February 4, 2003
Case Weakens, the Plot Thickens
House officials have said that the space shuttle disaster will
not slow down or alter the president’s plans on war with Iraq.
That’s defensible, of course – or it would be if the war itself
were defensible. While the loss of the space shuttle and the seven
people on it commanded great attention (and ludicrously overdone
media coverage), it is not directly related to the question of whether
the United States should invade Iraq. A case could be made that
it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put some substantive decisions on hold
for a decent interval while Americans process their sadness, but
it isn’t absolutely necessary.
What’s fascinating about the ongoing rush to war
is that the U.S. government does not seem to feel constrained to
present evidence that Iraq poses a real or imminent danger either
to the United States or to its neighbors. The appalling people who
lead us still seem to think that it is enough to solidify the case
that Saddam Hussein is a nasty and brutal man who doesn’t cooperate
fully with mandates imposed on him by the United Nations. If pressed
they will probably admit that the world is full of nasty and brutal
dictators whose removal might well benefit the countries they misrule.
But the case against Saddam is not that he is more of a real threat
to the United States or to world peace (whatever that is) but that
he is uniquely nasty and brutal.
It’s a tough case to make as a reason to invade
a country, and the United States is not making it very well.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, who seems to have gone over to
the dark side, admits
in his op-ed for the war-friendly Wall Street Journal
that he has no "smoking gun" even about the existence
of weapons of mass destruction to present to the United Nations
on Wednesday. He only promises "a straightforward, sober and
compelling demonstration that Saddam is concealing the evidence
of his weapons of mass destruction, while preserving the weapons
Sec. Powell doesn’t in his article promise solid evidence of an
Iraqi-al Qaida link, news
stories suggest that evidence will be offered that, as Deputy
Secretary of State Richard Armitage put it, "Al Qaida is harbored,
to some extent, in Iraq." President Bush has stated flatly
that Iraq works with al Qaida, as has Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld. Perhaps this week we will find out if there is any evidence
for such assertions. So far, despite the best efforts of the CIA
and Israeli intelligence and a full-court
press from Britain’s MI-6, apparently no evidence of such collaboration
has been found.
The claim is inherently unlikely but the politicians
don’t seem to mind a bit of a stretch. The Ba’athist regime Saddam
Hussein runs in Iraq is explicitly secular, the kind of regime Islamic
fundamentalist radicals like those in al Qaida find particularly
distasteful. While al Qaida directs most of its hostility to the
United States and "the West," it has enough left over
to dislike secular Arab regimes for their lack of allegiance to
its narrow visions of "true Islam." There have been fundamentalist-inspired
rebel movements in Morocco, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and every nominally
secularist Arab regime spends at least some of its time worrying
about (and often rather actively repressing) the fundamentalists
in their midsts.
That doesn’t mean there might not have been some
contacts between al Qaida or al Qaida-like groups and some people
in the Iraqi government. But the major "evidence"
trotted out so far has to do with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian
wounded in Afghanistan, who may be hiding out or even operating
some kind of organization in the northern part of Iraq controlled
by the Kurds. The other figure sometimes mentioned is Mullah Krekar,
also sheltering in Kurdish Iraq, who has explicitly denied he has
ties to al Qaida and who has not been arrested despite some interviews
with the FBI.
key point about both these characters is that they are harbored
in Kurdish northern Iraq, which has managed to work out an informal
arrangement resembling semi-autonomy with Saddam’s regime in Baghdad.
That’s part of the reason that while the Kurds are likely to go
along with American invasion plans if and when they come to fruition,
they haven’t been notably enthusiastic.
The main point, however, is that Saddam Hussein
doesn’t really control the Kurdish regions. The fact that some al-Qaida-linked
terrorists might be hiding out there – and apparently there’s also
some evidence that al Qaida forces fleeing Afghanistan have crossed
through Kurdish territory on their way to other Mideastern countries
– is hardly evidence that Saddam himself is "harboring"
or helping them. It might even be evidence that it is his political
foes in Iraq who are harboring the terrorists. Or it might be evidence
that the Kurdish semi-autonomous quasi-government doesn’t have real
control over some of the more remote reaches of "its"
territory and has made a prudential decision to tolerate encampments
of terrorists for now.
