the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
2004 January 14: Letter to a philosopher
‘But if there are many of these ruffians,’ said Merry, ‘ it will certainly mean fighting. You won’t rescue Lotho, or the Shire, just by being shocked and sad, my dear Frodo.’
I have considered myself a liberal for as long as I have been aware of the distinction: I have always known that the world needed changing, and I have identified with the compassionate, tolerant impulses of modern liberalism. I remain dedicated to secularism, social welfare, equality, civil liberties, and the progressive application of reason to the world. Most would call that liberal, and nothing has altered my original feeling. But I have, in recent years and particularly in the last year on the issue of Iraq, concluded that liberalism as I understand it is not consistently practiced by others who call themselves liberal. That does not make me conservative; even further from it. I can make a case against conservatism, and in particular the US Republican Party, as well as anyone. But it is almost too easy to criticize the conservatives. Liberals do it well. They do not, however, criticize themselves well. In some ways, I am more passionate in disagreement with liberals, because I really feel they should know better. And the truth is that, while the Iraq war’s opponents are generally persons I agree with, I am almost unable to listen to their arguments against the war, so irrational ― uncritical ― are they. Few things are as disheartening to me as a liberal taking things on faith, believing without question, stridently asserting something that is strictly reflexive. That covers most of the protesters.
War is bad. That is the first anchor of the anti-war argument. It seems self-evident. But it is a fallacy to suppose that, if decent individuals make no war, there will be no war. In fact, if decent individuals make no war, indecent individuals will make war against them until every decent one of them is subjugated. Tyrants are proactive in their aggression and conquest. They will continue conquering and subjugating until they encounter a force greater than they are ― and this means force, not love or good will or positive energy. The Panzerdivisions will roll right over love and good will. Tyrants will ultimately check each other; but where does that leave the rest of us? What if there had been no one to stop Hitler but Stalin? Would we have wanted to grow up in that bipolar world? It hardly needs to be stated that neither of them was going to be moved by a plea of humanity. And the end result of allowing tyrants to conquer the entire world unimpeded might seem like peace, but in reality it would be a perpetual state of war ― a war of the state against its subjects.
It must be remembered, when considering the recent war, that the first act of war in this drama was the Tikriti conquest of Iraq. True, Iraq has always been under some form of dominion ― Turkish, British, Hashemite ― and the government of Iraq before 1968 was a military dictatorship. But that does not change the fact that the Tikriti Ba‘thist cabal under Saddam Hussein was a small, armed minority that took and held power over a large population through force, and all its corollaries ― killing, torture, imprisonment, and the constant threat of some combination thereof. We need to start with the knowledge that the government of Saddam was itself a military occupation. It was, furthermore, one of the most oppressive police states created in recent history. An intervention ― an invasion ― would have been justified even then, on the historical fact that aggressors will only be stopped by force. Saddam himself exemplifies that.
He was not content to brutalize ― repeatedly ― his own subjects, within the recognized boundaries of Iraq. He was also an aggressor in the popular sense of the word, in that he attacked, without provocation, three neighboring states. Even those who sickly legitimized his conquest and rule of Iraq could not so easily legitimize his attacks on Iran, Kuwait, and Israel. This, unfortunately, is because the three have UN seats, recognized borders, recognized governments, and because, in the perversions of international law, the city of Kirkuk is supposed to be ruled from Baghdad, but the city of Kuwait is not. Be that as it may, it is important that, at some point, an aggressor like Saddam crosses a line that everyone recognizes as a line, thereby recognizing his aggression as aggression. And the attacks on Iran in 1980, Kuwait in 1990, and Israel in 1991 were readily identifiable as acts of conquest. That he never had hopes of conquering Israel does not change his intent. And with the Jews and Persians (and the Kurds, though not external), he was posing as the great champion of expansionist pan-Arabism. This is, needless to say, National Socialism redux. War is bad, to be sure. But Chamberlain called it wrong at Munich, and everyone knows this. Appeasing aggressors only encourages them. And letting them win ― it is unthinkable. Incomprehensible.
