March 14, 2011
A Flowering of Freedom: Reconsidering Iraq amid Revolutions in the Middle East
I opposed the second Iraq War from the start. My stance was simple. I did not believe the reasons for war being served up by the hawks. There was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had been involved in the September 11th attack. And I was very skeptical about the claim that he still had weapons of mass destruction.
Was he happy about the attack? Probably. Did he want WMDs. Undoubtedly. But did he have direct connections to 9-11 or caches of nuclear, chemical, and/or biological weapons? It seemed very unlikely, and of course we now know better.
Yet those who lined up behind the war believed. Some of them believed the 9-11 connection, which was dubious even back then. And most of them believed that there were WMDs buried in the dessert, waiting to be exposed once the mighty wind of American military might blew away the sand that covered them.
I was vocal in my opposition, but I also was honest. Once it was clear we were going to war regardless, I said I would admit I was wrong if the WMDs were found. After all, if Hussein really did have an advanced nuclear weapons program despite all the inspections and embargoes, then it would probably be a wise move to take him out. If I am wrong, I will admit it.
“But will you admit this is a mistake,” I asked supporters, “if it turns out that Hussein has no firm link to 9-11 and no WMDs?”
Oh, and by the way, why aren’t we focusing on Afghanistan?
Of course, as we have all known for a very long time now, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and the casus belli was patently false. Threats of mushroom clouds and rumors of yellow cake uranium were as hollow as the hysterical claims that Saddam Hussein bought aluminum tubes to build a uranium centrifuge. It turns out that sanctions and inspections really had de-fanged Hussein, at least in terms of his ability to threaten other nations on that scale.
I, for one, would gladly trade having been right for there having been no war. Sometimes being right is cold comfort.
And sometimes there is more than one way to be right. For beyond the lies and the nonsense, there are also legitimate arguments to disagree with.
Christopher Hitchens is no neo-conservative, and indeed he opposes them on most issues. Rather, he is an anti-authoritarian iconoclast in the tradition of George Orwell. Nevertheless, he found himself aligned with neo-conservatives on the Iraq War.
Hitchens’ position was well-intentioned, but it didn’t hold enough of its color in the wash. The crux of his argument is that Hussein was an absolute monster who had killed countless thousands of his own people, and so removing him was a moral imperative.
The first part of his contention is beyond contention. However, the second part is more problematic. Because while the first part is a value judgment based upon facts that we can all agree with, the second part calls for action with unpredictable results. Something about the road to hell and all that.
In this case, the road led to tens upon tens of thousands of dead Iraqis, as well as several thousand dead American soldiers. Estimates vary widely, and the truth is we’ll never know how many Iraqi civilians died during the U.S. invasion and the subsequent war that followed the toppling of Hussein, but it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s over a hundred thousand people at this point.
It now appears that the indefensible tyranny of Hussein’s secular Baath Party had in fact kept revolutionary fundamentalists at bay, perhaps not dissimilar to the way in which Marshal Tito’s totalitarian communist regime had kept a lid on ethnic discord in Yugoslavia. Of course, that in no way justifies Hussein (or Tito). It simply is what it is. And the fact that Hitchens continues to stubbornly defend his position during his final days doesn’t make him less wrong, just less relevant. A bad decision is a bad decision.
However, an argument of sound moral principle, such as Hitchens’, cannot be cast into the same trash bin as a false assertion about WMDs. Either there are WMDs in Iraq or there are aren’t. If you base your invasion on the claim that there are, and it turns out there aren’t, you are so profoundly wrong that there is no longer any shred of credibility to your argument. It’s a simple True-False question on a quiz, and you have failed.
The tragedy of Hitchens’ stance is that on some level he will always be right. Yes, Hussein was in fact a monster and the atrocities he committed were deeply immoral, so one must note that having removed that monster, in and of itself, was indeed a moral thing to do. The problem of course is that removing Hussein could never be “in and of itself.” It does not constitute a straight forward True-False question on a quiz as if it were a simple Yes or No about the existence of weapons. Rather, that is an essay exam, an open ended question about war, regime change, and state building. And when the long, critical, and complex essay of the Second Iraq War reveals so much pain, death, and destruction, a particular moral decision may not prove to have been the best one, regardless of the morality that underpins it. Because nobody has a monopoly on morality.
Not invading another nation is also a policy that has an element of inherent morality to it. And in this case, it is the choice that would not have resulted in such a massive loss of life and limb.
