the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2002 September 9


A year ago I was, as I am now, finishing up with a taxing summer campaign, looking forward to spending more time on the Stewardship Project and resuming my periodic commentaries, as soon as I had something to say. It did not take long before I was forced to turn my attention to the one story that the whole world was focusing on, and one of the main stories it has focused on since. Naturally I have had much to say about that; but since, no offense, there is not a great deal of influence on world affairs coming from the lot of us, even my undeniable eloquence and good sense have amounted to very little.

I said shortly afterwards, when considering whether we should invade Afghanistan, that we would be justified in doing so, if we did so to depose the Taliban, who were then possibly the most oppressive government on the planet, but that our motives clearly lay elsewhere, and that we were unlikely to succeed, since Afghanistan is not a country that has tolerated occupation, even by such powers as the Russians and the British. I was only partially right, since obviously we did succeed, but only by employing a different strategy. We did what we apparently do best, which is massive bombardment, while leaving the ground fighting and occupation to our new allies, the Northern Alliance, an interesting combination of gallant resistance fighters and serial war criminals.

Let us hope that 2001 will be remembered in Afghanistan as the beginning of liberal democracy. In retrospect, it is possible to see the September 9 assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, Northern Alliance war chief and the most formidable opponent of the Taliban, as preemptive. Better to get him out of the way before taking on the United States. But it was a miscalculation. The wrath of the United States helped bring down the fundamentalists in Afghanistan, and the protégés of Ahmed Shah Massoud now hold the real power in the new Afghan government, a government headed by a western-educated opponent of the Taliban from the Pashtun people that had most supported the Taliban. I doubt the Taliban appreciate the irony, or any irony. That will be fine, so long as they are left to their earnest application of fundamentalism among themselves alone.

But in the United States the memory of Afghanistan’s transformation will be peripheral, if it registers at all. Everything will be about the bombing, and the subsequent war on terrorism. And thus far, aside from the fall of the Taliban and a greater recognition of danger in the world, nothing good has come of last year’s defining event. The US is more jingoistic, it is less liberal, and, as a natural consequence, less free. It is more taken by fear, more insular and parochial, and less tolerant of divergence. And the opposition that should be standing in the way of all this is every bit as fragmented as it ever was, more divided as to strategy, less principled and more timid. But on top of that, it suffers from a flaw that is by no means a consequence of September 11: bad judgement about what, exactly, to oppose.

It is a lasting, though not particularly savory, irony that the side of the political spectrum generally most supportive of human rights, which is to say supportive at all, is also most responsible for the defense of tyranny. I am speaking of our side, naturally. I have castigated conservatives for taking a soft line against the dictators with whom they wish to do business. Engage, they say, when the leader is Jiang Zemin and the country is China, with its market of more than a billion potential consumers. I have expressed disgust at the embrace by conservatives of the dictators whose cooperation they seek in their geopolitical strategies. All praise to Pervez Musharraf, so long as he keeps the pressure on al-Qaida. And this works for conservatives not only because they are interested in capitalism and the war on terror, but also because they don’t care about human rights. We, I would hope, do; but our actions and, more to the point, the subjects of our empathy belie the fact.

It is de rigueur among self-styled radicals in North America and Western Europe to view all interventions by their governments as first-world imperialism, and view the targets of this intervention as oppressed radicals themselves. So we heard during the bombing of Yugoslavia, and the subsequent trial of fascist tyrant and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. Liberals were applauding his courtroom antics. Were they really unaware of what he had done to find himself in the dock? Belarus strongman Alyaksandar Lukashenka and Cuban caudillo Fidel Castro, both of whom run oppressive states that do not tolerate dissent and have no intention of submitting to the popular will, are celebrated for their defiance of the West and its “imperialist” ideology, by which I must suppose is meant free speech and free elections. Imperialism indeed. And the plight of the starving babies in Iraq, and their noble leader Saddam Hussein, is cause célèbre among the same band of radicals who spend so much time wringing their hands about Mumia Abu-Jamal, including, as it happens, Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Since we seem about to attack Iraq directly, with the intention of “regime change”, as it is being called, and since our side seems likely to oppose this, we should be clear about what we have been opposing so far.

Those who claim that sanctions are responsible for the deaths of innocents in Iraq are simply unacquainted with reality. The oil-for-food program provides Saddam the ability to sell oil to buy humanitarian goods. He has not taken full advantage of the program because, as a dictator, he doesn’t actually want to feed people; that is not his priority. He is more interested in unfettered use of oil money for his own purposes, deepening his control and pampering himself and his sycophants. He is also more interested in the political issue. By perpetuating the starvation, he is dividing public opinion, particularly in the Arab world, but also including well-meaning liberals worldwide. He is counting on sympathetic individuals and peoples to bring an end to the sanctions out of guilt for their supposed effect, so that he is once again in a position to do as he will.

And he is running the blockade anyway. Regime expenditures indicate that the resources are there. Saddam has spent those resources rebuilding his military, continuing to pursue weapons of mass destruction, and, most outrageously, building palaces and other of what the regime calls “symbols of sovereignty”, not even bothering to deny it. If sanctions were to be lifted, and Saddam were allowed to sell oil without restriction, he would simply have more money to pursue these military and aggrandizement efforts. He is not suddenly going to decide that he needs to start feeding his subjects, whom he clearly despises.

And I haven’t forgotten that liberal opponents to the first attack on Iraq repeatedly stressed that the West should give sanctions a chance to work. If the current liberal argument about sanctions were true, then liberals were opposing the Gulf War by saying, in effect, “Rather than risk the lives of young soldiers, let’s try starving babies first.”. Of course, it is possible that liberal attitudes about sanctions have changed. For myself, I believe the appropriate liberal position is never to do business with tyrants, never to give them the tools and resources they need to oppress their dominions, and thereby hasten the day when that oppression is brought to an end.