So Saddam was going to have to be removed by force eventually. He was going to fall to an army, not to a chorus of Whos. Those who oppose all war on principle at least have a principle to argue from. But they would ultimately turn over the entire world to dominion, because it is dominion that would be least affected by the arguments against all war. All other objections raised by war opponents were pragmatic, not principled. One need only listen to Howard Dean’s position on the war. He, like his uncritical enthusiasts, is splitting hairs.
Consider that no one who is both rational and reasonably well informed disputes any of the following:
The war’s opponents know that war is bad ― but so do I. It is, in fact, horrific. But there are worse things than war, and the war’s opponents know that also. They avoid thinking about life in an absolutist dictatorship because it is, they know in their hearts, worse than war. On the one hand, the opposition mostly conceded that war might, under some circumstances, have been justified. On the other hand, their protests were entirely in language of moral absolutes. They were not merely saying that the war could have been done better, which only the Bush administration denies. They were saying that the war was wrong. That means, presumably, that unless something is perfect, it is wrong. But they could not possibly argue for perfection, so instead they, including Dean, set arbitrary conditions under which it would have ceased to be wrong and suddenly become right (in other words, right if done exactly their way, wrong if done any other way). So this, correct me if I am mistaken, was the standard anti-war argument:
The invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein would be justified if Saddam were shown to have killed another x hundred thousand people; if Saddam attacked x more countries without provocation; if the inspections were thwarted for another x years; if every member of the UN Security Council endorsed it x times; if we had x allies, including at least x with x% Muslim population; if only x Iraqis and x coalition soldiers were killed in the invasion and occupation; if the war cost less than x billion dollars; if the occupation lasted no more than x months; if a census were taken, elections held, and a democracy installed in less than x months. Otherwise, it would be wrong.
You know something about ethical debates. Does that sound much like a moral argument to you?
2003 April 16
For many war opponents, the purported issue was international law. But without associating myself with George Bush’s next move, which more likely than not will be foolish, it is necessary to say that international law, or any kind of law, is not a value in itself. International justice is. And an international system of law that protects regimes like those in Iraq and Syria, or China or Zimbabwe or Cuba, is not just, not remotely. Nor is a system just which depends on the consent of tyrannies, as does a vote in the UN security council. China, Syria, Cameroun, Guinea, and Pakistan are definitely tyrannies, and Angola is no longer really democratic. And these are the states who should be determining what is right and what is wrong?
And where international law and Iraq are concerned, the issue is hardly, shall we say, unilateral. There were years’ worth of UN resolutions that Iraq was in defiance of, resolutions whose origin lay in Iraq’s invasion of another member of the UN. Resolution 1441 was merely the last of a long series of demands by the security council that Iraq give up certain weapons (which, to clarify a common misconception, includes nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and any ballistic missiles with a range over 150 km). Resolution 1441 noted that Iraq “has been and remains in material breach of its obligations”, explicitly gave Iraq a “final opportunity to comply”, demanded “full and immediate compliance by Iraq without conditions or restrictions”, including a full accounting of all banned weapons, and explicitly threatened “serious consequences” (which in diplomacy means military force) should Iraq fail in even the slightest way. The exacting nature of the demands may seem draconian, but should not really be considered so, given the large number of previous chances afforded Iraq to cooperate, none of which it took. But draconian or not, those demands were international law, and this last resolution was passed unanimously. That, for supporters of international law, should have been the deciding factor. Saddam would never step down voluntarily, he was an atrocious despot, he was completely faithless in all dealings with the world, and the world had not only given him a last chance, but threatened him with war should he fail to take it. Even Hans Blix could not paint the picture as one of full and immediate compliance. The position of France, Russia, and China, all endorsers of the resolution, was then shown to be a bluff. They were willing to threaten consequences, but not deliver them. The fact is that authorization for military action was contained within previous resolutions, especially at the time of ceasefire in the first gulf war, and a positive vote in the security council would have been needed to remove that authorization. That vote never happened; authorization therefore still existed. There is something laughable about George Bush, who is not much of a UN supporter, being almost alone in his willingness to enforce a UN resolution. It is true that the will of the security council was opposed to war under any circumstances. But the words of the council were something else. International law must be a matter of words, not whims, just as domestic law.
