Monday, July 19, 2004

Mail Bag II: "Legitimacy"

As I remember Mr. Bush pressed the war as urgent claiming that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (chemicals, maybe nuclear in the making). I don't even see the Bush administration mention that now. Apparently because no evidence has appeared. This is what I mean by "under false pretenses".

I think you're confused about "legitimacy." In the internationalist view, a military action by one nation against another can be "legitimate" only if it is approved by the U.N. Security Council. Once the war has begun, without Security Council approval, it's always "illegitimate." It doesn't matter if the warring nation's pre-war statements prove to be true.

The overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan was illegitimate, in this view, and so was the NATO attacks on Serbia that saved the Muslims in Kosovo from ethnic cleansing, and so was the overthrow of Saddam. All alike, equally, were "illegitimate." The attack on Iraq would have been just as illegitimate, in this view, if the WMD had been discovered.

But let's allow you to take a position of convenience, however untenable, for the sake of following through on this argument, and let "legitimacy" be determined by the reasons the U.S. gave for its desire to overthrow Saddam in 2003.

I don't know anyone whose entire support of the decision to overthrow Saddam was based on the notion that he had WMD. For those of us who supported the administration in this, it always was a mix of motives.

I was not convinced of any real working relationship between his regime and al Qaida. In fact, the level of contact between them that was revealed by the U.S. 9/11 Committee report actually was more than I thought existed. I was surprised.

But a strong pillar of my support for this war was the "anti-totalitarian" justification. Saddam was a tyrant. His people suffered cruelly. It is the duty of free peoples to help those in slavery. Sometimes this is only done by war, which is always horrible and destructive. It was especially our duty, as Americans, to see that this was done because we had helped prop up Saddam in the 1980s. Our involvement with him was less than that of others -- the Europeans sold him most of the weapons he used on Iran and the Kurds -- but just because they felt no responsibility for him doesn't mean we shouldn't have, either.

Eastern European intellectuals like Vaclav Havel, who remember the repressions of the Soviets, and the role of the NATO nations in ending those repressions, supported the war against Saddam on these grounds.

Adam Michnik, the leading force in the Solidarity trade union movement who founded and edits Poland's largest daily newspaper, put it like this:

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. ... 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.

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?"

Ultimately, though, the WMD threat was the one that got the most play, the most press, and it seems, in retrospect, like Bush and his friends said nothing else. But that's hindsight. Certainly the anti-war crowd is going to make it seem that way, because that threat turned out to not live up to the dramatic urgency that it was cloaked in before the war.

I was concerned about the certainty that, if left to himself, Saddam would get or make WMD and use them. I thought he probably had something up his sleeve. I guess I was wrong about that, but not entirely. And it was never my sole reason for backing the war.

It was never the Bush administration's sole stated reason, either. For instance, a key document in the march to war is the White House Background Paper on Iraq, "A Decade of Deception and Defiance", which served as a background paper for Bush's Sept. 12 speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

One-seventh of it, by my rough estimate, is devoted to WMD.

Other headline sections in the report are: Saddam Hussein's Repression of the Iraqi People, Refusal to Admit Human Rights Monitors, Violence Against Women, Torture, Saddam Hussein's Abuse of Children, Disappearances, Withholding of Food, and Crimes Against Muslims. Altogether almost twice as much space is given to human rights abuses as is given to WMD. Another section is titled "Saddam Hussein's Defiance of United Nations Resolutions," and more than twice as much space is devoted to this as to WMD.

Other topics in the report: Saddam Hussein's Support for International Terrorism, Saddam Hussein's Refusal to Account for Gulf War Prisoners, Saddam Hussein's Refusal to Return Stolen Property, Saddam Hussein's Efforts to Circumvent Economic Sanctions.

The WMD threat was played up by the U.S. and the British in the weeks before the war. In part, Bush did this to give Powell, the internationalist in his cabinet, a chance to accomplish something. In part, he did it as a courtesy to Blair, who faced intense political pressure not to send British troops into battle without U.N. support. But also in part -- I think in large part -- this was done because it was the one issue that the U.N. had taken a position on. The U.S. and its allies were seeking the "legitimacy" of a U.N. approval, and at the same time they were seeking to force the U.N. to stand up and be something but an anti-U.S./anti-Israel bitchfest.

The Iraq resolutions were the exact right place to do that. The U.N., after all, takes no positions on internal matters such as whether a tyrant can feed parents alive into a shredding machine in front of their children. Or whether a dictator can kidnap young girls off the streets to serve as his "girlfriends."

Bush rolled two questions into his efforts at the U.N. before the war: "Will you give us approval to overthrow Saddam," and, "Are you a real world governing body, with teeth, or just a paper mill that churns out threats that are never going to be enforced."

