Thursday, August 01, 2002

"The last thing the US wants is democracy in Iraq"

"The last thing the US wants is democracy in Iraq" is the (quite possibly accurate) title of a Guardian article by Nick Cohen that was  forwarded by a sociologist I know, Marc Garcelon, to a democratic-activist listserver he runs.  (He's also forwarded a few other items on this subject.)  I couldn't resist dashing off a quick (and partial) response.

Jeff Weintraub


Subject: Re: The last thing the US wants is democracy in Iraq
From: Jeff Weintraub
Date: Thu, 01 Aug 2002 00:13:33 -0400
To: Marc Garcelon

Hi Marc,

The last thing the US wants is democracy in Iraq.

I think this is probably right ... and the desire to preserve the Ba'ath regime (ideally, with Saddam removed by an internal military coup), in the interests of political "stability," was almost certainly part of the reason for the cynical (not to say criminal) pseudo-realpolitik with which the endgame of the 1991 Gulf War was conducted. We can definitely say that on one point the first Bush administration, the Arab regimes, Turkey, and most of the European government were in full agreement: the last thing they wanted was to have the Iraqi regime overthrown from below by a popular revolution. Thus, the war was deliberately ended quickly, and the elite core of the Iraqi army was allowed to escape intact ... with the result that the overwhelming uprising against the regime was put down with great slaughter, the destruction of the cities of southern Iraq, almost a million Kurdish refugees fleeing across the mountains into Turkey and Iran, etc.

To amend a well-known cynical remark of Talleyrand's, this was not just a crime, but a blunder. The people who have suffered the most from this criminal blunder over the last decade have been the Iraqi population. I would say that both moral obligation and political wisdom point to the imperative of doing something to correct the damage done by this mistake ... especially since I don't see any other morally or politically acceptable way out of the present impossible situation.

Back in 1991, Kanan Makiya (whom I happen to consider one of the great moral and intellectual heroes of our age) argued convincingly that the oalition that had fought the Gulf War, and in the process done great damage to Iraq in a worthy cause, had an obligation to knock out the Ba'ath regime and commit itself to a long-term effort for the reconstruction of Iraq and the promotion of a more decent regime (along the lines of Germany, Italy, and Japan after World War II). This hope proved unrealistic (not surprisingly), but his argument was morally incontestable, and it remains so today.
If the US goes for a military hardman, it is likely to find a general against whom plausible allegations of war crimes can be made. The alternative is a democratic, federal Iraq, which gives rights to the Kurds and Shias currently suffering under the apartheid rule of the Sunni minority, and places the military under civilian control.
Precisely, and this is what we should be supporting ... rather than a reflexive and simplistic "anti-war" position in defense of a genuinely fascist regime (I use the word "fascist" carefully and advisedly here) with a proven record of hideous cruelty and repression, military adventurism, mass murder, and the use of poison gas against both Iraqi civilians and Iranian soldiers.

The column by Kudlow you forwarded was genuinely repulsive, and confirmed my impression that Larry Kudlow is a dangerous lunatic.

But I have been almost equally offended by the mindless and morally bankrupt quality of many of the "anti-war" statements I've been getting over e-mail lately. A lot of these are the same people who have been calling for an end to sanctions, on the ground that these are (allegedly) killing Iraqi children. In fact, the sanctions regime has been gradually crumbling for a while. And, at all events, the Ba'ath regime has for a long time has been getting more than enough oil money to provide food, medical care, and education for its children. (The situation in the autonomous portions of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been subject to the same sanctions, and which emerged from the 1991 much more devastated than the rest of Iraq, is enough to make this clear.) The problem is that the regime prefers to spend the money on repression, presidential palaces, ethnic cleansing in the Mosul/Kirkuk area and the southern marshes, and a continuing massive nuclear weapons program.