This ultimately boils down to a matter of seeming. It seems like there ought to be something wrong with this intervention. George Bush is so odious that he must be doing something wrong. But it takes more than an impression to make something wrong. And in this case, I still have yet to hear a good argument that the world was a better place before Saddam Hussein and his party were removed from power. Are war opponents so frustrated with the process that they cannot nod in passing at the result? A ruthless tyrant is no longer in power. The only principle that has been breached here is the one which allows France and Russia and China to extend protection to their pet tyrants. I can live with that.
2003 March 27
Cynical views of George Bush and his administration, of their motives and intentions, are mostly (but only mostly) correct. Cynical views about Tony Blair are only partially correct. And absence of cynicism about Churchill and Roosevelt (need I mention Stalin?) is incorrect. You can believe whatever biographical trend you wish, but I find the weight of evidence to depict Churchill as an imperialist with fascist sympathies, and Roosevelt as an opportunistic patrician. They both made common cause and jovially collaborated with Stalin, who was different from but every bit as bad as Hitler, and his willing ally but for Hitler’s faithlessness. Russia and the US entered the war only after attacks on their territories, Britain only after Hitler’s disrespect for the nation-state system became undeniable. Ending the holocaust was not a military objective during the war, either. Any belief that the war was by design a campaign against fascism or holocaust is ignorant of those designs, just as mythological as the belief that the US Civil War was designed to end slavery. Nor was there much reason to suppose beforehand that the behavior of the conquering powers would lead to just or even democratic government emerging from the conquered territories. Indeed, British policy and practice would have predicted a reinstallation of emperors in both Germany and Austria. Russian policy, of course, correctly predicted totalitarian states that in most cases were much worse than the status quo ante. US policy was uneven at the time; only after the war did it become clear how little the US cared about democracy or justice when “more important” geopolitical interests were at stake.
I am not saying that Saddam is on Hitler’s scale. But nor would I accept any counter-assertion that this war is on the scale of World War II. Anyone under arms participating in or defending murder and oppression is a legitimate target, even though we know that not every soldier for Germany or Iraq was or is an enthusiastic supporter of their respective states. So removing such deaths from the equation, we must consider civilians killed by interventionist force, and interventionist soldiers killed in combat (beyond the number who would be killed if they were at home engaged in training exercises or driving at 75 mph on the highways). By that calculus, if World War II was justified, as a matter of lives lost to lives saved and lives freed from tyranny, so is this war. No, it is not the same, but it is comparable on its own scale.
Hitler was a more successful expansionist, but not a more enthusiastic expansionist. In fact, after Hitler conquered Ukraine he was arguably done. Arguably not also, I concede; but to the west he was actually more interested in alliance with the Anglo-American cultures than war with them. Saddam wishes to rule, preferably by adulation but if necessary by force, the entire Arab world, and to subjugate on its behalf and to his own glory neighboring peoples like the Kurds and the Persians. Certainly had he been more successful Saddam would now be ruling Iran, Kuwait, and probably the entire Arabian peninsula (and therefore the bulk of the world’s proven oil reserves, which, though we all might dislike the oil economy, would make us wholly dependent on him).
The belief that Iraq is not ready for democracy is unfairly dismissive and rather patronizing, which might be forgiven if it were correct. One could argue that Russia was not ready, based on the current state of its politics; but would continued Stalinism have been better? Iran is a society not far, if at all, beyond Iraq in terms of general education and political sophistication, and it clearly is ready for democracy, even though its democratic forms have no governmental power. Any flaws in the democracy in Iran are at least partially attributable to the stifling power of the Islamic Republic system, and are certainly commensurate with the misbehavior of “advanced” democracies (consider the issue of debt, for instance). The Kurds already have something approaching democracy in their autonomous regions in the north. But in any case, would another few decades of totalitarian rule in Iraq be preferable to possible ― not certain, only possible ― democratic or post-democratic chaos? Would totalitarianism prepare Iraq to be democratic at some point in the future? Or will it never be ready?