Iraq wasn't the most serious problem in the world in March 2003? Looking back, probably not. But how could the U.N. bring any pressure to bear on North Korea, on Iran, if after 17 condemning resolutions against Iraq, each one of them torn up by the dictator, it did nothing but rally its members to protect Saddam from American pressure? The U.N. was adept at passing "resolutions," but the body itself was far from "resolute."

Then again, according to Europeans, Iran and North Korea weren't "the largest threat to world peace" in 2003, either. Fifty-nine percent of Europeans said that Israel is a larger threat to world peace than North Korea, Iran or Afghanistan, according to a European Commission survey of approximately 7,500 Europeans, released in November (after the EU tried to suppress the embarrassing results). Given a list of 15 countries, including Iran and North Korea, Israel was listed as the greatest threat to world peace. El Pais reported that.

As Tony Blair put it, after the Lord Hutton report which (again) resolved him of lying:

The truth is, as was abundantly plain in the motion before the House of Commons on 18 March, we went to war to enforce compliance with UN Resolutions. Had we believed Iraq was an imminent direct threat to Britain, we would have taken action in September 2002; we would not have gone to the UN. Instead, we spent October and November in the UN negotiating UN Resolution 1441. We then spent almost 4 months trying to implement it.

Actually, it is now apparent from the Survey Group that Iraq was indeed in breach of UN Resolution 1441. It did not disclose laboratories and facilities it should have; nor the teams of scientists kept together to retain their WMD including nuclear expertise; nor its continuing research relevant to chemical weapons and biological weapons. As Dr Kay, the former head of the ISG who is now quoted as a critic of the war has said: 'Iraq was in clear violation of the terms of Resolution 1441.' And 'I actually think this [Iraq] may be one of those cases where it was even more dangerous than we thought.' "

Since the war, report after report, always played by the media as damning or condemning the West's WMD intelligence, has confirmed that Saddam actively sought banned weapons systems, concealed technologies to make them, and would gladly have used them.

Consider this, from the most recent report (Lord Butler's). Iraq:

a. Had the strategic intention of resuming the pursuit of prohibited weapons programmes, including if possible its nuclear weapons programme, when United Nations inspection regimes were relaxed and sanctions were eroded or lifted.

b. In support of that goal, was carrying out illicit research and development, and procurement, activities, to seek to sustain its indigenous capabilities.

c. Was developing ballistic missiles with a range longer than permitted under relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions; but did not have significant -- if any -- stocks of chemical or biological weapons in a state fit for deployment, or developed plans for using them. (Paragraph 474).

As Butler, Kay, and many others who investigated the matter after the war concluded, the only reason Saddam didn't have massive stockpiles of WMD was that the U.N. sanctions and the international effort had kept him from getting the materials, or from running the factories, to make them. We now know the sanctions succeeded in keeping weapons out of Saddam's hands, but they were a cruel disaster for the Iraqi people.

And this containment system was breaking down. If you remember, before the U.S. was hated for going to war in Iraq, it was hated for the sanctions, which despite the U.N. imprimatur, were blamed entirely on the U.S. There's a bumper on a truck in my neighborhood that has a "no blood for oil" sticker on it now, atop what was a "visualize Iraqi children" sticker that was there before 2003. France, among others, had begun to cheat on the sanctions.

What is often forgotten, too, is that the anti-war voices before March 2003 also thought Saddam had WMD. They knew he was a murderous tyrant, they believed he had lethal city-destroying weapons stashed away, and they STILL opposed the war to overthrow him. They wanted to end the sanctions, and replace them with nothing.

For instance, the German magazine Spiegel, which has been relentless in its coverage of the Bush "lies" about WMD, apparently changed its thinking since it wrote:

“In the meantime it is a certainty: The greater part of the technology for Saddam’s horror potential comes from Germany. ... Whether it was Saddam’s project to build an atomic bomb or his enormous arsenal of chemical weapons – German technology was always there. ... By the Iraqi poison gas production, deliveries from Germany made up more than 50 percent. In the nuclear field, it was at least as much. The modification of the Soviet Scud-B rockets was almost entirely in German hands: 90 percent of the technology came from the land of inventors and dealers [Germany].” [emphasis added]

Spiegel thought Saddam was plenty dangerous in that article. They also reported that UN weapon’s inspectors had concluded “Saddam was just another 18 months away, the IAEO estimates, from producing the fissile material for the atom bomb. ... According to Western estimates, Baghdad paid 10 billion dollars in its attempt to become the first Arab nuclear power.”

So: 1. the WMD claim was not the only stated reason for the U.S. and its allies going to war against Saddam; 2. the other reasons given, such as the humanitarian crisis in the country, were amply documented and have proven to be, if anything, worse than feared; 3. the WMD part of the reason for war, though partially based on faulty intelligence, was also partly true, and key players have agreed that Iraq was, in fact, in violation of resolution 1441.