The effects of sanctions have genuinely been disastrous, in both humanitarian and political terms. But the reason is that as long as the present Iraqi regime is in control, it can continue holding the population hostage. If the sanctions collapse while the present regime remains in power (and before September 11, it looked as though this was where things were headed, since the economic incentives to get at Iraqi oil money were so strong), the result would be a moral and political catastrophe--and trying to PROMOTE such an outcome is not humanitarianism or progressive politics, but criminal irresponsibility. The only morally and politically acceptable way to end sanctions, and with them the suffering of ordinary Iraqis, is to topple the current regime. (The Iraqi people could have done this themselves back in 1991, if the Americans had knocked out the Republican Guard rather than letting it escape and had grounded the regime's helicopters. But now they need outside help--not unlike the way that the Tanzanian army was required to overthrow Idi Amin.)

The key question, as the Guardian article properly says, is HOW this is done, and with what GOALS. In my opinion, these are the issues that democratic forces in the U.S. (and western Europe) ought to be focusing on. And trying to shape these outcomes is where politics comes in.

=> I say this as someone who remains profoundly troubled by the prospect of a U.S. war against the Iraqi regime--particularly under the leadership of our alleged President and his appalling administration. NOT because of the kinds of reasons I hear from Pat Buchanan and Chris Matthews as well as more left-wing "anti-war" groupings. The idea that an attack would be somehow in violation of international law, or unprovoked, is ridiculous. In strictly legal terms, the justification for military action is simple and straightforward: In 1991, after losing the Gulf War, the Iraqi regime signed a peace agreement--whose terms it has consistently and blatantly violated. War is legally justified on these grounds alone, so the only question is whether it's wise and morally justified. The suggestion that an attack on Saddam Hussein's regime, which is clearly hated by the great majority of Iraqis, would somehow be an assault on the Iraqi people--well, this is either disingenuous or absurd.

I am also not convinced by the claims that Saddam Hussein's regime doesn't represent a genuine threat to anyone. If Scott Ritter says that the Iraqi regime probably isn't close to getting nuclear weapons, then he's someone who deserves to be listened to. But his is not the only informed voice on these issues. And the fact remains that neither he nor anyone else can speak with great assurance on this matter, since there have been no inspectors in Iraq since 1998. The record during the inspections period was that the regime consistently used tremendous energy, resources, ingenuity, and duplicity in hiding what it had. It lied blatantly at every point, and the record of the inspections what that the longer and deeper they looked, the more they found. If the regime really has nothing significant to hide, one has to wonder why they took the step of expelling the UN inspectors and refusing to let them return. I think all the evidence points to the conclusion that they have important things to hide, and that they've been willing to pay great costs to continue to hide them.

I have also seen it suggested that even if Saddam Hussein does get a nuclear bomb, there's no reason to be concerned about this possibility. Without going into all the reasons why, let me just say that I find this position morally and politically idiotic. No, Saddam Hussein would probably not attack New York the next day. But the key point is that nuclear capability and/or the collapse of sanctions would give him impunity and let him escape from his box, with all sorts of disastrous consequences. Simply letting the present situation continue and doing nothing, while Iraqi civilians suffer and the remaining sanctions restrictions gradually collapse, is probably enough to guarantee this outcome. One very likely and predictable result, in the fairly short run, would almost certainly be that Saddam Hussein would move toward a Final Solution in Iraqi Kurdistan,with the slaughter and/or expulsion of most of the Kurdish population--and, just as in 1988-1989, who would lift a finger to stop it? I find it hard to see why promoting the likelihood of genocide is an especially democratic or progressive policy.

(Is Saddam Hussein's regime linked to Al Qaeda? I don't know. Maybe a little, probably not very closely. But either way, a red herring--basically irrelevant to the crucial issues.)

No, all these kinds of arguments strike me as unconvincing, disingenuous, ideological, absurd, and/or immoral.

=> The more serious concerns have to do, as I said, with HOW such a was conducted, and what the AFTERMATH might be. I doubt that overthrowing Saddam Hussein's regime would be all that difficult militarily (and, as I indicated above, I don't think it should raise any legal or moral qualms). But the "realist" fears that the collapse of the Ba'ath dictatorship might lead to the chaotic disintegration of the country are not entirely groundless or dishonest (and that's the one possible moral extenuation for the position of the first Bush administration and its allies in 1991, and of current defenders of the Iraqi regime).

