Published on Sunday, March 20, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
Two Years and Counting
by Marty Jezer
I saw “Hotel Rwanda” last week. It’s one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen. Disturbing not only for the graphic scenes of genocidal violence but for the historically accurate depiction of Western venality, the refusal of the United States and the European powers to intervene militarily to stop the slaughter.
Nick Nolte plays a Canadian general, based on a real life general, Roméo Dallaire, who, leading a small UN contingent of peacemakers in Rwanda, pleads with United Nation officials for more troops and the authority to use force to stop the killing. As actually happened, his request is turned down. UN forces escort white Europeans out of Rwanda but stand aside as Hutu militias slaughter Tutsi civilians. For people like myself, who believe in the United Nations, it’s utterly dispiriting.
To be sure, the UN is no better than the countries that lead it. The United States and Western Europe had the authority to order a forceful UN intervention in Rwanda. We chose, instead, to permit genocide to happen. The United Nations was essentially powerless, a pawn in the game of superpower politics.
Today, March 20th, marks the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Was it justified? Is it worth it? Have we learned anything from “shock and awe” and the events that followed?
Chastened by Rwanda, I look at Iraq with political humility. If President Clinton had encouraged UN action in Rwanda (which he now regrets he did not do), hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved. But if the U.S. had been part of a UN military force, I might have been in the streets protesting. And I would have been wrong. There is justification for a humanitarian military intervention. But our invasion of Iraq falls far short of meeting that criterion.
One gets tired of repeating it, but Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, was not involved in the September 11th terrorist attacks, and was no threat to anyone but his own people. And, as a brutal dictator, he was supported by successive American administrations, most notably President Reagan’s.
Many people, who supported the war despite its fraudulent rationale, have been appalled by the way it’s been fought. The details of ineptitude are familiar. Diplomacy that alienated our allies; not enough troops and ill-equipped troops at that; misguided expectations, most notably the belief that the Iraqis would welcome us as liberators; lack of preparedness to fight urban guerrilla battles; the destruction of Iraq’s economic infrastructure; no exit strategy; disdain for international law and, worse yet, the condoning of torture. While the Bush administration was celebrating victory, Iraqis were looting weapon sites. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld joked about this, but those explosives are still being used to kill Americans and Iraqis.
Opponents of the war predicted an easy military victory and then endless guerrilla war and civil conflict. We were right. We were also right in predicting that Iraq, which was not a terrorist threat before the U.S. invasion, would become a haven for anti-American terrorists once the war got started.
Yet, supporters of the war have one defensible position. Saddam was ousted and Iraq held an election. There’s also a democratic movement blossoming in Syria and some hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Bush takes credit for this progress and, in that the Iraqi invasion shattered the Middle Eastern status quo, his war contributed. But what’s happening in Syria and Lebanon and Israel and Palestine is more a result of internal forces (and the death of Yasir Arafat) than of U.S. policy. The outcome is in the hands of the people of that region, not in the hands of the United States government.
To go or not to go to war -- what constitutes a just war --is the most difficult issue humans face. War should be a country’s last resort not a first option, and it should always have international support. Intent is important. The goal of a war should be to establish a just peace not conquest or the seizure of power. The weaponry brought to bear in a conflict should be proportionate to the stakes of the conflict, and civilians should never be viewed as military targets. Can the death of tens of thousands of innocent civilians be justified by the overthrow of a dictator -- who was already weakened as a result of international pressure? The great religions grapple with these kinds of moral issues. Many religions and religious leaders oppose the Iraqi War as a result of asking these questions.
The debate regarding Iraq as a just war has become academic, however. What’s important now is getting foreign troops out and helping Iraq develop as a peaceful democracy. The discussion that counts is what has been learned, not just from Iraq but also from Rwanda. The tragic answer is “nothing.” Genocide is taking place in the Sudan and Congo, and the UN, still an expression of Western power, continues to lack the political will to intervene and stop it. In Iraq, the American leaders who rushed to war on false pretenses and then pursued mistaken military and diplomatic policies are still in power, unchastened and unapologetic. The UN has a better record in Iraq than it has had in Africa but the United States continues to go it alone, undermining the international solidarity that is necessary for bringing peace to Iraq and combating terrorism the world over.
President Bush just appointed John Bolton as Ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton opposes the United Nations, disdains diplomacy, and believes we have the unilateral right to use military force anywhere and anytime. Two years down the road in Iraq and counting, it’s evident that we’ve learned nothing from the experience. The Bush administration has no intention of altering its strategy, cultivating alliances, recalibrating its ideology, and focusing on reality.