Sunday, October 23, 2005

Iraqi Conundrums (2002-2003)

Why I thought (and still think) that the 2003 Iraq war was necessary and justified. --Jeff Weintraub

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Iraqi conundrums
Date: Sat, 15 Jan 2005 00:48:21 -0500
From: Jeff Weintraub

Dear XYZ,

In case you're interested in my own thinking about the Iraq war, I will forward a few items that might help to convey my own perspective on the matter. I'm afraid that I never wrote down my arguments in published (or publishable) form, but I did formulate them in a lot of e-mail exchanges between 2002 and 2004, one of which is reproduced below (with an addendum)..

I thought (and continued to think) that the war was necessary and justified, in light of the realistically available alternatives. It will probably not surprise you to hear that most of the people I know thought otherwise. I realize that those of us who simultaneously hate the Bush administration and supported war against Saddam Hussein are a definite minority, but that doesn't particularly embarrass me. This was a very complex and genuinely difficult question, with a lot of dilemmas and uncertainties. I appreciate that there were serious and principled reasons for opposing the war in Iraq (in addition to reasons that I thought were bad and stupid), and I got many different varieties of anti-war arguments ("humanitarian," legalistic, "realist," strategic, anti-"imperialist," left-wing, right-wing, and/or combinations of the preceding) from a lot of people, including good friends whose judgments I respect. In the end, I just didn't find those arguments convincing, and I thought the reasons for supporting war were stronger. I reached this conclusion with some reluctance and considerable trepidation, but in the end firmly.

I would have been much happier if the whole thing had been organized and conducted in a different WAY (closer to Tony Blair's way, for example, than the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld way--and with a lot better planning for the post-war aftermath). I didn't expect Bush & his gang to do a great job with the post-Saddam occupation & reconstruction of Iraq, but I must admit that I did not fully anticipate the spectacular degree of incompetence with which the whole operation has been carried out--with potentially terrifying consequences for the future. However, I was, and remain, convinced that war against Saddam Hussein was both necessary and justified.

In the end, my own fundamental reasons for supporting this war were essentially negative ones--that is, I was (and remain) convinced that all the realistically available alternatives led almost certainly to morally and politically catastrophic consequences. I was never very optimistic about the prospects for rosy scenarios in a post-Saddam Iraq (with the possible exception of Kurdistan). So the fact that these rosy scenarios have not materialized is not a shock to me.

Judging from your talk today and from some of your work that I've read, I suspect that our perspectives on these issues are broadly sympathetic. However, your talk also made me suspect that I may actually see more valid justifications for the war than you do. In fact, I believe there was a surplus of good reasons. For example, it is now clear that the US government & the CIA, along with all the other major intelligence services in the world, were dramatically wrong in estimating the state of Saddam Hussein's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs. (I find the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" extremely misleading and tendentious, so I generally try to avoid it.) I admit that I was shocked myself by how inaccurate the estimates were, and I think we have to give Saddam Hussein credit for having pulled off one of the great bluffs of the epoch in this respect. However, I don't believe that this invalidates the strategic or "realist" case for military action made by people like Kenneth Pollack (despite his present embarrassment about having relied on wildly inaccurate intelligence estimates). The size of Saddam Hussein's stockpiles of NBC weapons--or their absence--was less significant than the fact that as soon as the sanctions-and-containment system collapsed he would have the opportunity and resources to resume his NBC weapons programs pretty quickly (as Scott Ritter had convincingly explained back in 1998, before experiencing his strange conversion on issues concerning Iraq). And the crucial reality is that the whole containment system had become unsustainable by the end of the 1990s, and was moving toward terminal collapse in a self-reinforcing process. Also, of course, there was no way to know the truth about Saddam Hussein's NBC weapons programs without first overthrowing Saddam Hussein & his regime.

But there were other good and sufficient reasons in addition to that. As you pointed out, the common argument that the genocide committed by Saddam Hussein & his regime was old news, since he hadn't carried out any genocidal mass murder since 1988, is both factually incorrect and morally absurd. But the question of mass murder was prospective as well as retrospective. After containment had collapsed and Saddam Hussein was out of his box, one consequence in the fairly short term would almost certainly have been another genocidal bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan--and, under those conditions, it is fairly safe to predict that no one would have lifted a finger to stop it. (Any more than the "world community" is doing now in Darfur.) For me, that alone would have been a fairly compelling reason for military action against Saddam Hussein & his regime. Unfortunately, I think we also have to recognize that, by itself, preventing genocide would NOT have been a sufficient reason to convince either the US or other governments to undertake a major war.

(To the best of my knowledge, no country or coalition of countries has ever engaged in a a major war--as opposed to low-risk, low-casualty interventions or "police actions," such as East Timor--for the SOLE purpose of stopping or preventing genocide or mass murder on a scale approaching genocide. In cases where serious military actions have had this result--for example, Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, India's invasion of the former East Pakistan, Tanzania's ouster of Idi Amin--it has been a beneficial side-effect of wars undertaken primarily or exclusively for other purposes. This record is unfortunate, in fact appalling, but it seems to me it is the hard reality. Or do you think I'm wrong about this?)

And these are only some of the major justifications (moral, political, and legal). But more on that another time.

=> The items forwarded below may flesh out some of my thinking on these matters a bit more fully. These consist of a message I sent to a friend (who opposed the war) back in February 2003, to which I attached some comments about Ken Pollack's book written in November 2002.

I've deliberately picked a message from two years ago because it expresses my position before the Iraq war and the post-war fiasco had actually happened. Fundamentally, I'm still willing to stand by the arguments I made in February 2003. Nothing that has happened (or failed to happen) since then has given me any cause to think that these reasons for supporting the war were not valid. (Clearly, I would now reconsider some details of what I said then, but nothing at all crucial.)