As I said, Hitler was actually pro-British and pro-US (mitigated in the end by the desires of his Japanese allies), whereas Saddam is against both, and Saddam is for that reason more of a threat than Hitler was, if we are concerned only for ourselves. But I find US or British interest to be a disappointing criterion. I am just as concerned for the lives of Iraqis as of US or British soldiers. I would balance out the deaths of Iraqi civilians during war with the greater deaths, gruesome torture, and miserable lives of civilians under the regime. The risk to soldiers is like the risk to police. The police, who include my brother, make a decision to risk their own lives so that the lives of others might be better or safer. I have my issues with the police, but more so in practice than in principle. In principle we need a force to protect us from those who would otherwise subjugate and terrorize us. And from what I have heard, the majority of soldiers, in addition to being volunteers for the service to begin with, are supporters of this war against what they will tell you is a tyrant with a history of brutalization of his subjects and the ability and willingness to project force beyond his subjects. War opponents can call this propaganda if they like; but just because Bush may have ulterior motives doesn’t change the reality. (Orwell: “These things really happened, that is the thing to keep one’s eye on. They happened even though Lord Halifax said they happened. The raping and butchering in Chinese cities, the tortures in the cellars of the Gestapo, the elderly Jewish professors flung into cesspools, the machine-gunning of refugees along the Spanish roads ― they all happened, and they did not happen any the less because the Daily Telegraph has suddenly found out about them when it is five years too late.”)
Arguments from consistency fail also. True, there does seem to be an element of selectivity where Saddam is concerned. But we cannot fight every tyrant simultaneously. Nor does it do the people of North Korea or China any good to leave Saddam in place out of some strange sense of fairness to all oppressed peoples. And by the consistency argument, World War II was not justified because it dealt only with Germany, Italy, and Japan, but not with Russia, Britain, or China (Nationalist or Maoist).
The concern that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction and might use them in this conflict is a valid concern; but it is at the same time an admission that he has weapons of mass destruction and might use them; and if so, the sooner we bite the bullet and get rid of him and these weapons, the sooner we can be free of that concern. As for containment, a seductive case could be made, and perhaps there are times when we have no other option. But containment is at best the sanction of ghettoes of tyranny. It would apply equally to police protection in this country ― confine all crime to the ’hood. It would apply equally to mid-1930s Germany; but in the hypothetical world where Hitler had concentrated on killing only German Jews, Gypsies, and intellectuals, would this war’s opponents not have been hypothetically in favor of intervention?
The arguments made by war protesters today would have led them to oppose war against Germany. Their support for the earlier war after the fact is seen to rest on the present reality that, despite the war’s shady intentions, despite its predictably-enormous cost in blood and treasure, and despite the moral character of the principals, things have turned out for the better in Germany and the countries it was occupying. But that did not become possible to say for all those territories until at least half a century later. My support for this war rests on the expectation that, despite the war’s shady intentions, despite its cost in blood and treasure, and despite the moral character of the principals, things will turn out for the better in Iraq. And considering the reasonable estimates of the war’s cost in blood and treasure, I think the price is worth paying even without certainty. When do we ever have certainty?
Opponent states like France and Russia, and the majority of ordinary citizen opponents of this war, likewise oppose sanctions, even smart sanctions, and oppose genuine aggressive disarmament backed by force, and oppose the assassination of foreign “leaders” (as if Saddam is anything like) or military interference in “sovereign states” (as if Saddam’s regime is not itself a military occupation). By my estimate that eliminates all options other than coexistence. If war opponents endorse one of these options, they should tell me. If they have another brilliant option, they should tell the whole world as soon as possible. The war’s opponents were my allies before the war, will be so again afterwards, and are now on most other issues, while the war’s prosecutors are decidedly not. But I have yet to hear a sustainable argument against the war other than unconcern about tyranny and unwillingness to do anything about it. And to claim some moral credit for opposing Hitler in retrospect while offering no effective opposition to Saddam in the present is all too convenient. We all want peace. We all want things to have been different in the past. None of us wants to risk soiling his hands by endorsing a policy that might not succeed. But we are all opinionated and political, and it is appropriate for us to be for something as well as against something. The world is an unsanitary place, and all the options available are likewise unsanitary. Condemnations of Saddam without practical solutions to the problem he represents will, along with half a million dollars, buy a three-bedroom home in the nicest part of town.