Hitchens had his beliefs and he has stuck to them. Those of us who opposed the war also have our beliefs. However, if Hitchens does not have a monopoly on morality, then neither do I. It must be acknowledged that neo-Conservatives also attempted to frame the war in a moral context. That too should be examined. Their moral thesis was as follows.
The people in the Middle East, they observed, suffer under the weight of brutal, totalitarian, fundamentalist regimes. In addition to oppressing their own populace, these regimes also foster hatred, particularly in the form of anti-Americanism and anti-Judaism, thereby posing a serious danger to us as well. Therefore, eliminating Hussein is best for the Iraqis and Americans.
At first glance, this actually seems quite similar to Hitchens’ argument. However, upon further inspection it is revealed to be a far less sincere and a much more cynical justification for war.
Yes, there are a lot of truly awful regimes throughout the Middle East. And of course it would be wonderful to see a Lybia without Ghadaffi or an Egypt without Mubarak or a Tunis without Ben Ali. But it is important to remember that neo-Conservative advocates of war in Iraq were never quite that specific. They didn't connect the dots. Perhaps because the U.S. had directly and staunchly supported Mubarak, the House of Saud, and many other oppressive regimes, the neo-Conservative moral argument was often vague and florid.
They generally bemoaned the fundamentalist propaganda from these awful, Middle Eastern regimes, which they correctly pointed out often feeds terrorist organizations. At the same time, they noted that many people in that part of the world would naturally love to be free, just like us. Put them together and you get a problem and an opportunity.
The seeds of democracy, neo-Conservatives insisted, were waiting to bloom in the Middle East. And how best to water those seeds? Why, with the blood of Saddam Hussein. War advocates assured us that an invasion of Iraq could lead to a blossoming of freedom. Build a democratic state in Iraq and it might very well lead to a flowering across the Middle East, taking down despots and kings, and remaking the region in our own image.
Invade Iraq and plant democracy there, they said, and it will grow across the region.
By 2002, many Republicans were embracing this concept whole-heartedly. Notable among them was President George W. Bush, who during the Clinton years had chided Democrats for the folly of state-building, particularly in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia. Yet somehow, that prior stance of his was forgotten. Somehow, this would be different.
September 11, we were told over and over again, had changed everything.
Bush and his advisers assured us that re-building Iraq would be a relatively simple affair; Iraqi women would blow kisses, men would sing our praises, and children would sit on the shoulders of GIs as American tanks rolled through the streets of Baghdad; it would be like Paris in 1945, only hotter.
Push that one eager domino; it will be so grateful that the rest will fall.
If Hitchens was right about Hussein being a monster but was wrong about the best way to deal with him, it would seem that neo-Conservatives were right about the Middle East being primed for revolution, but spectacularly wrong about how to nurture it.
It turns out they were half-right. But boy, were they leading with the wrong half.
Indeed, the region was ripe for revolution. Whether a case of prescience or wishful thinking, in that respect the neo-Conservatives were correct. It seems that people were tired of monarchs and dictators after all. But alas, the revolutionary spark didn’t come from an American military invasion, based on false claims, against another Arab nation. Go figure.
Now that the story has begun to unfold, we must shake our heads and ask: Who in their right minds thought that the United States, considered by many Arabs to be an arrogant imperial power, could manifest democratic revolutions throughout the Middle East by using flimsy justifications to starts a war against an Arab nation, which many other Arabs would obviously view as an act of arrogant imperial power? In retrospect, such advocates now look provincial, ignorant, and foolhardy.
Instead, the revolutionary spark came from within.
After all, what great revolution in the name of freedom has ever come about through the supposedly beneficent invasion of a neighboring oppressor?
France? Haiti? Eastern Europe? India? Our own?
None, of course.
The recent uprisings in the Middle East are a stunning testament to the contagion of freedom, an illustration of that which rises from within always rings truer and stands stronger than that which is foisted from without. These rebellions offer us a hopeful promise of what the future can be, while reminding us of what the past should not have been. They are one more example of how the war in Iraq was catastrophically misguided, and one more second chance for humanity to rectify its mistakes and move towards a better place.
As of yet, there is no way of telling exactly what will come of these revolutions. Though in some cases, it is hard to imagine that what follows will be any worse than the brutal dictators who preceded them.
For now, we can only hope for the best, and have faith that our government will make wise diplomatic maneuvers instead of ill-considered military blunders. But in the meantime, let the record show that what started in Tunisia has spread across an entire region of the globe. And that the revolutionary spirit thus far has been the will of the people.
The nations of the Middle East are not ours to break, but theirs to remake.
Posted by Akim Reinhardt at 01:45 AM | Permalink