Nothing in my discussion will be news to you, but I thought it might be worth spelling out my thinking about a matter of great concern to both of us. If you're not interested in reading through this unsolicited long message, then I won't be offended if you simply delete it ... and, obviously, you don't need to feel any obligation to respond.

If (hypothetically) you ever want to share this with anyone else, please feel free.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. From considerations of privacy, I've referred to my correspondent as X.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Iraqi conundrums (#1)
Date: Mon, 4 Feb 2003 18:26:31 -0500
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: X

Hi X,

The increasing agitation about the question of war in Iraq reminds me that you and I have started a few discussions about this subject, but we never had a chance to take them very far. I'm certainly not going to try to finish that discussion in an e-mail message, but I guess I ought to spell out my my thoughts a little bit more fully.

As you know, despite considerable reluctance and trepidation, I have become convinced that there is no viable and morally acceptable alternative to a war undertaken to overthrow Saddam Hussein and his regime, to end sanctions against Iraq, and to reconstruct the country. This is most urgently true for the sake of the Iraqi people themselves. (So it's not surprising that all available evidence indicates that Iraqis, both inside and outside Iraq, overwhelmingly favor this course of action. I'm not saying that this factor will necessarily seem decisive to everyone, but it seems to me it should count for something.) But the failure to act decisively against Saddam Hussein & his regime--after a decade and a half of trying other options, which have all failed and caused a lot of damage in the process--will also mean disaster on a much larger scale.

Thus--to use a distinction which I think is often morally and intellectually problematic, but which is standard terminology in many discussions of these issues--I am convinced that this course of action is necessary and justified on both "realistic" AND "humanitarian" grounds.

(To avoid any possible misunderstanding: Of course I'm not suggesting that the wishes and well-being of the Iraqi people are important factors influencing the Bush administration and the other governments involved--and I include here both supporters and opponents of war. But I do believe that these factors should have some significance for the rest of us.)

Obviously, I recognize that a war of this sort this involves a lot of risks and potentially scary unintended consequences. In fact, we can safely predict that (even in the best case) many of the consequences may be less than heartwarming. But unfortunately, I think it's clear that all the realistically available alternatives lead almost certainly to morally and politically catastrophic consequences. These include the fairly rapid collapse of "containment" (which has already been breaking down), the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Saddam Hussein in the near future, mass murder on a scale approaching genocide in Iraqi Kurdistan (where over 100,000 Kurdish civilians were systematically murdered in 1988 alone, and where Saddam Hussein clearly intends to carry out some kind of Final Solution to his Kurdish problem as soon as he can act with impunity), renewed military adventurism in the Persian Gulf region by Saddam Hussein (who believes, not implausibly, that possessing nuclear weapons will allow him to deter any American response) ... and a much more bloody and devastating war in the not-too-distant future.

(Or else, as a temporary alternative, letting an exceptionally brutal and expansionist fascist regime, with a proven history of mass murder, military adventurism, and catastrophic miscalculation, get a stranglehold on most of the world's oil supply).

This scenario might strike you as pessimistic or alarmist, but I'm afraid that it's quite sober and probable. It would take a while to explain fully why I think so, but as a quick shorthand let me just recommend Kenneth Pollack's book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, which does a solid job of pulling together most (though not all) of the crucial arguments. (This book is described in the e-mail message & attachment included below.) As I said in the message copied below, back in November, at this point any serious discussion of the issues has to BEGIN by genuinely confronting the arguments laid out by Pollack--even if one wants to disagree with his conclusions in the end. I think they're powerfully convincing.

So while I am hardly enthusiastic about the prospect of a war against Saddam Hussein (and one of the best arguments against it is that it will have to be conducted by the dangerous and disgusting Bush administration, which I obviously don't trust), I'm convinced, after long consideration, that it's the least appalling option. And part of the reason is that I haven't seen opponents of this war present any halfway serious or convincing proposals for any realistic alternative solution--or, for that matter, ANY alternative which would not almost certainly lead to morally appalling and politically catastrophic consequences, including the ones sketched out above. If I believed that such an alternative solution were available (or if someone made an even halfway PLAUSIBLE proposal for such an alternative), then I might support it, despite everything. But in fact all the alternatives to war are much worse, which is the bottom line (at least for me).


=> Having said all that, it's only fair to add that, if all I knew about this business was what I heard from the Bush administration, I probably wouldn't be convinced either.

On the other hand, I must confess that I find most (though not all) of the anti-war discourse equally mindless and unconvincing, and I'm struck by the fact that opponents of war are often unwilling to face up honestly to the real dilemmas involved, or to the moral implications of an anti-war position. I'm reluctant to get started on this subject, because it would involve a long discussion, but here are just a few basic points.

One recurrent motif in a lot of anti-war talk is the assumption that military action against Saddam Hussein & his regime would somehow be a war against the Iraqi people. This is ridiculous, and puts things exactly backward--not least because it's clear that the great majority of Iraqis hate the regime and would love to see it overthrown. In fact, they made a major effort to overthrow it in 1991. The real crime is that we (and everyone else) let them down then. They've been suffering the consequences ever since.

The immediate origins of the current Iraq nightmare go back to March 1991, when the massive Iraqi uprising against the Ba'ath regime was betrayed by the US administration (and also, of course, by its Arab "allies," by the Europeans, by Turkey, by the Soviet Union, and by everyone else who mattered). After the defeat in Kuwait, coming on top of the Iran-Iraq war and two decades of Ba'athist rule, Iraqis had had enough. There was a huge spontaneous explosion, which took everyone by surprise, including Iraqis themselves. Within a few days the regime had lost control of more than two-thirds of the country, including the Kurdish areas in the north and almost all the major cities of the south and center except for Baghdad. Much of the army mutinied or disintegrated.

