrorist support—all these Bush has ignored.
How to Deal With Iraq
Finally, the issue of Iraq remains. Hearing these protests, the Bush Administration has asked what a better solution is. (There are some questions here—why did the Iraq issue arise at this moment and what’s the urgency?; is Saddam Hussein substantively worse than, say, Kim Jong Il?; what is the formal policy on other baddie regimes [after Iraq, is it N. Korea, then Iran, then . . . ]?; what about the war on terror?; what about the thin-and-wide strategy of too many fronts?; what about creating a perpetual wartime drain on the economy?; and so on and so on.) But let’s leave them aside for now. Let’s agree that Iraq is a legitimate problem.
So, even if we accept that Iraq is actively developing WDM, we have to ask two other questions first: 1) do these weapons represent an immediate risk to the globe? and 2) if so, is it more of a risk than the one non-affiliated terrorists like al-Qaeda pose? There is great doubt about the first question. Unlike many more erratic dictators, Hussein’s threats are relatively predictable, and to this point always nationalistic and regional. Unlike more overtly terroristic regimes in the region, Hussein has attempted to build a greater Iraqi state, and until the war with Bush Sr., was an American ally. And despite attempts to demonize Hussein, not a single shred of credible evidence links him to world terrorism.
(Ironically enough, Hussein is also one of the least religious of the Arab dictators. While it is Iraqis are clearly oppressed, they do not suffer under the types of repression found in, say, Saudi Arabia—a close American ally. Until sanctions-related poverty struck the home capital, Baghdad was among the most cosmopolitan of the Arab cities. Even today, Hussein is more likely to wear a western suit than the military fatigues in which he is most commonly depicted.)
As to the second question, there is also great doubt. In the scenarios Bush describes, there are only vague references to the horrors that might ensue. Even with stores of WDM, Iraq lacks ICBMs and in a worst case scenario would only attack its neighbors. One might ask the question about why he would do this. While barely managing to keep the US outside his borders for the past ten years, Hussein knows that deploying WDM would definitely ensure invasion. It seems far more likely that he wishes to secure WDM to prevent an American invasion. This is, of course, a threat to the US’s express wish to hold unilateral control over the world.
So finally, the question: what should we do with the existing threat of Saddam Hussein? Inspections. Bush has tried to make a lot of hay about how the inspections ended in order to demonstrate their faults. But the fact is that the inspections were quite successful in locating not only existing stores of WDM, but the avenues through which they were being developed. Bush has stirred the pot enough at this point that the world will gladly line up behind hardline inspections. Any thought of invasion prior to this effort is absurd.
Furthermore, this is an opportunity for the United States to take a genuine leadership role in crafting policy for dealing with international conflict. Paying lip service to democracy on the one hand while on the other supporting dictators and reserving the right to act unilaterally, undemocratically, and forcefully naturally lead to a less stabilized world. That the US has a huge advantage in the world right now makes it the natural leader. It has two choices—leading toward a system of international law or playing the old game of might is right. Whatever course we choose, the world will follow. Thus it is that following the UN’s lead in Iraq is absolutely critical to setting the tone in international politics.
I think we have ample evidence to suspect Bush’s motives. As with all his other policies, he’s developed this one in a vacuum, constantly seeking to hide evidence, obscure motives, and change the discussion when any serious scrutiny is applied. While a pre-election wag-the-dog scenario might be a portion of this strategy, my suspicion is there’s something more fundamental here.
The definition for “tyranny” is variable. Cambridge describes it as “government by a ruler or small group of people who have unlimited power over the people in their country or state and use it unfairly and cruelly.” American Heritage’s first definition is simply “A government in which a single ruler is vested with absolute power.” Webster’s is more detailed, describing “a country governed by an absolute ruler; hence, arbitrary or despotic exercise of power; exercise of power over subjects and others with a rigor not authorized by law or justice, or not requisite for the purposes of government.”
All of these definitions cut very close to the direction George W. Bush has taken his administration. In my view, it is only the health of the democratic system—such as it remains—that has prevented him from taking full tyrannical power. Time and again his administration has demonstrated the definitional requisites. John Ashcroft would like to hold people indefinitely, without representation and without charge; he would then like to try them privately, by the government. He would like to monitor library records, church attendance, and even private homes in a dragnet strategy to locate “criminals” (who then enter indefinite, unrepresented confinement). The President has asserted he has the power to declare war without Congressional approval, that he may act unilaterally and at his own discretion to declare unprovoked war on those states he regards “threatening.” Over and over the Administration demonstrates it seeks absolute power—power it may use unfairly and arbitrarily, and certainly “with a rigor not authorized by law or justice.”
It is axiomatic that tyranny emerges in the service of defeating tyranny. President Bush, exercising what he imagines is “moral clarity,” asks to be the sole and final arbiter over the actions of citizens of this nation and the actions of governments of foreign states. Reasonable people and optimists imagine his motivation is democratic, that he wishes freedom and liberty for all people. It may be. But we should not create law based on the assumed motivations of our leaders, and we should never allow power to collect in the hands of a single man.
The invasion of Iraq would the most obvious abuse of democratic power in a newly-emerging global democracy. Furthermore, it would distract a nation from the sweeping power the President and his administration are seeking at home. Bush has already used circumstances to justify cynical political moves—after his abysmal tax cut passed and the economy started tanking, Bush bragged he’d hit the trifecta: war (Afghanistan), national emergency (terrorism) and recession bailed him out. The Administration’s desire to invade Iraq is no less cynical, and the upside is far, far greater. On balance, the reasons to invade Iraq are few and debatable, the gains small, and the cost huge; the reasons to refrain many and indisputable, the gains large, and the cost nothing. It’s not even close.