One of the few good things to come out of the Gulf War was a set of promises by Saddam’s regime to cease its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and to submit to inspections to verify that. Sanctions were to continue until all such programs were verified to have ceased. But from the beginning, Saddam has engaged in the inspections and sanctions process as some tremendous game. He has never fully cooperated, has never kept his commitments, has taken every opportunity to interfere and obfuscate, and has in particular successfully thwarted inspections even with a few timely delays, almost literally keeping the inspectors talking at the front door while hustling documents out the back. Does anyone seriously believe that Saddam is not pursuing weapons of mass destruction? Or that, acquiring them, he would not use them? In fact, he has done so repeatedly, against Iran and against the Kurds. He has no scruples on that account, or any other.

I am committed to the idea of intervention, even armed intervention. As I say frequently, if I were to encounter a violent assault on the street, I would think nothing of stepping in to prevent the violence, even were that to involve violence on my part. After the Holocaust, the states of the world committed themselves to intervene to prevent genocide. Not that they ever did, as Rwanda demonstrated; but they certainly would have been more than justified. I consider intervention to be a moral obligation. Saddam Hussein oppresses, tortures, gasses, murders, and starves the innocent individuals who live under his control. If I could teleport into his bunker, I would put a bullet through his head myself. If someone else removes him from power, in whatever way, I will applaud. That might, seemingly, put me on the side of the conservatives, who, after nearly a year of saber-rattling, are finally bringing forth a plan for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

They will have a difficult time convincing anyone that there is something especially urgent about it now, though. Nothing has changed, unless Tony Blair’s mysterious dossier will reveal that Saddam is four weeks from the bomb. If so, of course, we wouldn’t even have to ask the Israelis to take out the reactor; they’d have done it already. Perhaps it has taken George Bush this long to get his nerve up. Perhaps the administration was hoping to be drafted into leadership by an enthusiastic world. Perhaps they are just really, really slow at planning. For whatever reason, now is, we are supposed to believe, the opportune time to invade Iraq and put down Saddam.

Our Secretary of War, Donald Rumsfeld, is eagerly in support. Our Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who by contrast has actual combat experience, who is in fact the most celebrated soldier in the country, is not. I do not wish to delegitimize the possibility of military leadership by civilians; indeed, I think that placing officers in charge of military oversight is equivalent to no oversight, such as has led many a state to senseless war. But I do wish to underline the reasons for doubt that Powell is noted for. Civilian politicians, in his view, are too ready to take great risks with lives that are not their own, and then too quick to abandon an objective at the first casualty, lest the constituents withdraw support, even though there can be no war without casualties.

I am as staunch an opponent of the current regime in Iraq and the former regime in Afghanistan as anyone, at least anyone without a direct personal involvement. I am by no means a pacifist. But I opposed the first war against Iraq because I didn’t trust us to do it right. I opposed the war against Afghanistan because I didn’t trust us to do it right. I oppose the impending war against Iraq because I don’t trust us to do it right. There is a discernible pattern here. I don’t trust our government to behave justly. Or, more specifically, I don’t trust governments run by conservatives like the Georges Bush to behave justly. And that is reasonable, considering what they and their conservative predecessors have done. In the case of the first war against Iraq, we attacked and invaded solely for the purpose of “liberating” Kuwait from Saddam. We proceeded, then, to hand Kuwait back to its former oil theocrats, and any vague promises of very limited democratization have gone unfulfilled. We allowed Saddam to remain in power in Iraq because we preferred the atrocious autocrat that he was and is to the three states that would have emerged in his absence. So we missed our opportunity to establish three stable democracies, and instead have Saddam and two insurrectionist states; and it is Saddam’s government that has the legitimacy of international recognition. Huh?

Afghanistan has turned out better; better, even, than we might have realistically hoped. The Taliban is out of power. In its place is a fairly-liberal administration headed by Hamid Karzai. Karzai I am at least preliminarily inclined to like. He is not a chauvinist for his Pashtun nation. He has taken great steps to advance the cause of women in particular and to reverse the oppressions of fundamentalism. And he has not only allowed but encouraged public criticism of himself and his government, a true hallmark of liberalism. But though I am pleased with the results, I remain displeased with the motives. We didn’t depose the Taliban because they were oppressive; we deposed the Taliban because we needed a cathartic war against someone and we couldn’t fight a conventional war against al-Qaida. And we didn’t intend to install a liberal government, only one more favorable to our goals; the Loya Jirga process we endorsed to select the government was not democratic.

And so I am in general favor of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, but not in favor of George Bush doing it. Before I can support something as grave as a war, I want to know that it will be worth the blood. I want to see a plan in place for a lengthy occupation. I want the money appropriated upfront. I want an entire country prepared to see deaths on the battlefield, from both sides. I want a tribunal established to try any captured members of the regime, including Saddam himself, and anyone who commits war crimes during the conflict. I want to see an opposition leader of the stature of Hamid Karzai or Ahmed Shah Massoud waiting in the wings, one who is committed to liberal democracy. I want a schedule for elections, including referenda in Kurdistan and southern Iraq for independence from Baghdad. I want a constitution that will protect civil liberties and minority rights.

Do we have that? Of course not. I conclude that we are not serious, then, that George Bush and his band of drumbeaters are engaged in nothing more noble than adventurism. This project seems no better thought out than the rest of their agenda, foreign or domestic, and no better justified. But we are talking about an enterprise led by George W. Bush, who is no rhetorician and certainly no strategist, so go figure.


Original version


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