What saved Saddam Hussein--just barely--was that the elite core of his army (particularly the well-known Republican Guard) was left intact at the end of Gulf War, which was ended too quickly by Bush I and Colin Powell (whether this was a blunder or whether the Republican Guard was deliberately allowed to escape is something I still haven't fully figured out). Also, as part of the armistice agreement, Norman Schwarzkopf allowed the Iraqi army to continue flying its helicopters around the country (he later claimed he was hornswoggled), which proved tremendously helpful in suppressing the uprising. Many Iraqis expected the Americans to help them. (In fact, a lot of Iraqis believed, or hoped, that the Americans had promised to help them, when President George Bush I broadcast appeals for "the Iraqi army and the Iraqi people" to get rid of Saddam Hussein.) Instead, the Americans and their allies stood by while the uprising was suppressed with massive slaughter of civilians, the cities of southern Iraq were devastated, a million-and-a-half Kurdish refugees fled over the mountains into Turkey and Iran, and so on. In southern cities like Basra, American troops could literally watch civilians being slaughtered and their corpses being piled up in the streets. (The generals in charge of suppressing the uprising in the south, Hussein Kamel and Ali Hassan Al-Majid--nicknamed "Chemical Ali" in Iraq because of his previous exploits in Kurdistan--ordered corpses to be piled up and left exposed in streets and squares for purposes of intimidation. It worked.)

(Fortunately for the Kurds, the refugees trapped on the Turkish border--Turkey refused to let most of them in--were captured on international TV, and there was public pressure on the American and European governments to do something to save them. Also, the Turkish government was not eager to have a million or so Kurdish refugees camping out indefinitely in southeast Turkey--and it would have looked bad to simply shove them back into Saddam Hussein's meatgrinder. And there was some generalized sympathy for Kurds in European public opinion, because Kurds were being oppressed by Turkey as well as Iraq. So the Bush I administration was forced, somewhat reluctantly, to compel the creation of a Kurdish "security zone" in northern Iraq to which the refugees could return. One accidental result has been the emergence, over the past decade, of a fairly successful semi-autonomous region in Iraqi Kurdistan, under American and British protection. In southern Iraq, on the other hand, partly because there were no television cameras, partly out of deference to Saudi sensibilities, and partly for other reasons, both the uprising and its suppression were treated as a purely "internal" Iraqi matter. To be fair, the UN did later pass a resolution telling Saddam Hussein to stop slaughtering civilians--which he ignored, naturally--but that was about it.)

So instead of being overthrown by this uprising, Saddam Hussein survived and held on to power. Again, I've spent over a decade trying to figure out the extent to which this outcome was the result of a deliberate choice by the Bush administration (and its allies, especially the Turkish & Arab governments) and the extent to which it was the result of blunders, miscalculations, and simple inability to keep up with events. Actually, it was probably a bit of both. But in the background, there's one thing that's pretty safe to say. Whatever their differences and disagreements, a crucial point on which the Bush administration, the Arab governments, the Europeans, the Turks, and the Soviets all agreed was that they were all terrified by the prospect of the Ba'ath regime being overthrown by a popular revolution from below. This was true for a range of reasons, ranging from contemptible to respectable and even apparently "realistic": among other things, people worried that if the dictatorship collapsed, Iraq would disintegrate into chaos and civil war; perhaps the Shia majority would align with Iran, and/or a successful Shia revolt might encourage Shia minorities in the Gulf states; George Bush I knew that he had taken the U.S. into the war only with great political difficulty, and figured that Americans had no desire to get bogged down in long-term "nation-building" in Iraq, so he preferred to leave a functioning Iraqi regime in place and quit while he was ahead; the U.S. military and foreign policy establishments, led by Powell and Baker, who had never really wanted to fight the Gulf War in the first place, were desperate to finish with it and get out; everyone knew that a successful Kurdish revolt in northern Iraq would upset the Turks and the Arabs; etc.

For all these and other reasons, what the Bush administration and its allies really wanted--and apparently, even expected--was for the Ba'ath regime to remain basically intact, while Saddam Hussein himself was overthrown by an internal coup and replaced by some new authoritarian strongman (military and/or Ba'athist). There's good evidence to corroborate claims by Bush I that all the Arab governments allied with the U.S. agreed with Washington on both the desirability and the likelihood of this outcome--Saddam Hussein, they were sure, could never survive such a catastrophic disaster of his own making. (If they had read a little history, they would have realized that the same prediction could have been made about Stalin in 1941.) When a successful "internal" coup didn't happen right away, the Bush I and then the Clinton administrations pursued this same fantasy through most of the 1990s. (And at the moment, many opponents of war against Saddam Hussein are still proposing that we hang on and wait for it to happen ... eventually.)

This policy seemed "realistic" (both in the ordinary sense, and in the technical sense of international-relations "realism"), but like a lot of so-called "realism," it turned out to be a case of what C.Wright Mills called crackpot realism. It's clear that they didn't understand the KIND of regime they were dealing with--that is, not an ordinary authoritarian dictatorship or simple gangster regime, but a semi-totalitarian regime with a police-state apparatus of genuinely Stalinist proportions, which could be shattered as a whole but was quite impervious to internal coups. There's a well-known cynical aphorism, attributed to Talleyrand, that in politics a crime isn't as bad as a blunder. In retrospect, it's clear that "realism" in 1991 turned out to be a crime AND a blunder. Today, many opponents of war against Saddam Hussein are urging the same kind of "realism," but I don't think we want a re-run.

