The Bush Administration is moving us closer to an invasion of Iraq. The United Nations’ weapon inspectors are doing their work, but the Administration, in disdain of the inspectors, long ago decided the need for war.
The Administration has three arguments for war. 1) Saddam Hussein is linked to Al Qaida and shares responsibility for its terrorist attacks. 2) Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and threatens the security of the United States. 3) Saddam is a tyrant who must be overthrown.
The first argument, advanced by Administration spokespeople immediately after the September 11 World Trade Center attack, has never been substantiated. Iraq, by Middle East standards, is a modern secular state, albeit run by a despot. Al Qaida has a fundamentalist, theocratic, anti-modern, anti-Western ideology. Osama bin Laden is a religious fanatic. Saddam, once an American friend and ally, has no over-riding governing purpose except self-aggrandizement. Their only commonality is hatred of the United States. As the CIA has indicated, Bush’s hostility towards Iraq will likely bring Saddam and bin Laden together.
Their alliance, when it comes into being, will be a consequence, not a cause, of Bush’s aggressive, militaristic policy.
No one knows whether Saddam has nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. It’s possible that he has some or is trying to develop them. So do other countries in the world, including our own. Saddam stands out because he actually used chemical weapons against Iran and the Iraqi Kurds. (He did so, it should be noted, with U.S. support). But he has no delivery system to threaten the United States. He is a threat to his neighbors, but, interestingly, none of them, except Israel, are enthusiastic for a war. More to the point, if Saddam is found to have such weapons, he is violating United Nations resolutions, not U.S. law. There’s no practical or legal justification for unilateral United States action against Iraq, even if we get the British to go along. Containment, with U.N. authorization, is working with Iraq. Saddam, whose main interest is survival, knows that if he attacks another country, he and Iraq will be blown off the map.
The third argument, that Saddam is a tyrant, represents a humanitarian argument for intervention. On this, the charges are true. Saddam runs a ruthless dictatorship and has imprisoned, tortured and murdered his political opponents. The Bush Administration talks about "regime change" -- overthrowing Saddam and creating a democratic Iraq. It sounds idealistic, and also familiar.
George W. Bush has always opposed using U.S. forces for peacekeeping operations and nation-building activities. In Afghanistan, where the Administration is failing miserably in helping our Afghan allies rebuild their nation, his disinterest shows. We have a history of military interventions in Latin America, Africa, and Asia spouting democratic rhetoric. But the record is that we have almost always intervened on the side of dictatorship. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said about a Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, "He may be a son-of-a-bitch but he’s our son-of-a-bitch." The Administration’s problem with our old ally Saddam Hussein is not that he’s a SOB, but that he’s no longer "ours".
We said about Vietnam (as we say about Iraq) that it was a dictatorship. The people had no say about their government. In attempting to free the Vietnamese, we promised them democracy and prosperity -- remember the TVA-like Mekong Delta Project? In actuality, we killed millions -- making the Vietnamese double victims: first of their government and then of our military. The telling quote of the Vietnam War was that of an American officer who said, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." That paradigm is as absurd for Iraq as it was for Vietnam. In order to overthrow the Iraqi dictator, we are going to have to destroy Iraq and kill its people.
According to Bush at War, Bob Woodward’s insider account of the Administration’s response to 9/11, there has been almost no discussion within the government about what to do if and when Saddam falls. The Administration is interested in projecting its military power, not in initiating humanitarian endeavors. The countries of the world ought to support Iraqi dissidents and work with them to remove Saddam from power. There’s no sure, easy way to achieve that goal, but going to war, even if it succeeds in getting Saddam, is a horribly destructive and immoral way of going about it.
A just war is a defensive war, when all political alternatives have failed. A government that starts a war, as the Bush Administration proposes to do, needs a compelling reason to justify its aggression. It also has to have a realistic idea of the outcome. The Bush arguments for war fail to meet both standards. There is no compelling need for war, and no one has any idea of the human cost or the short and long-term political consequences.
In the Marx Brothers’ classic comedy Duck Soup, Groucho, the leader of Fredonia, trades insults with "Trentino," the villainous leader of Sylvania, mostly at the expense of the privileged and clueless dowager played by Margaret Dumont, who will take advice from anyone who flatters her. (Think Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz as the Marx Brothers and George W. Bush as Margaret Dumont). Anticipating more insults, Groucho preemptively slaps Trentino in the face and Trentino declares war. What follows is an over-the-top, Busby Berkeley-like celebration of mindless patriotism and senseless war. "To war, to war," the citizens sing, "Fredonia’s going to war."
When life imitates art, one expects stirring drama. When politics imitates comedy, the result is usually disaster. The road to Iraq is one long slippery banana peel. It is not funny and no one is laughing.
Marty Jezer's books include Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel and The Dark Ages: Life in the U.S. 1945-1960. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org