2002 October 20
No longer content to grant himself the superlative, Saddam Hussein has begun achieving perfection in all things. Today he has decreed an amnesty for every single prisoner in Iraq. Even murderers will be released, with the consent of their victims’ families. If there were any political prisoners in Iraq, they, too, would be released. Everyone goes free, in a gesture of unsurpassable benevolence to commemorate the previous day’s unsurpassable electoral success. 100%; no half measures for Saddam any more.
For those who missed the news, and the jokes, Saddam has officially won the vote of every single one of the 11,445,638 eligible voters in his latest appeal to the Iraqi people for their support. I could well believe that he had already killed anyone who might be inclined to vote against him; but there was not even a delay in the announcement for the votes to be counted. Fortunately, no one, and certainly not the Iraqi government, accepts his reelection as being a valid exercise in democracy, but of interest was the explanation offered by some voters and the state itself: the rest of the world perhaps could not understand that, during a crisis, the Iraqi people would speak as one, quite literally unanimous, in their approbation of their beloved leader.
Ah, but we can understand. Why else are we in the US, and our congressional representatives, being urged to unanimously endorse our own president? We are told that dissenting voices on any, any of his policies will weaken his hand on the world stage, for whatever it is he wants to do. There are limitations to the comparison, though. George Bush has a real electoral mandate. He is the chosen leader of a significant minority in the US; in fact, in the last election he placed a respectable second in the overall national vote. That ought to count for something.
2001 March 18
Further evidence that Iraq does in fact have the resources to care for its people (should it so choose), even under economic sanctions, is provided by its current efforts to follow through on a promise made in December to provide $930,000,000 in aid to Arab Palestine, humanitarian aid in light of the uprising against Israel. This is political, as everyone knows, an attempt to win support in the Arab world and beyond by charitable action in a sympathetic cause. But charity begins at home. Once again we see that the tyranny in Iraq will allow its subjects to starve to score political points. This is merely a novel approach.
2001 February 25
Germany is nominally a NATO ally of the United States and Britain, but it has not been a stalwart of the hard line against the regime in Iraq, not a reliable supporter of the enforcement of the no-fly zones or the sanctions or the inspections. So it will hopefully have a greater impact on sanctions opponents like France and Russia that it is Germany whose intelligence service has published concerns over the continuing efforts of Iraq to build weapons of mass destruction. Specifically, German intelligence believes that the regime may be only three years from a nuclear device and four years from a missile that can reach as far as Europe. It remains actively in pursuit of chemical and biological weapons, having perhaps twenty facilities working on the former, and may actually have begun producing the latter. Some in Europe wish to dismiss the threat posed by this tyranny; but can they afford to ignore the capabilities of a state that has fired missiles at a non-combatant for political purposes, and has used chemical weapons against its own subjects?
2000 March 2
The government of Iraq has admitted that, while it weeps over the suffering of “its people” under UN sanctions, it continues to build palaces (“symbols of sovereignty”) for the ruling elite of the country. Works projects of this kind are outrageously expensive; we can be sure that the facilities will be opulent. And they are of no use to the oppressed Iraqi people. Anyone who credits the report of this admission and still blames sanctions for the suffering in Iraq is, I am sorry to say, an incredible simpleton.
2000 February 12
Lifting the sanctions against Iraq is becoming a policy of the humanitarian faith in the world. But it is a policy of faith alone, not reason, and ultimately it is not humanitarian.
The facts are these: Saddam Hussein is a tyrant. He rules Iraq absolutely. He is almost entirely concerned with remaining in power and enjoying its trappings. He will use whatever resources are available to him to augment his power. He represses the people of Iraq unmercifully. He cares not at all about their suffering. He has used weapons of mass destruction against his subjects. He continues to develop nuclear weapons.
And these: After invading Kuwait and being driven out again, he agreed (under duress, of course) to submit to certain conditions for an end to the war, including elimination of his programs for weapons of mass destruction, and invasive monitoring to insure that. It was understood at the time that the sanctions would not be lifted until Iraq fully complied with the ceasefire terms. It was nonetheless agreed to allow Iraq to sell oil to purchase humanitarian goods, under close supervision of their distribution. His failure to comply with the terms of the oil-for-food program is partially due to dictatorial pride, and partially connected with a game of nerves with the West; he does not care about the suffering of the Iraqi people, but is gambling that the West does, and will give to him what he wishes in order to alleviate that suffering.