I also have, obviously, very little confidence in wisdom, good will, or political intelligence of the current American administration. The first Bush administration's Iraqi war, in 1991, was a case of military success ruined by political stupidity. Many of the same guys would be running a war now, and the likelihood is that we'd get the same combination from them.

(Also, of course, a successful war against Saddam Hussein, even if it's tremendously beneficial for the Iraqi people, could also be a political disaster here, if it wound up boosting support for the Bush administration--just as the Falklands war turned out to be very good for Argentina, since it brought down the military regime, but a disaster for Britain, since it kept Thatcher in power.)

The conclusion I draw is that one should support, in principle, the project of liberating Iraq from the Ba'ath regime, but only on three conditions:

<1> There should be a full, honest, and open debate (I do think it's incredible the way the country almost seems to be sleepwalking into a war) followed by a formal Congressional vote. Even right-wingers should be able to see that for the Bush administration to take us into a war like this on its own initiative, without formal Congressional approval, would be a major blow to our system of constitutional representative government.

<2> War should be approved only if this is combined with a clear and credible commitment to a long-term effort for the reconstruction of Iraq, with the goal of assisting the development of a decent representative regime--not a new dictatorship. I suspect, frankly, that it's probably not realistic to expect the emergence of a fully effective democratic regime in the short run. But I am not convinced that the horrifyingly brutal, repressive, and murderous regime now ruling Iraq is the best possible alternative. (Even by the standards of politics in the Arab world, this regime is one of the most horrible.) Something better than this is possible--with some outside support and protection. And allpossible political energies should be devoted to locking the U.S. administration into the goal of supporting the emergence of a decent constitutional representative regime in Iraq.

<3> The U.S. (and the rest of the western world, but especially the U.S.) has an obligation not to sell out the Iraqi Kurds again. They deserve to be protected, and to be guaranteed some kind of fair deal in any post-war political settlement. For various reasons, this probably can't mean independence (in the abstract, they probably deserve it as much as anyone else, but realistically this is a total non-starter), but it should involve some degree of genuine autonomy.

Therefore, the ultimate aim of "a democratic, federal Iraq, which gives rights to the Kurds and Shias currently suffering under the apartheid rule of the Sunni minority, and places the military under civilian control" is precisely the kind of long-term vision that people like us should be trying to support. This strikes me as both morally and politically superior to simplistically opposing military action. If a simple "anti-war" effort is successful, then I think the consequences are likely to be disastrous (for the reasons outlined above, among others). If it fails, then people who oppose the Bush administration and its agenda lose any possible leverage to shape HOW the war is conducted, and to influence the goals informing a post-war settlement.

The INC says neither Downing Street nor the Foreign Office has raised a
voice in support of its democratic dream. If anything, the Brits are more
fanatical supporters of infinite injustice in the Gulf than the Yanks.

Again, this sounds quite plausible to me. But if we take this argument seriously (and don't just treat it as a way of scoring points against Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their friends), then it seems to me that the only decent course is to break with this consensus, not to support (or acquiesce in) "infinite injustice" ourselves.

I agree that this course has its own dangers--to put it mildly. Once a war is set in motion, it can always be directed (or hijacked) to ends that are different from the ones proclaimed. But that, as I said, is where politics comes in. It's also true that war is always awful, and its consequences are always unpredictable. One should never support a war unless there are convincing reasons to think that the likely consequences of doing nothing are going to be even more awful. That's what I feel is the case here.

(I have carefully examined all the "anti-war" arguments I've encountered to see whether they present any morally and politically convincing ALTERNATIVE course of action that faces up realistically to the dilemmas of the situation. So far, I haven't seen anything like this.)

=> I remain very troubled about these questions, and I certainly don't feel any sense of confident certainty about the best response to them. Given the circumstances, all the available alternatives look unpleasant, dangerous and imperfect. But in the real world, one sometimes has to choose the least bad or immoral alternative. (And I certainly feel better arguing for the vision of "a democratic, federal Iraq" than defending a murderous fascist regime trying to get its hands on nuclear weapons.) Since you've sent out several messages on this subject, I thought it was only honest to explain how the situation looks to me.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub