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With regrets: For war on Saddam

Posted by Thomas Nephew on February 13th, 2003

I’m finally but reluctantly making up my mind about Iraq: war, if it comes, will be justified and necessary. Saddam’s regime deserved to be put on an extremely tight leash and told to heel; they have failed to do so, yet again.

I’ve come to this position more or less kicking and screaming. For a couple of recent waypoints, see my checklist of pro- and anti-war arguments from late last year, and a brief “On Iraq” item earlier this year. In the following, I’ll take up a number of arguments against the war.

Arguments dismissed
Arguments reconsidered: Al Qaeda
Arguments reconsidered: international institutions
Arguments reconsidered: containment
Arguments adopted: the Iraqi people
Questions unanswered
Respect, for some

In the early days of this debate, in late 2001 and spring of 2002, I frequently argued against a war on Iraq. I brought up a number of good reasons:

  • the war would detract from the one I cared about most, the one against Osama Bin Laden.
  • a unilateral push to carry out this war would harm institutions that have by and large served the United States’ interests well.
  • Saddam could be contained and deterred, just as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.

I’ll return to those arguments below. But first, I’ll dismiss a few I’ve never believed in.

Arguments dismissed
There are arguments I’ve never made. One is any variation on the themes “Bush is always wrong,” “The Executive Branch is always lying,” and so forth. As Greg Hlatky writes in his blog,

Well then, the short answer seems to be, “I hate Bush so much that I’d believe Saddam Hussein before I’d believe him.” And really, that’s what the “anti-war” movement is left with. No scrap of principle remains, just blind inflexible Bush hatred. Nothing, no proof, no event could ever convince these ideologues of the threat the Iraqi regime poses.

I don’t agree that the whole anti-war movement subscribes to this attitude, but I share Mr. Hlatky’s disdain for the argument. I did not vote for George W. Bush, but I am not so far gone down the road of blind partisanship or ideology to argue he and his office are incapable of being right or truthful — even if they are wrong all too often.

My feeling about the shifting arguments of the Bush administration is that they just don’t know that much for absolutely, court-of-law, 100% sure either. I don’t demand that of them in providing for the common defense, and I think no person who is honest with him or herself really does: this is not a trial of an individual, but a judgment about a secretive, dangerous regime. The events of 9/11 invited speculation about worse to come; while Al Qaeda, nuclear despots, and combinations thereof are possible, such speculation will and should face lower thresholds for consideration in the future than it did before the World Trade Center came down. Events as late as today, and at least as far back as the Glaspie-Saddam meeting before the Gulf War** make the idea very plausible, but such speculation isn’t needed to support a war eminently defensible on other grounds. I’ll have a word with Powell and Rumsfeld about it next time we speak.

Another argument I’ve never agreed with is that a war with Iraq will cause new terrorism. How will you know whether it wouldn’t have happened anyway? 9/11 didn’t happen because of anything but a hatred of America, and a desire by bloodthirsty criminals to hijack and tyrannize their Islamic co-believers into what they called a “jihad” against the West. They’ll do these things whether there’s a war with Iraq or not. Al Qaeda terrorism is independent of the issue of Iraq, just as it is largely free of any real connection to the Palestinian cause, no matter what they say. It will happen. Those so inclined will see it as a retribution. I will see it as more murder by deluded, evil, self-appointed hirabists.

While I haven’t ignored the argument, I feel similarly about the question of whether a war will “provoke what we intend to prevent,” a WMD attack. As I will argue below, I think avoiding a war now merely postpones this question to a later date, when either the answer or the premise is even less likely to be acceptable. Saddam is and will always be capable of WMD attacks, and he will always push crises to the point where he will need to entertain the idea of WMD use as a “last resort.”

Finally, I suppose a brief comment about a “war about oil” is necessary: were it true in the sense of conquest, the United States would never have left Iraq in 1991. I do agree that Saddam would be a far smaller danger without his country’s oil to finance his ambitions.

Arguments reconsidered: Al Qaeda
But what about my own main reasons? Some — detracting from the fight against Al Qaeda, or inviting a WMD attack — are simply less persuasive to me than they used to be. Another — working through international institutions — has been addressed by the Bush administration. And another — the possibility of containing Iraq — now seems demonstrably false to me.

Yes, the war against Saddam is likely to divert attention and manpower from the war against Osama Bin Laden. While that used to bother me a great deal, I think that was a function of my fury against Al Qaeda, and not a product of clear thinking. It is mathematically possible to have more than one deadly opponent at a time. Americans have faced that before, and even made a similar choice: the lion’s share of the war effort in World War II initially went to fight Nazi Germany, despite the “casus belli” being the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Like most, I’m unconvinced of direct Al Qaeda-Saddam links, but think it’s plausible we wouldn’t know about them. I can’t blame the Bush administration for trying — my guess is that it would be the one thing that would apparently bring around a big chunk of European public opinion. It doesn’t matter. The pragmatic case for forcible regime change in Iraq doesn’t require such linkage.

Arguments reconsidered: international institutions
The most important thing that the Bush administration did to gain my attention was its work securing the passage of Security Council Resolution 1441 (SCR 1441). In particular, Bush’s September 12, 2002 speech at the United Nations, in which he recounted the numerous Security Council resolutions defied by the Iraqi regime recast the problem in my mind. It wasn’t that the facts were new, it’s that the United States, to my relief, was presenting those facts. Rather than the United States seeming to be the potential aggressor, the potential wrecker of international institutions, it is in fact the guarantor of those resolutions compelling Iraq to give up weapons of mass destruction.*

It’s worth remembering that these resolutions, particularly Security Council Resolution 687 (SCR 687), were the result of U.S. adherence to international agreements at the end of the Gulf War. Had we gone “on to Baghdad” then, there would have been no need for resolutions requiring anything of Saddam. But the Security Council only authorized the liberation of Kuwait, so that road was not taken.

SCR 687 called for the unconditional destruction of all weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including chemical and biological weapons, and all ballistic missiles, and the unconditional cessation of attempts to acquire nuclear weapons. Either those articles were meant to be enforced, or they were not; most Americans, including myself, believed that they were. That belief has proved dangerously controversial, if not mistaken. Indeed, the United Nations all but discredited itself during the 1990s with countless such Potemkin resolutions, notably about the Bosnia crisis: resolutions that appeared to be, well, resolute, but were not. The U.N. appears to be close to finishing the job of destroying its credibility now. But the fault will not lie with the United States when it does. One way or the other, the Security Council must never again issue resolutions that seem to compel actions such as disarmament, yet effectively interpret them to not authorize enforcement of the disarmament thus “compelled.”

War, when it does come, will already be justified by common sense readings of a number of Security Council resolutions including SCR 687 and SCR 1441, and the aggregate impact of these and a number of intervening resolutions. It will not be pre-emptive, it will be punitive. It will finish a war interrupted in 1991, whose terms of cease-fire have been repeatedly violated by Iraq.

Security Council resolutions compelling Iraqi disarmament, incidentally, are among the most important differences between the Iraq and North Korean crises**: there are no such Security Council resolutions looming over North Korea. It may be that one of the key steps towards backing North Korea away from WMD production will (or would) be for the Security Council to meet the obligations it set itself for Iraq — and then take on North Korea as the next item on the agenda. A Security Council resolution promising “serious consequences” for North Korea would have a much more serious ring to it following a U.N. approved war on Iraq. It seems likely, of course, that we’ll never know.

Arguments reconsidered: the possibility of containment
I once believed that containment — sanctions, inspections, intelligence — was an effective and preferable alternative to war. As I once argued against a war in Iraq,

A far saner course of action would be what we did with the Soviet Union: maintain vigilance, apply pressure, avoid war, and wait for the totalitarians to collapse.

I’ve come to believe that is false. First, a closer look at Saddam’s history over the years convinces me there is little in common between today’s confrontation with Iraq and the Cold War with the Soviet Union. First, Saddam is utterly unconstrained by other institutions within his country, in a way that even the Brezhnevs and Kosygins of the Soviet Union could only dream of; between the Politburo, the Red Army, the Soviet Navy, and the Communist Party, there were layers upon layers of control over nuclear weapons that Saddam could not afford to emulate.

More importantly, Saddam’s track record is one of routine recklessness, including but not limited to***:

  • a conflict with Iran under Shah Reza Pahlavi, resulting in the loss of half of the valuable Shatt al-Arab waterway region.
  • the Iran-Iraq war itself, and actions during that war such as repeated missile attacks on Tehran — when Baghdad was closer to the border and could be subjected to far worse retaliation.
  • invading Kuwait, despite taking American opposition into account.
  • remaining in Kuwait, despite an immense, months-long buildup of Allied forces in Saudi Arabia.
  • possibly attempting to carry out a biological attack on allied forces, despite the threat of nuclear retaliation.
  • mobilizing forces to the Kuwait border in 1994, thereby threatening to repeat the 1991 invasion.

Most importantly, there are Saddam’s own words; according to an interview with Tariq Aziz (Pollack, p. 187), he claimed after the Gulf war that his biggest mistake was … not to have had nuclear weapons when he invaded Kuwait. It’s not that he’s crazy; it’s that he routinely doesn’t understand what he’s getting into. The same reign of terror that leaves him supreme over a quivering heap of underlings also leaves him supremely unquestioned and uninformed about the likely consequences of his actions. That being the case, Saddam is not deterrable in any conventional sense.

As I’ve mentioned before, Ken Pollack’s book “The Threatening Storm” has been instrumental in changing my mind about this issue. It was not just persuasive in detailing Saddam’s undeterrability. Pollack also marshalled a history that of what I call the “patient accumulation of failures” of U.N. sanctions on Iraq. Recall that until very lately, these peaceful but painful sanctions themselves were under attack by well-meaning but wrong-headed activists in the West: they were killing Iraqi babies, starving Iraqi children, ruining a country. In what I called a kind of moral jiu-jitsu, responsibility for these tribulations was shifted from Hussein to the Security Council and the United States.

Sanctions and containment must fail if the target country is intransigent, and important sanctioning countries, notably France, China, and Russia, secretly or openly undercut the very sanctions they’ve allowed to happen on the Security Council. If even economic sanctions were as politically smelly as they were allowed to become, there was little long term chance of them working, especially with an adversary demonstrably bent on procuring WMD.

If my new assessment of Hussein and Iraq is correct, then once he acquires nuclear weapons, it is only a matter of time before he tries to capitalize on them. He would attack Kuwait or Saudi Arabia again, gambling — and this time with more justification — that the United States would be loathe to start a nuclear war to stop him. We would then face a situation where either outcome is worse than a war with Iraq now would be: either Hussein enriches himself with additional oil fields, to finance additional weaponry with which to pursue new targets — Israel, to be precise — or, sooner or later, the United States opposes him in a far dirtier, deadlier, costlier war with nuclear weapons, either immediately or during the escalation of the conflict. This is my main reason for reluctantly supporting a war now to disarm and topple Hussein.

Arguments adopted: the plight of the Iraqi people
There’s another reason to do so, of course: the reign of terror Saddam has committed against his own people. I haven’t yet faced why this should have for so long been of less concern to me than it was with Bosnia or Kosovo, which routinely pulled me from apoplexy to weary disgust and back again.**** I’m afraid it was another case of “out of sight, out of mind.”

