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The Libya War Argument

In April, 2003, American troops entered Baghdad and Saddam Hussein was forced to flee; six months later, the dictator was captured ("caught like a rat in a hole," giddy American media outlets celebrated) and eventually hanged.  Each of those incidents caused massive numbers of Iraqis who had suffered under his decades-long rule to celebrate, and justifiably so: Saddam really was a monster who had brutally oppressed millions.  But what was not justifiable was how those emotions were exploited by American war advocates to delegitimize domestic objections to the war.  Even though opposition to the war had absolutely nothing to do with doubt about whether Saddam could be vanquished by the U.S. military -- of course he could and would be -- the emotions surrounding his defeat were seized upon by Iraq War supporters to boastfully claim full-scale vindication (here's one of my all-time favorites from that intellectually corrupt genre). 

So extreme was this manipulative way of arguing that then-presidential-candidate Howard Dean was mauled by people in both parties when he dared to raise questions about whether Saddam's capture -- being hailed in bipartisan political and media circles as a Great American Achievement -- would actually make things better.  Dean's obvious point was that Saddam's demise told us very little about the key questions surrounding the war: how many civilians had died and would die in the future?  What would be required to stabilize Iraq?  How much more fighting would be unleashed?  What precedents did the attack set?  What regime would replace Saddam and what type of rule would it impose, and to whom would its leaders be loyal?  That a dictatorial monster had been vanquished told us nothing about any of those key questions -- the ones in which war opposition had been grounded -- yet war proponents, given pervasive hatred of Saddam, dared anyone to question the war in the wake of those emotional events and risk appearing to oppose Saddam's defeat.  That tactic succeeded in turning war criticism in the immediate aftermath of those events into a taboo (the same thing was done in the wake of Mullah Omar's expulsion from Afghanistan to those arguing that the war would result in a "quagmire").

As I've emphasized from the very first time I wrote about a possible war in Libya, there are real and important differences between the attack on Iraq and NATO's war in Libya, ones that make the former unjustifiable in ways the latter is not (beginning with at least some form of U.N. approval).  But what they do have in common -- what virtually all wars have in common -- is the rhetorical manipulation used to justify them and demonize critics.  Just as Iraq War opponents were accused of being "objectively pro-Saddam" and harboring indifference to The Iraqi People, so, too, were opponents of the Libya War repeatedly accused of being on Gadaffi's side (courtesy of Hillary Clinton, an advocate of both wars) and/or exuding indifference to the plight of Libyans.  And now, in the wake of the apparent demise of the Gadaffi regime, we see all sorts of efforts, mostly from Democratic partisans, to exploit the emotions from Gadaffi's fall to shame those who questioned the war, illustrated by this question last night from ThinkProgress, an organization whose work I generally respect: ...

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