=> After the debacle of 1991, when it became clear that Saddam Hussein was back in control of Iraq and wasn't about to leave the scene in a hurry, what emerged (in large part by accident and improvisation) was the policy of "containment"--which is a shorthand for the policy of leaving Saddam Hussein in power, but trying to keep him bottled up, to prevent him from getting nuclear weapons, and to force him to destroy his chemical and biological weapons (and his programs for producing all three kinds of NBC weapons).

Some people talk as though "containment" is simply equivalent to "inspections." But the "containment" system actually meant sanctions + inspections + major US military forces in the Gulf region in order to enforce this system, periodically ratcheting up to a credible threat of IMMINENT attack + unified support from the Security Council to back the whole system up. It's important to bear in mind that sanctions have always been a crucial component of the whole "containment" system in Iraq. Therefore, if someone genuinely supports continuing "containment" as an alternative to war, then--if they're being honest--it follows that they also support continuing sanctions. (Of course, I know that some opponents of war claim that "containment" could be made to work effectively without comprehensive sanctions, perhaps through devising some kind of "smart sanctions" that wouldn't hurt civilians. Some people who say this may even believe it. But the idea is fanciful--for reasons I would be happy to spell out in detail, if they're not self-evident.)

It never seemed likely to me that "containment" could actually be maintained indefinitely. One reason is that the economic pressures working to undermine the whole sanctions-and-containment system are so enormous. (Thus, it's not surprising that, all through the 1990s, the US oil industry was clamoring for an end to sanctions, and was trading with Iraq whenever it could get away with it.) I don't want to reduce everything to crass and short-sighted economic interests--and, in fact, things really are more complicated than that--but they're an inescapable reality of the situation. And, despite some sloganeering about "blood for oil," the main effect of Iraq's oil reserves is to create powerful incentives for collusion with the Saddam Hussein & his regime. For example, can you guess which two countries--which have permanent seats on the UN Security Council--happen to hold the lion's share of Iraqi oil contracts (hint: their Presidents are named Putin and Chirac)? And which countries' corporations have played the biggest roles in building up Saddam Hussein's NBC weapons programs over the years (hint: they're separated by the Rhine river)? And which country, another permanent member of the Security Council, has been the third-largest supplier of military equipment to Iraq (after Russia and France) from the late 1970s to the present? And so on. The central agenda of key governments and corporations that opposed sanctions in the 1990s, and that oppose war against Saddam Hussein now, might be summed up with the slogan: "blood for oil money" (Iraqi & Kurdish blood, not theirs). But it's not just a question of oil money. The governments of France, Russia, and China--who have played key roles in undermining containment, with their seats on the Security Council--have also had political, strategic, and diplomatic motives for pursuing this agenda, in addition to economic ones.

Furthermore, efforts to undermine the "containment" system could also be justified (honestly or cynically) by pointing to the suffering of Iraqi civilians caused by sanctions. This is a real moral dilemma--but in a somewhat complicated way, which has been systematically and dishonestly misrepresented by the anti-sanctions campaign. In a straightforward sense, the idea that sanctions are starving Iraqi babies is simply wrong. (Quite aside from the fact that the huge figures commonly thrown about are all based on wild speculation and/or Iraqi regime propaganda.) The Iraqi regime has always had enough resources to provide food and medicine for the population (especially since it accepted the "oil-for-food" deal, in 1996, that was originally proposed in 1991). It's just that Saddam Hussein has preferred to use those resources for purposes like military spending, internal repression, NBC weapons programs, presidential palaces, and the like.

If there's any doubt about this, it's enough to point to the experience of the autonomous Kurdish "security zone" in northern Iraq since 1991. This has been subject to the same sanctions as the rest of Iraq (even more, in some ways, since it's intermittently blockaded and subjected to energy interruptions by the Baghdad government), and in 1991 it was MUCH more devastated, in both human and material terms, than the rest of the country (after decades of savage repression by the Iraqi regime, culminating in the Anfal massacres of 1988). They've been in an isolated and precarious situation ever since. It would be wrong to suggest that things are rosy now in Iraqi Kurdistan; they're not (and there's still enough mistrust and infighting between the two main Kurdish political parties that at several points in the mid-1990s it looked like they might actually blow the whole opportunity). But all serious observers agree that, during the past 12 years, conditions in Iraqi Kurdistan have gotten significantly better, not worse; the health and well-being of the population have improved; there is no malnutrition; infant mortality has gone down, and is now lower than the rest of Iraq (whereas it used to be higher); devastated towns and villages have been rebuilt; lots of schools and hospitals have been constructed; a lively and (in regional terms) relatively free press has emerged--and, overall, despite their difficult situation and their own mistakes, the Iraqi Kurds have done an impressive job of building up one of the most decent, free, and politically open societies in the Middle East. (There's a fair amount of good stuff written on all this. I recently noticed a first-rate treatment of this subject in an article by Peter Galbraith in the 12/15/2002 issue of the Boston Globe Magazine, "After Saddam, What?") The comparison between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the Iraq is enough to make it clear that the crucial factor is not sanctions per se, but rather the fact that Saddam Hussein & his regime are still running the country.

More sophisticated critics of sanctions, including the former UN relief director Dennis Halliday, concede that there should be more than enough food & medicine to go around; but the key problem, they argue, is that sanctions have made it impossible to rebuild the country's infrastructure since the Gulf War, including water purification plants, sewer systems, medical facilities, and the like. This line of argument also hasn't managed to convincingly explain the contrast with Iraqi Kurdistan, but it still seems clear that there may be something to it. Again, however, the picture looks more complicated if you examine closely what the Iraqi regime has, and hasn't, managed to accomplish during the period of sanctions.