Perhaps Secretary Powell will come up with something
more compelling on Wednesday. But if all he has is al Qaida folks
in Kurdish regions, he doesn’t have anything resembling a real Iraqi-al
Qaida connection. And, of course – again, barring a real surprise
– all the various intelligence services have not been able to develop
anything like a credible link between the Iraqi regime and the 9/11
other main contention of U.S. officials – Armitage again – is that
Saddam Hussein has mobile biological weapons labs that can be and
are moved regularly. There’s also a contention, which might or might
not be based on satellite imaging, that the U.S. has evidence that
the Iraqis have been moving things out of the back doors of some
of the sites UN weapons inspectors have targeted, just before the
inspectors arrived. There’s also concern that the regime still has
lots of anthrax.
LEGITIMATE CASUS BELLI?
of these contentions and numerous others provide evidence that Saddam
Hussein runs a particularly nasty regime whose elimination from
the face of the earth would cause few paroxysms of weeping among
decent people. But do they add up to a legitimate reason for a country
that likes to talk about liberal democratic values and respect for
the rule of law to attack Iraq?
The kind of strike envisioned by U.S. leaders would
not be a pre-emptive strike – which can be justified in some cases
by an imminent or clear-and-present-danger threat of a military
or other aggressive kind of strike by the country in question. It
would, instead, still be the waging of a "preventive"
war, justified not by recent or imminent attacks or threats by Iraq,
but by the possibility that, if the country really did acquire the
weapons we fear it is trying to acquire, it might do something aggressive
or dangerous with them.
But despite the attempt to make UN resolutions (which
every country in the world, including the United States, has ignored
at various times) a legitimate reason to consider a war a response,
a U.S. attack on Iraq would clearly make the United States the aggressor.
Whether it would be viewed as setting a precedent that other countries
could follow if they felt vaguely threatened, or viewed as a prerogative
only the United States, as the sole superpower, could avail itself
of, it would be a bad precedent.
Although it hasn’t always acted that way, the United
States has until very recently wanted to view itself as a guarantor
of peace, as a country that acts only defensively and responds to
aggression rather than initiating it. The fact that our leaders
have so blithely put that apparently naive view of our role in the
world behind us to assert that we will attack anywhere, anytime,
whenever we feel it is in our interests (and the interests of "peace"
and "freedom," of course) to do so suggests a sea-change
in America’s view of itself.
Perhaps Americans have fully processed this change
in worldview and support it heartily – although even polls that
show solid support for war with Iraq suggest qualms and hesitation
among an increasing number of Americans. If so, we’re in for a rocky
time ahead. This country can probably invade Iraq and defeat it
militarily, but then what? Will we have to occupy it for years or
decades? How long before the public loses interest? How will we
deal with revolts against imperial ukases? Will Iraq be only the
first step in a program to remake the Middle East through military
action against Syria, Iran and eventually Saudi Arabia, the pervasive
wet dream of certain neoconservatives?
The Iraq option has long been a staple of certain
defense intellectuals, as they are sometimes called, and 9/11 gave
them the opportunity to push it. But in some ways the support, both
active and passive, might represent a reversion to what seems known
and comfortable in light of a set of confusing and frightening circumstances
our leaders really don’t understand – a misdiagnosis in short.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
plunged us into – or announced that we had been in – an essentially
revolutionary conflict conducted and coordinated mainly by non-state
entities like al Qaida and smaller groups around the world, apparently
affiliated only loosely with one another and hardly at all with
conventional nation-states. That is a kind of conflict people in
the State Department and Defense Department don’t understand or
especially want to understand – only in part because it suggests
that their skills and knowledge might just be irrelevant or useless
in this kind of revolutionary-guerrilla-unconventional-propaganda-driven
era of conflict.
So they have fallen back to what they think they understand,
what feels comfortable, what they believe to be a known quantity
– a conventional military war against a conventional nation-state
that can be properly demonized. It doesn’t seem to matter that such
a war is unlikely to eliminate terrorism, or that it might well
increase terrorist activity or make it more likely that Saddam will
use chemical or biological weapons.
To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.
A conventional war looks like something they know how to do, whether
or not it is the right thing to do given the circumstances.
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