Thursday, June 24, 2004

Anti-Totalitarian Justification

"What is international law when you have the human rights commission in Geneva headed by Libya?" is one of the pithy lines from this interview with Adam Michnik, the leading force in the Solidarity trade union movement who founded and edits Poland's largest daily newspaper.

Unlike many European liberal intellectuals, but like many Poles, Michnik was an outspoken supporter of the war in Iraq. He was interviewed by by Thomas Cushman, editor of the "Journal of Human Rights" and a professor of sociology at Wellesley College (and himself a liberal supporter of the war in Iraq), in Warsaw on Jan. 15. It appears in the online version of "Dissent" magazine, under the title "Anti-totalitarianism as a Vocation."

Here are some excerpts defining and explaining the "anti-totalitarian" justification for the overthrow of Saddam. I find that, though I have no direct experience of totalitarianism (a few weeks in East Germany hardly count), this resonates with me.

Adam Michnik: I look at the war in Iraq from three points of view. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a totalitarian state. It was a country where people were murdered and tortured. So I'm looking at this through the eyes of the political prisoner in Baghdad, and from this point of view I'm very grateful to those who opened the gates of the prison and who stopped the killing and the torture. Second, Iraq was a country that supported terrorist attacks in the Middle East and all over the world. I consider that 9/11 was the day when war was started against my own work and against myself. Even though we are not sure of the links, Iraq was one of the countries that did not lower its flags in mourning on 9/11. There are those who think this war could have been avoided by democratic and peaceful means. But I think that no negotiations with Saddam Hussein made sense, just as I believe that negotiations with Hitler did not make sense. And there is a third reason. Poland is an ally of the United States of America. It was our duty to show that we are a reliable, loyal, and predictable ally. America needed our help, and we had to give it. This was not only my position. It was also the position of Havel, Konrad, and others.

TC: Yes, you specifically mention that this is a view you share with Vaclav Havel and Gyorgy Konrad.

AM: We take this position because we know what dictatorship is. And in the conflict between totalitarian regimes and democracy you must not hesitate to declare which side you are on. Even if a dictatorship is not an ideal typical one, and even if the democratic countries are ruled by people whom you do not like. I think you can be an enemy of Saddam Hussein even if Donald Rumsfield is also an enemy of Saddam Hussein.


AM: It's simply that life has taught me that if someone is being whipped and someone is whipping this person, I am always on the side of those who are being whipped. I've always criticized U.S. foreign policy for forgetting that the United States should defend those who need to be defended. I would object to U.S. policy if it supported Saddam Hussein, and I have always criticized the United States for supporting military regimes in Latin America.


AM: Well, who was worse, Ronald Reagan or Leonid Brezhnev? If I were American I would never have voted for Reagan, but as a Pole, I liked the tough position of Reagan toward Brezhnev. Perhaps Reagan did not quite understand what he was doing, and maybe Bush doesn't understand either. But the facts are that, suddenly, Libya has begun to speak a different language. Syria has begun to speak a different language. Even North Korea has started to speak a different language. This is not to say that Bush is always right. Of course not. But you must see the hierarchy of threats, of dangers. I asked my French and German friends, Are you afraid that tomorrow Bush will bomb Paris? And can you really be sure that terrorists and fundamentalists will not attack the Louvre? So which side are you on?

TC: So it's either-or ... you're either with us or against us.

AM: Unfortunately, yes


TC: Throughout your revolutionary period, when you were fighting against communism, you always took a position of nonviolence. Now, in supporting the war you are advocating violence. Can you explain this? I ask this because many people in the United States admired you for your nonviolent stance against communism. But now they say, "Michnik advocates nonviolence, but he's supporting this war." Isn't it paradoxical to advocate the promotion of human rights through violent means? I realize that this is a difficult question.

AM: No, it's a very easy one. I can't remember any text of mine where I said that one should fight Hitler without violence; I'm not an idiot. Against [Polish premier Wojciech] Jaruzelski you could fight without violence, even against Brezhnev. This is clear if you look at [Soviet dissidents] Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. But never against Saddam Hussein. In the state of Saddam, the opposition could find a place only in cemeteries.


TC: Why are Western European intellectuals deaf to this moral argument?

AM: Well, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Bernard Kuchner, and others aren't deaf. It's related to why so many Western European intellectuals did not want to hear about Stalin's crimes for so many years.

TC: They say that the intellectuals who support the war in Iraq don't understand that Saddam Hussein is not Adolf Hitler, and so on. I interviewed Jacek Kuron the other day and, as you know, he was against the war. He was critical of the idea that the fight against Saddam Hussein is the same thing as the fight against Hitler.

AM: Well, it's obvious that Saddam is not Hitler. Pol Pot was not Hitler either. My fundamental question is, What would Saddam Hussein have to do for my dear friend Jacek to agree that he's as bad as Hitler? What more would he have had to do? Invade Poland and build gas chambers in Auschwitz one more time?