Among other things, in the early 1990s the regime, in an effort to crush continuing resistance by the Marsh Arabs living in the Mesopotamian marshlands of southern Iraq, carried out the ambitious feat of completely draining the marshlands, turning them into uninhabitable desert, and destroying the whole distinctive culture of the Marsh Arabs that had endured for millennia (which was, of course, the point of the whole exercise). In the process, at least 200,00 people were deported to other parts of Iraq (others fled to Iran), and some 10,000-20,000 of them were killed (estimates are approximate). (While this enormous crime of social and ecological devastation was being carried out--in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 688, incidentally--no one in the outside world lifted a finger to stop it, and in fact there was barely a peep of protest. For one powerful account of this episode and its consequences, I recommend another recent New Yorker article, Jon Lee Anderson's piece in the 11/25/2002 issue entitled "No Place to Hide." Human Rights Watch also issued a very thorough and sobering report on this case of what has been termed "ecocide as genocide.") This was a pretty impressive engineering feat for a regime that supposedly didn't have the resources to fix the water-purification equipment for Baghdad. When there's something they really want to accomplish, they somehow manage to find the resources. Obviously, taking care of Iraqi civilians is not high on the list of priorities.

The upshot of this is that as long as Saddam Hussein & his regime are in power and can hold the civilian population of Iraq hostage, maintaining the sanctions-&-"containment" system does unavoidably cause suffering for Iraqi civilians and damage to Iraqi society. Furthermore, one result of the sanctions system is that in some ways it actually strengthens the grip of the regime on Iraqi society, since most Iraqis (outside of Iraqi Kurdistan) depend on food & other necessities distributed by the regime under the oil-for-food program. From the start, the regime has recognized and consciously exploited the propaganda value of civilian suffering as a lever for getting rid of sanctions, so it doesn't really feel a strong incentive to improve the material conditions of most of the population very much. And it has also clearly used its control of available resources to "punish" those groups most opposed to the regime, such as the Shia majority in the south and center of the country, while favoring parts of the Sunni Arab minority.

In addition to the human costs of the "containment" system for Iraqis, sustaining it also involves considerable and increasing costs for the countries trying to enforce it--economic, military, political, and diplomatic Sanctions against Iraq (which happen to be a key component of the whole "containment" system), quite aside from their humanitarian drawbacks, inflame Arab & Muslim public opinion; and keeping substantial US military forces in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states (which is necessary in order to back up and enforce "containment") does the same. Also, trying to maintain "containment" has involved a continual stream of crises large and small, as Saddam Hussein periodically tested the system and tried, with considerable success, to split the original coalition against him. (Aside from all the ups and downs regarding inspections and Saddam Hussein's massive efforts to continue and hide his NBC weapons programs, in 1994--believe it or not--he actually moved troops to the Kuwaiti border to threaten another attack, and was deterred only by sending major US troop reinforcements to the Gulf.) Resolving each of these crises required extensive political and diplomatic activity, building up US troop strength and threatening military action (or, occasionally, taking small-scale military action), expending lots of political capital, creating resentment and ill will in the Arab world, and so on. Then, when it seemed that Saddam Hussein had really pushed his luck too far, at the very last moment he would dribble out some phony concessions, his friends on the Security Council would get him off the hook, and the US troops would go back home ... until Saddam Hussein decided to provoke another crisis, which would start the next round of the game. On top of all that, and the constant economic pressures pushing for an end to sanctions, at a certain level people were simply going to get tired of the cost, energy, and political will necessary to keep "containment" going.

So it's not really surprising that by the late 1990s "containment" was collapsing, and by 2000 or so it was in a state of terminal disintegration. Countries like France, Russia, and China on the Security Council increasingly made it clear that they would not support the enforcement of serious inspections (but instead favored working out a system of phony inspections that could declare Saddam Hussein in compliance, close up shop, and enable everyone to get back to business with the Iraqi regime and its oil wealth). After a series of escalating mini-crises, Saddam Hussein stopped even going through the motions of allowing inspections, and the inspectors were thrown out in 1998. In the years since then, smuggling has increased, military sanctions were increasingly disregarded, Saddam Hussein got his hands on more an more oil revenue, his diplomatic clout increased, and so on. Once it got started, the collapse of "containment" was a self-reinforcing process, since (among other things) the more it crumbles, the more oil revenues Saddam Hussein gets his hands on; the more billions he has to play with, the more economic & political leverage this gives him to erode "containment" further; etc.

=> So arguments that military action against Saddam Hussein is unnecessary because "containment" is "working" are unreal. The hard fact is that at this point "containment," as a viable alternative to war, is no longer simply available to be continued. The whole "containment" system would now have to be rebuilt, strengthened, and maintained for the long term (not just for a few months, while there is a big political crisis and 200,000 US troops are sitting on Iraq's borders, but indefinitely). This is not just a question of making the inspections system work (finally). It would also involve, among other things, cutting off oil smuggling, which is going from a stream to a flood--and for some countries like Turkey & Syria & Jordan, smuggling Iraqi oil has become important enough for their economies that it would take a pretty major political effort to get them to stop it. This is not going to happen.

I think it's pretty clear that the idea of seriously rebuilding "containment" and maintaining it indefinitely is no longer a realistic option. One key reason is that a major cause of the collapse of "containment" in the first place, in the late 1990s, was the way it was systematically undermined by France, Russia, China and other relevant countries--and there is absolutely no good reason to believe that they are now willing to rebuild the "containment" system and support it for the long term. On the contrary, during the past few months they've made it clear that they're not even willing to keep up the charade of seriously supporting "containment" for the short run.