Therefore, I say the war was "legitimate," based on the claims made by the warring parties before their attack.

The main reason claimed to start the war has disappeared now, which makes me think that it was a pretext. And which was the real reason then? A geopolitical vision - the Middle East reengineered from a Western-style democracy (or at least a protectorate) in Irak. Do you think I am wide of the mark on this? It was not even a secret. The Wall Street Journal had editorials saying just this 2 years ago.

No, of course you're not wide of the mark in saying that the U.S. had an interest in lifting the Middle East out of the sewer it had become: a repressive and brutish cesspool of the world that breeds religious freaks and murdering thugs. And the interest in that was dramatically driven home to Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, even though the more thoughtful and generous amongst us had seen that interest long before (I confess, I was not one of them).

I see nothing damnable about that. If our response to 9/11 had simply been to go out and kill as many terrorists as we could find, that would have been an imperfect, lopsided response, deserving of blame. To do that, but also to take one important chunk of this dangerous ground and try to turn it into a model for the rest of the Islamic/Mideast peoples, that seems to be a noble cause befitting a great nation.

That the execution of it has been, in many instances, woeful and flawed is no reflection on the legitimacy of the vision.

And since I disagree with you that the weapons threat from Iraq was a fake, then I also disagree with you that this is an "either-or" choice, that the U.S. simply invented a weapons threat from Saddam to mask its "secret" plan for Iraq (so secret that it was published in the newspapers).

Your false dichotomy ("weapons threat or U.S. geopolitical plotting") of explanations for the war omits the anti-totalitarian justification that was so important to me and many other war supporters, and was much spoken of by Bush and Blair.

I'm confused by your phrase "Western-style" democracy. What is that? I wasn't aware democracy had different regional flavors.

Do you think bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq is a bad thing? Is democracy only for "Western" nations? Are Arabs somehow incapable of it?

This gift to Iraq needn't be seen as altruistic. As with the overthrow of Saddam (which could have been accomplished without any commitment to democracy), the noble motives and the American self-interest merge nicely. Peggy Noonan laid out the national-interest case for democratic Iraq this week in the Wall Street Journal:

I do not feel America is right to attempt to help spread democracy in the world because it is our way and therefore the right way. Nor do I think America should attempt to encourage it because we are Western and feel everyone should be Western. Not everyone should be Western, and not everything we do as a culture, a people or an international force is right.

Rather, we have a national-security obligation to foster democracy in the world because democracy tends to be the most peaceful form of government. Democracies tend to be slower than dictatorships to take up arms, to cross borders and attempt to subdue neighbors, to fight wars. They are on balance less likely to wreak violence upon the world because democracies are composed of voters many of whom are parents, especially mothers, who do not wish to see their sons go to war. Democracy is not only idealistic, it is practical.

What's sad is that, for many people in the world, when it's a choice between the U.S. and anybody else, they'll take anybody else. If it's a choice between the U.S. and Saddam, the world comes down on the side of the genocidal sadist. In the Afghan war, if it's a choice between the U.S. and the women-enslaving, statue-smashing, gay-executing Taliban, the world pours into the streets of its respective capitals to side with the Taliban and denounce the Americans.

I must correct you on another point. You write, "Apparently because no evidence [of WMD] has appeared." That's wrong. They have been found. Sarin shells, and worse things have turned up in Iraq. Banned missiles sat in hiding spots there. What the inspectors haven't found (yet) is a big pile of weapons labelled "Saddam's banned WMD."

The intelligence that the U.S. used was flawed. Intelligence is an imperfect business. We found some banned things we never thought Saddam had. We didn't find some others we thought he did have.

An example of the imperfect nature of intelligence is the Niger uranium claim. Europeans, especially France, have much better intelligence-gathering in West Africa than the U.S. Almost every European intelligence service thought Saddam was trying to buy uranium in Africa. One European intelligence agency had been monitoring a uranium-smuggling operation involving Iraq for three years. The CIA did a terrible job of checking on this; it sent one agent, who had a grudge, who only stayed a week, and who didn't even bother filing a written report. As a result, the only folks who didn't think Saddam was trying to buy African uranium were the CIA. In this case the British and Europeans were right, and the Americans were wrong.

But you can be forgiven for believing that "no WMD" have been found in Iraq, or that "Bush lied" about the African uranium, because that's what all the major media, and the Democratic politicians, have been saying. And nobody corrects them.

Why the administration doesn't make this known is beyond my ability to comprehend. At times it seems possessed by a perverse inability to make its own case. Although I agree with Bush's foreign policy conceptions, I find his execution of them, as of most things he tries to do, massively inept. But, politically, I'd rather support the bumbler who is trying to do the thing I think is right than the smooth operator who has his head in all the wrong places.