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Wednesday, February 26, 2003

The Iraq Threat Doesn't Exist In A Vacuum

Josh Marshall notices the following little problem in our quest to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Even our would-be supporters in regime change don't want to be associated with an occupation by a foreign (and non-Muslim) power. And yet there's almost no way we're going to achieve our objectives without a long occupation which is deeply-entrenched and so overwhelming numerically that it can throw a blanket of enforced peace over all the tensions, divisions and rage that Saddam's tyranny has both created and held in check for three decades.

The real problem is that we're embarking on an enterprise which does not admit of half-measures. As Fouad Ajami notes in this article, an American invasion of Iraq will at first almost certainly be viewed as a neo-Imperialist attempt to take over an Arab country, secure its oil wealth, and do various other bad things.

No kidding.

I am stunned that we are only days or weeks away from war and this subject is suddenly floating to the surface as one of concern, since some people, like me, have been pounding this drum since the very beginning. In fact, it is my main objection to the blasted war in the first place.

Let’s try it very s-l-o-w-l-y and try to make the point one last time.

Many of us who are opposed to the invasion are not opposed because we are pacifists. I supported the Afghanistan campaign to oust the Taliban and I am generally, and as a matter of principle, in favor of stopping tyrants from killing large numbers of people when we can do it. Nobody has to make the humanitarian argument to me, and frankly I'm somewhat sickened when I hear people like Tucker Carlson self-righteously invoke it when he never gave a moments thought to the Iraqi people until it showed up on a list of "well polled" arguments from Karl Rove's office.

And, I am deeply concerned about the spread of nuclear weapons. The science is now accessible and reasonably simple. The only serious roadblock seems to be obtaining uranium in sufficient quantities. But, I also do not see that we are going to be able to contain the spread simply through military force. I’m not sure how we can contain them, truthfully, but I know that invading and occupying the Axis of Evil is not going to solve the problem and if the current situation in North Korea is any guide, our policy seems to ensure that there will be more countries with nukes sooner rather than later. Saddam Husseins and Kim Jong Ils have existed since the dawn of time and there will always be another one. Getting rid of them is only a stop gap measure. (Missile defense is a childish fantasy that can only make us less safe as it invites aggressors to use everything they’ve got, knowing that some (all?) will evade the system.) We must find a way to either contain the material required to make nukes or get rid of it altogether. It is not possible to change human nature so fundamentally that people will not try to obtain such awesome power.

I also believe in international institutions, treaties and laws. I understand that they are cumbersome and bureaucratic and inefficient, just like any legal system. But, it was a great step forward for humanity to begin working toward a global rule of law and although it does not provide a perfect system it at least provides a basic set of rules that can be understood by everyone concerned. It doesn’t cover everything, but those things it does cover (like a prohibition against preventive war) are civilized advances over what came before in the same way that the criminal justice system is an advance over vigilantism. It does not always provide for perfect justice or perfect security but, all things being equal, it is an improvement over the endless territorial and tribal wars that came before. Imperfect, but better. Therefore, one of my objections to this war is the unilateralist intent, in spite of the lip service that has been paid to the UN (as a stalling device for logistical reasons and a helping hand to Tony Blair, in my opinion.)

However, my fundamental argument against invasion and overthrow has always been that without a clear and convincing act of aggression by Iraq, it is the worst kind of hubristic folly to put a US army on the ground in the middle east so soon after 9/11 under circumstances that appear to make Osama bin Laden’s worst accusations appear to be true. Only a megalomaniac would believe that it is wise, without adequate preparation and long term planning, to take actions seemingly designed to prove to the millions upon millions of would-be terrorists that bin Laden is right. Could we not have at least waited until the dust settled on the World Trade Center before elevating bin Laden to the status of prophet?

And to so miserably fail to make a credible case tying Saddam to 9/11, to rush headlong with little real deliberation (the phony UN debate notwithstanding), to fail to bring along world opinion and prepare the American people, and most of all to treat this war as if it exists in a complete vacuum without any consequence to the larger issues of Islamic terrorism, the Israeli Palestinian conflict and anti-American sentiment that is growing and metastasizing with every step they take toward invasion is to consciously and actively make the situation more dangerous.

None of this is to say we do nothing and try to roll up our shores and retreat from the world. But, this war was on the table long before bin Laden became a worldwide hero to millions of resentful young Muslims and long before terrorism became a serious threat to American security. It is the wrong war at the wrong time and despite the neocon dream that the United States will so impressively defeat Saddam that our enemies will retreat and withdraw from the field when confronted with our mighty sword, it is far more likely to make us less respected, less feared and less safe.

I’m all for ridding the world of WMD and terrorism. But, neither of these goals is going to happen as a result of invading armies occupying countries or pie-in-the-sky missile defense programs that don’t work. It’s going to require some new thinking and some different strategies. Dragging out your favorite dog-eared war plans and throwing them at the problem is the worst possible way to confront the new threats. It is arrogant, clumsy and, worst of all, ineffectual.

Members of the administration have made it clear that their intent is as much to create a new middle east as it is to stop Iraq from obtaining WMD. They believe that this will show that America is to be the civilizing force in the world --- beyond “indispensable” to “preeminent.” But, they are hazy on the details, seemingly assured that our military strength and wealth will be enough to make it happen.

This is dangerously naïve. And the repercussions of such naivete have been obvious from the start. It’s not dovish or pacifist to weigh the long term risks of the Iraq operation and find that it is the wrong plan under the current circumstances. I have not yet heard from Kenneth Pollack or Josh Marshall or other thoughtful liberal internationalists a convincing argument that Saddam is so imminently dangerous that the risks are worth running after the seminal event of September 11th.

For better or worse, Saddam and the threat of international Islamic terrorism are now inextricably linked to the national security of the United States. The problem is that we are the ones who have linked them and by doing so we will have eliminated a petty tyrant who may have become a problem in the future only to create an implacable worldwide foe today. And doing it the way we did it, we have alienated even our closest allies.

I honestly don’t know how this could have been handled any worse.