So in this respect, it's time to face reality: "Containment," as an alternative to military action, has now been tried for 12 years, at great human cost to Iraqis and increasing political cost to other countries. It's no longer sustainable, it's pretty much collapsed, and it's no longer a realistic long-term option. (If you're not sure that's true, then as a start I recommend reading the very careful and thorough analysis in Ken Pollack's book.) Enough is enough.

=> But let's imagine, just for the sake of argument, that it is possible to rebuild "containment" and maintain it for the long term (until the problem of Saddam Hussein miraculously solves itself, somehow). Then this poses a moral and practical dilemma with two fundamental choices.

EITHER one favors ending sanctions and letting "containment" simply collapse. But this would be crazy and irresponsible, because it would lead to a whole series of catastrophic consequences, including Saddam Hussein's acquisition of nuclear weapons in the near future, a resumption of mass murder on a genocidal scale in Iraqi Kurdistan, renewed military adventurism by Saddam Hussein, a bigger war down the line ... and other results I've outlined above (among others).

OR one favors rebuilding and strengthening the "containment" system, and maintaining it indefinitely. But one of the things this strategy entails (if one is being honest), is that one also favors maintaining sanctions indefinitely (along with all the other ways that Iraqis suffer under Saddam Hussein). This is a coherent position. But then one can't turn around and also complain that sanctions are immoral, because they're killing Iraqi babies (etc.).

To put it another way, if people claim that they want to avoid war AND prevent Saddam Hussein from getting nuclear weapons AND end sanctions ... then they're simply not being serious, morally or practically.

I, on the other hand, favor ending sanctions--by overthrowing Saddam Hussein & his regime, which will render the whole sanctions-&-"containment" system unnecessary. In reality, that's the ONLY sane and responsible way to get out of the moral dilemma of sanctions. (It should have been done in 1991, which would have saved a great deal of suffering and unpleasant political side-effects, but better late than never.)

=> But anyway, in a sense all this is moot. As I've argued above, rebuilding and sustaining "containment" is no longer a realistic option. And this leaves military action as, by far, the least awful and dangerous realistically available alternative.


=> It also helps that there is a solid "legal" justification for war against Saddam Hussein. This is really a secondary matter, because the substantive moral and political considerations are obviously the crucial and decisive ones. (To put it another way, a war against Saddam Hussein might be "legally" justified in terms of international law, but might nevertheless be a terrible idea on substantive grounds.) But it's worth getting this question out of the way, if only because there has been a lot of confusion (and nonsense) spread around in this connection during the current debates. Also, it does have some substantive significance.

To avoid any possible misunderstanding (even at the cost of being repetitive). A case for (or against) war with Saddam Hussein has three components, speaking somewhat roughly and loosely: <1> what I'm calling "legal," for lack of a better term (i.e., whether and how it can be justified in terms of general understandings of international law and inter-state relations); <2> practical/prudential/strategic; and <3> moral in the most specific sense (e.g., is war essential to help end the suffering of Iraqi civilians and to prevent the likelihood of mass murder on a genocidal scale in Iraqi Kurdistan in the near future, which I believe it is). This typology is imprecise, because all these are really elements of a moral argument, but maybe it will do for the moment.

In terms of the "legal" component of this question, a lot of people have described a war against Saddam Hussein as "unprovoked," unjustified, in violation of international law & the UN charter, etc. I think all this is wrong, for reasons I've already mentioned or will get to in a moment. More specifically, a lot of people have argued that it's both dubious and dangerous to justify a war against Saddam Hussein on the basis of some vague and generalized doctrine of "pre-emptive" or "preventive" war. I agree completely, and this is a serious concern. I wouldn't absolutely rule out "pre-emptive" military action in an extreme case, but not short of a tremendous and imminent emergency, if only because this would set such a pernicious precedent. And, unfortunately, on occasion some people in the Bush administration have tried to justify this war on the basis of a general claim for "pre-emptive" war (in their typically idiotic and irresponsible way).

But this is unnecessary, mistaken, and irrelevant on both sides. In the case of Saddam Hussein, there is absolutely no need to resort to any generalized doctrine of "pre-emption." On the contrary, there is a much more solid, SPECIFIC, and straightforward "legal" justification in this case. There are other dangerous, brutal, repressive, mass-murdering dictatorial regimes; but unlike them, the Ba'ath regime in Iraq is in a very special situation. Saddam Hussein started an aggressive war in 1990 by invading and annexing Kuwait, fought a war against a UN-authorized coalition, lost the war, and obtained a CONDITIONAL cease-fire by agreeing to a certain set of specific terms (spelled out and elaborated in a series of UN resolutions spanning the next 12 years). Thus, Saddam Hussein's Iraq is not just a country subject to a number of UN resolutions (and those resolutions are also in a class by themselves), but is a country that lost a war and agreed to certain cease-fire terms. That is, the Gulf War did not end with a peace treaty, but with a CONDITIONAL cease-fire, in which Saddam Hussein agreed to be subject to certain terms. Over the past 12 years, he has flagrantly and continuously violated these terms. Nobody seriously denies that, but you don't have to take my word for it--there is a whole series of UN resolutions finding him in "material breach" of these terms. Usually, violation of the terms of a cease-fire (once or twice, not continually for 12 years) constitutes a casus belli, which justifies resumption of hostilities (technically, in the same war). QED.

Frankly, it's a pity this wasn't done in the early 1990s--it would have saved a great many lives. But the point is that, in the SPECIFIC case of Saddam Hussein & his regime in Iraq, the LEGAL justification for military action is an open-and-shut case. It's only a question of whether it's the best--or least awful--idea on substantive moral and political grounds (which it is).