And these: If Saddam is allowed to engage in free trade, he will sell oil to purchase goods first and foremost to augment his power, to rearm his military, to furnish his regime, and to provide luxuries to the pinnacle of that regime, especially himself. The Iraqi people will benefit last, if at all, from a lifting of the sanctions, and it will have become virtually impossible for them to overthrow the regime. Meanwhile Saddam will develop nuclear weapons, and will then engage in nuclear blackmail, threatening to attack Israel if any moves are made against his regime. At best this will lead to a preemptive strike by Israel, and perhaps a war. At worst it will lead to a complete invulnerability for Saddam’s tyranny from outside intervention as well.
In other words, eliminating the sanctions will not end the suffering of the Iraqi people. Eliminating the sanctions will prolong that suffering. This cannot be what the humanitarians want.
1998 October 11
A laboratory in France is reportedly able to confirm tests done in the US which showed that Iraq had weaponized VX nerve gas. The French government, not surprisingly, is apparently suppressing the report. Whatever the agenda behind the support of France for lifting UN sanctions on Iraq, France must at least allow the decision to lift sanctions to be based on a realistic assessment of the situation, and that includes an acknowledgement that this regime has used chemical weapons and came close to the ability to use the worst of them.
1998 August 9
UNSCOM is standing firm for full compliance by Iraq on all weapons of mass destruction; as Richard Butler reports it, that means that the lack of compliance on biological weapons is holding up the end of sanctions. Surprisingly, Saddam Hussein’s defiance at present has been attributed to the effect sanctions are at last having on him and his regime. He is, as before, hoping to exploit divisions between the powerful states in the world. Specifically, France, Russia, and China have all been working towards an end to sanctions. It is wholly fair to say that they are not doing so out of concern for the very real suffering being inflicted on the ordinary people under Saddam’s rule. Nothing could go further towards an ultimate end to their suffering than a weakening of the regime. That does not seem to be much closer, but normal relations is not the answer. Humanitarian exceptions to the sanctions are already in place. If these exceptions are not adequately helping the common people, it is entirely because Saddam does not wish them to be helped; and as long as he holds the power, they will not be helped, sanctions or not.
The apparent lack of resolve even in the case of the US and Britain for a showdown with Iraq now is somewhat distressing. Yes, this business has become tiresome. But in the face of tyranny, is that really an issue? Butler may simply be an ordinary person doing his job. But he is in real danger of becoming a hero, especially if he is left to do his job without convincing political support. It is important work, we must remember. It is severely important.
1998 June 28
Last week Richard Butler was about to certify Iraq as being in full compliance with UN Security Council resolutions demanding an elimination of weapons of mass destruction. That would have been a most welcome surprise ― a disarmed Saddam Hussein. This week we are back to the old state of preposterous lies and clear evidence of terrifying intent. Iraq had the material to make tens of thousands of tons of VX, the hypertoxic nerve agent. At first it claimed to have made none, then a few hundred kilograms, then a few hundred tons. It still maintains that it was never able to stabilize it for warhead mounting, and that it never attempted to construct any weapons. Now it has been demonstrated, to the point where Butler was absolutely convinced (which satisfies me) that warheads tested recently were armed with VX, which had been stabilized. The position of the United States, which some allege is that sanctions must not be lifted while Saddam remains in power, is if anything too weak. This regime has used chemical weapons, repeatedly. It has mounted the worst of the nerve agents on warheads for what we must assume would have been a gruesome attack on Tel Aviv. It cannot be trusted, not now, not ever. If we can get food and medicine directly to the people of Iraq, we must do so. But we cannot allow any aid to fall into the hands of the dictatorship. If we inadvertently prolong this dictatorship, the people will suffer worse, and longer.
1998 June 14
The UN commission investigating compliance by Iraq is reportedly on the verge of certifying that Iraq is in full compliance with security-council resolutions, and no longer in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Richard Butler seems trustworthy, and I believe he is seriously interested in finding the truth of the matter, and I will credit his conclusion; but if the states of the world use this as an excuse to normalize relations with the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, they will be making a grave mistake.
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