Juan Cole on the War in Iraq (2003)
Juan Cole - "Informed Comment"
September 1, 2003
Joshua Micah Marshall notes in his Talking Points Memo for Monday that John Kerry has been accused of "waffling" on Iraq because he supported the war but has criticized the outcome. Marshall points out that an evolving position shows a flexibility that might be preferable to Bush's rigidity. I also sympathize with Kerry, because I declined to oppose the war. I felt that a) Saddam was a genocidal monster, and getting rid of him would benefit the Iraqis, and b) the 'dual containment' of Iraq and Iran as a policy was a fatal dead end that had just put the US in the position of denying needed medicine to Iraqi children (actually Saddam manipulated the system to rob the children and give to the Baath officials, but the US got blamed). Even the 'no-fly' zone for the Kurds probably couldn't have been kept up indefinitely, and if the US ever withdrew, Saddam would have massacred the Kurds all over again.
But I disagreed almost completely with the *way* the war was carried out:
1) The weapons of mass destruction issue was over-hyped; we all knew we were in no imminent danger from Iraq.
2) The manufacturing of links between Saddam and al-Qaeda was painful to watch, because so obviously false.
3) The spiteful unilateralism that cast aside old allies and the UN Security Council left the US isolated and wholly responsible for Iraq, which no one country could hope to run and rebuild on its own.
4) The small military force Rumsfeld sent into the country and the unconcern with post-war security created a security disaster that is still with us.
The war could have been waged without doing any of these, much less all of them. At that point where Bush tossed aside the Security Council, he lost much of my support. It was tepid in the first place; I wasn't exactly for the war, I was just unable to bring myself to march [against it because I knew doing so would de facto keep Saddam in power].*
Well, maybe if I were in politics I'd get shot down for this complex position, too. It would be a shame if Kerry loses on these grounds. I'm not sure it matters, though. I fear we may have gotten to the point in this country where a northerner Democrat can't win a presidential election, anyway. It has been 40 years, after all.
* Helena Cobban took umbrage at my saying originally "march to keep Saddam in power" because she felt it was a slur against anti-war protesters, implying that that was their goal. I wasn't, however, talking about other people; I was talking about my own ethical stance. I knew for a fact that Saddam was not going to be overthrown by internal forces and that he was committing virtual genocide against people like the Marsh Arabs. For me, marching against the war would have been done in knowledge that it would result in Saddam staying in power. She wants me to apologize. I'm always glad to apologize. I don't see what it costs you to say you are sorry about hurting someone's feelings inadvertently. But I didn't mean, in my own mind, what she read me to mean, in the first place. I think an anti-war position was ethically defensible; it just wasn't the position I was comfortable with. I think it mattered, too, whether you actually knew and interacted with Iraqi Shiites and Kurds very much.
September 3, 2003
Helena Cobban has more comments today on my posting about the build up to the Iraq war. As far as I can tell, the difference between us is that I am not a complete pacifist. I prefer peace, and think every effort should be made to maintain it. But I also do believe in collective security (remember that I am an idiosyncratic Baha'i). So I think the UN Security Council has the authority to authorize military intervention in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan. The UNSC has a clear duty to authorize such intervention where a state has committed aggression on another. I personally think it also ought to intervene to stop ongoing or incipient genocides of the sort Saddam was waging against the Marsh Arabs. Saddam was a serial aggressor on a mass scale inside and outside his country, and probably responsible for hundreds of thousands murdered. He was in material breach of large numbers of UNSC resolutions. I think the Iraq war could have been justified on grounds of international law, and if the US had gotten a Security Council Resolution I would have actively supported the endeavor. I don't think the war was essentially wrong; I think it was procedurally wrong. And, the unilateralism that undermined the moral authority of the US in Iraq also left it bereft of needed international resources for establishing security and for rebuilding. It is turning into a disaster because it wasn't done right. For the record, I lived in Beirut off and on between fall of 1975 and spring of 1979, and saw lots of death and destruction, and have a fair idea what war is. I don't like it. For one thing, mortar shells going off nearby make you nervous and give you a headache even when they don't maim or kill you. But war isn't always unjustified or always a bad thing in the big picture. D-Day was a blessing for the people of Europe, and for the world.
=> X wrote:
It is all well and fine to support the war but not the way it was conducted, but this is not how politics work. The support for such a political action is not an abstract proposition. Everybody can design their ideal scenario, but this is not what politics is about. For me it is about real decisions taken by real people regarding questions in which other real people are involved. To support the war means to support the war not as it could have been led but as it is, led by the people who are in charge, here the bushies, knowing their policies, limitations and biases. This is why I was against the war and so far nothing has given me ground to change my mind. best, X
=> I responded:
I agree. That's why I supported the war, as clearly the least bad solution from among the realistically available alternatives, and so far nothing has given me any grounds to change my mind—quite the contrary.
I can respect Cole's ambivalence, which is complex and intelligent, and many of the dilemmas he highlights are quite real. But in the end, on an issue like this, one has to make a decision one way or another. For Cole to say that he "declined to oppose the war" is not really a fully adequate position. From my perspective, what's crucial is that Cole recognizes that military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein & his regime was necessary and justified, and there were no good realistic alternatives. (And the reasons he gives for arriving at these conclusions are quite concrete, not abstract. As you know, I think the case was even stronger than he acknowledges, but much of what he says is on-target.). That's the bottom line.
(And to repeat a point I've already made several times: It's not enough to say that a certain course of action has unfortunate consequences, actual and potential. One also has to weigh those against the likely consequences of the realistically available alternatives. In my mind, it's no contest ... though I'm aware that a decade from now I—and you—might possibly have cause to reconsider this judgment in retrospect.)
[Update & P.S. Some of my retrospective considerations from 2013:
Some partial, preliminary, & unfashionable thoughts toward re-assessing the 2003 Iraq war – Did anything go right, and what were the alternatives? ]