Legality is only one part of the overall question (and in some ways a secondary part), but legality does matter. It's important, precisely to avoid the pernicious long-term consequences of conducting a was based on a generalized doctrine of "pre-emption," that both supporters AND opponents of war against Saddam Hussein recognize that he presents, in this respect, a very SPECIAL case. The Bush administration did recognize this (after urging by Powell & Blair), took the matter back to the UN, achieved the passage of Resolution 1441 (which, again, Saddam Hussein is not fully complying with--nobody even claims he is, except for the Iraqi ambassador), and is NOT justifying this war on the basis of a generalized doctrine of "preventive" or "pre-emptive" war.

As I've said, I think it's important to try to make sure that a war against Saddam Hussein IS explicitly justified on the SPECIFIC basis that actually does fit his peculiar case--and NOT on the basis of a generalized notion of "pre-emption," which would set a very dangerous precedent. This is something we should all be agitating for.

Anyway, now that we've gotten the legalisms out of the way ....

=> This brings us back to the central moral and political issues. Since I recommended Pollack's book, I feel compelled to add a few words of clarification, rather than just leave it at that. As I said, I think his book is an indispensable starting-point with respect to SOME of the key issues concerning the Iraq question--but, from my point of view, not all of them.

Pollack's arguments in his book focus mostly (not entirely) on political and strategic concerns along broadly "realist" lines--partly because that's the way he thinks himself, and partly (I suspect) because he knows that those are the kinds of arguments that are likely to make an impact on his key audiences.

(Americans are not entirely averse to occasional small-scale "humanitarian" interventions, but only if they are guaranteed to be very small and very painless--not if they might involve serious war. Furthermore, the diplomatic and political establishments regard humanitarian adventures with horror. Recall, for example, Powell's total unwillingness to support NATO intervention to stop the slaughter in Bosnia. Of course, the concerns of "realists" in these matters are not always misplaced.)

I think that, on this basis, Pollack is able to make a sufficiently strong and convincing case for the necessity and urgency of military action against Saddam Hussein & his regime. (Among other things, he makes it clear why the option of continuing with "containment"--or, more precisely, of trying to reconstruct the disintegrating "containment" system--has become simply unrealistic.)

However, honesty compels me to admit that these considerations form only part of my own thinking about the Iraq question. Of course, it's an important part. The prospect of an exceptionally brutal and repressive semi-totalitarian fascist regime, with a proven record of mass murder, military adventurism, and catastrophic miscalculation, achieving a stranglehold on most of the world's oil supply--or getting into a position where only a much larger and more catastrophic war can prevent this outcome--is one I find troubling. (The fact that a lot of other people don't seem to find it troubling is sometimes, I admit, a bit puzzling to me.)

But for me, a lot of the moral and emotional charge of this question also comes from what many so-called "realists" would dismiss as "humanitarian" concerns. In the first place this includes a desire to do something to help end the sufferings and oppression of Iraqi civilians (to whom I think we owe something, given the way that they were betrayed in 1991--when most of the country rose against the regime, and was put down with great slaughter while the outside world stood by--and have been suffering from the results ever since). To repeat: If people are honest in claiming that they oppose war against Saddam Hussein AND also don't want him to acquire nuclear weapons, then it logically follows that they are proposing to reconstruct the crumbling framework of "containment"--including sanctions, inspections, American troops in the Gulf, etc.--and to continue "containment" indefinitely (or until the problem somehow miraculously solves itself through some spontaneous collapse of the Ba'ath regime in Iraq). If someone really wants to see an end to sanctions and to the suffering of Iraqis, then this is an argument FOR military action against Saddam Hussein & his regime (which is part of the reason why Iraqis themselves support this).

There is also a more specific concern, which strikes me as morally very urgent, and which has weighed on my mind since at least the mid-1990s. Military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein & his regime BEFORE "containment" collapses (and, as part of the package, he acquires nuclear weapons) is almost certainly the only way to prevent the likelihood of some form of Final Solution to Saddam's Kurdish problem in the fairly near future. (This probably won't amount to full-fledged genocide, except in the technical legal sense used, e.g., by Human Rights Watch in its report on the 1988 Anfal campaign, which I recommend reading--just ethnically-targeted mass murder on a scale approaching genocide. That's enough for me.) (Another good account of the Anfal campaign and its significance is Jeffrey Goldberg's excellent article in the 3/25/2002 issue of the New Yorker, "The Great Terror.")

On the basis of the historical record and present circumstances, it's fairly safe to predict that, once "containment" has collapsed and Saddam Hussein feels able to act with relative impunity, at least in his own neighborhood, then (a) a massive bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan will be one of his first projects and (b) no one will lift a finger to stop him (for precisely the same reasons that no one lifted a finger to stop him in the 1970s and 1980s). Let's be clear about it: This is a highly probable and totally predictable outcome (just like the slow-motion unfolding of mass murder, mass rape, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia over the course of the 1990s) if we simply let the present situation take its course; and if we take no effective action to prevent this outcome, then that should be on our conscience. At all events, the prospect of this looming catastrophe has tormented me for years now (and why it doesn't seem to bother other people is, again, sometimes puzzling to me).

=> I don't want leave the impression that I feel at all enthusiastic or gung-ho about this war. On the contrary, I have a vivid sense of all the things that could go wrong, in both the short and long run.

One of the (many) inescapable dilemmas of the present situation is that my reasons for wanting a war against Saddam Hussein (and the KIND of war I want) are not the same as those of the Bush administration. But in the real world, they have the ability to do something, and I don't. It would be better if other governments, particularly European ones, participated constructively and responsibly in this whole business so that this did not turn into a "unilateral" American enterprise, but rather a collective-security operation, and so that other actors could help shape the nature of the war in Iraq and its aftermath in constructive ways. (Clearly, this is an important part of what Tony Blair has been trying to accomplish, and on balance it seems to me that his effort has been an admirable one, but he hasn't really been successful.)

A LOT depends on how the aftermath of the war is handled, and how the reconstruction of Iraq is conducted--whether, for example, the US (and others) can really put the resources and long-term commitment into a long-term effort to help put together a relatively decent, stable, and democratizing regime in Iraq ... or whether the temptation will be to install a new authoritarian regime, headed by a friendly strongman, and then get out quickly (which is what the Arab governments and the foreign-policy "realists," among others, will favor--but which will almost certainly lead to disaster). Obviously, I don't feel very confident about all this.

Nevertheless, for the reasons I've been trying to explain (among others), I'm convinced that war against Saddam Hussein is an unavoidable and urgent necessity ... but at the same time, the prospect of this war and its aftermath (especially the latter) fills me with enormous anxiety. This is something big and unpredictable--which could well turn out to be one of the defining events of the 21st century.

I have long been haunted by an incident I once read about in a history of the Second World War--maybe I even mentioned it to you at some point? Just before the attack on the Soviet Union, Hitler was having a conversation with some of the top German generals. Of course, Hitler was convinced that Operation Barbarossa would succeed quickly and decisively--but he still realized that this was the most enormous gamble of his whole career. He told his generals that the night before he'd had a strange dream, in which he was pushing open a door into a dark room ... and then he woke up.

We're right on the verge of pushing open that door. It makes me wake up in the middle of the night. This is big.

=> That leaves a lot more to be said, but it's a start, and I'll leave the rest for other messages. Meanwhile, as Marx says at the end of the "Critique of the Gotha Program" ...

Dixi, et salvavi animam meam,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Naturally, it upsets and alarms me to be (roughly) on the same side of this issue as the Bush administration--even though my reasons for supporting this war aren't precisely the same as their reasons. But I would feel even more embarrassed to be (effectively) supporting fascism, mass murder, and nuclear proliferation. I partly console myself with the reflection that supporting a war for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein & his regime, the end of sanctions against Iraq, and the reconstruction of the country puts me on the opposite side of the issue from Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, Norman Schwarzkopf, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Jorg Haider, and Saudi Arabia ... and on the same side as Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, William Shawcross, Michael Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie, Kanan Makiya, Bernard Kouchner, and most Iraqis.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Iraqi options: [fwd] "The Reluctant Hawk" by Joshua Micah Marshall
Date: Sat, 02 Nov 2002 17:28:53 -0500
From: Jeff Weintraub


I seem to recall having mentioned to you Kenneth Pollack's recent book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. I don't know whether you ever read it. If not, then I'm afraid I have to reiterate that it's an essential starting-point for anyone who wants to discuss the realistically available options regarding how to deal with Saddam Hussein and his regime.

Pollack's book is plodding, repetitive, and often gracelessly written; and he fudges some difficult issues (mostly of secondary importance from a practical standpoint). But on the core issues that it sets out to address, the book is also comprehensive, thorough, well informed, carefully reasoned, and (to my mind) powerfully convincing. (And I don't say this only because, on the whole, Pollack confirmed most of my own earlier surmises. The book is solidly grounded and makes a genuinely powerful argument, even if you want to disagree with it. Pollack argued previously in favor of "containment," and against advocates of "regime change," all through the 1990s. He's changed his mind because he's convinced that, at this point, "containment" is simply no longer viable--a conclusion which he supports quite cogently.)

The question of war against Saddam Hussein still poses a lot of difficult and troubling dilemmas, and you might still come to a different conclusion from Pollack's. But it seems to me that any serious effort to wrestle with these dilemmas has to begin by facing up honestly to the basic facts that Pollack (in my view) establishes: among others, that "containment" has largely collapsed; that the system of containment (& inspections & sanctions) can't be resuscitated without a massive new effort, entailing enormous financial and political costs (as well as intensified suffering by Iraqi civilians), which is almost certainly unsustainable for very long anyway; that a continuation of the present situation will lead to Saddam Hussein acquiring nuclear weapons in the near future; and that this will almost certainly lead to a new round of military adventurism on Saddam Hussein's part (in addition to a massive bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan in the very short run), since it is well established that Saddam Hussein believes that having his own nuclear deterrent will allow him to act with impunity in his neighborhood (and he may be right).

Of course, you might still want to argue that the consequences of overthrowing Saddam Hussein might be even WORSE than this ... but that's a difficult argument to make ... and, as I said, it would have to start by recognizing and addressing, rather then evading, the problems and dangers just outlined.

I was reminded of Pollack's book because I just happened to see this review of it by the liberal-Democratic columnist Joshua Micah Marshall (attached). It's an intelligent and thoughtful review (though it captures only part of Pollack's argument).

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. By the way, another book on this subject that's very much worth reading (and which you may have read already) is a 1999 book by Andrew Cockburn & Patrick Cockburn, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein. The perspective is different from Pollack's (these are left-wing Guardian-type Brit journalists), and some of their conclusions are different from Pollack's; but in the end their evidence and analysis point, I would say, in the same direction. (I know that Andrew Cockburn, at least, disagrees with this conclusion, in the sense that he's publicly argued against going to war now. But, with all respect, I think he's simply wrong about where the logic of his own analysis leads.) Among other topics, their book is especially good on the 1991 intifada following the Gulf War and its betrayal by the US ... and, more generally, on the consistently appalling mixture of cynicism, ignorance, fecklessness, moral squalor, and overall incompetence of American policy toward Iraq all through the 1980s and 1990s.