But when I get to fretting too much about the rights and wrongs and laws and politics of it all, I’ll be glad to focus on one thing: a reign of unspeakable evil will have come to an end, and that will be a fine, fine thing. Again, Ken Pollack (p. 123, The Threatening Storm):

This is a regime that will gouge out the eyes of children to force confessions from their parents and grandparents. This is a regime that will crush all of the bones in the feet of a two-year old girl to force her mother to divulge her father’s whereabouts. This is a regime that will hold a nursing baby at arm’s length from its mother and allow it to starve to death to force the mother to confess. This is a regime that will burn a person’s limbs off to force him to confess or comply. This is a regime that will slowly lower its victims into huge vats of acid, either to break their will or simply as a means of execution. This is a regime that applies electric shocks to the bodies of its victims, particularly their genitals, with great creativity. This is a regime that in 2000 decreed that the crime of criticizing the regime … would be punished by cutting out the offender’s tongue. This is a regime that practices systematic rape against its female victims. This is a regime that will drag in a man’s wife, daughter, or other female relative and repeatedly rape her in front of him. This is a regime that will force a white-hot metal rod into a person’s anus or other orifices. This is a regime that employs thalium poisoning, widely considered to be one the most excruciating ways to die. This is a regime that will behead a young mother in the street in front of her house and children because her husband was suspected of opposing the regime. This is a regime that used chemical warfare on its own Kurdish citizens — not just on the fifteen thousand killed and maimed at Halabja but on scores of other villages all across Kurdistan. This is a regime that tested chemical and biological warfare agents on Iranian prisoners of war, using the POWs in controlled experiments to determine the best ways to disperse the agents to inflict the greatest damage.

Who knows: maybe one or the other item in this list will turn out to be an exaggeration, a mistake, a lie. I’m guessing most won’t. Good god-damned riddance to you, Saddam.

Questions unanswered
For many questions I have no answers but: come what may. The goals of toppling Saddam and disarming his regime must be accomplished, it will take a war to accomplish those goals, and that will be ugly and awful. I don’t know how the war will go; it seems too much to hope that the war could go as well as those in 1991, in Kosovo, and in Afghanistan went. The relative ease of those wars is a source of both pride and unease; this is not something to get so good at. Given the likely urban warfare, it may not go so well. I’m uneasy about the “Shock and Awe” strategy I’ve read about, but to call it carpet bombing misses the mark if cruise missiles and guided bombs are involved. The question of the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq is of course paramount, it will be the whole point. It must happen, it must be planned for, it must be done right, it will be expensive, and there’s a lot that can go wrong: that’s all that I can say about it. But uncertainties about the post-war phase don’t have a bearing on whether the war itself is necessary.

Respect, for some
Perhaps illogically, in view of the above, I remain (in principle) respectful of some anti-war positions. My own position mainly comes from weighing one set of hard-to-quantify risks against another, and finding — given good faith and partly successful attempts to gain international approval — in favor of a relatively small war now compared to a possibly much larger war later. I can understand how others might not arrive at the same conclusion, or how their principles could prevent them from adopting the recourse of war even if they accept that conclusion.

The world is not what it should be; the right solution to the Iraqi crisis either demands the realism of a soldier or the idealism of a peace activist. Either choice brings danger and sorrow with it: peace means continued repression now, and may well mean a greater war later; war means death and destruction now, and untold unwanted consequences later. At this point, either choice may be plausibly claimed to accelerate WMD proliferation elsewhere in the world. I don’t see how anyone can be anything but regretful, anxious, and uncertain about what lies ahead.

That said, I think the French and Germans have misused their positions as friends and allies. Were they in imminent danger because of the war, that might be different, but they are not. Were they in a position to propose and implement a practical alternative on their own, that might different, but they are not. Instead, they block measures of self-defense for a country, Turkey, which is directly affected. They craft plans which appear to leave the United States holding the bag of a long-term military alert for tens of thousands of its troops, assigned to a long-distance defense of a relative handful of (likely) European UN troops assigned to guard a continuing farcical inspection which has already served its purpose: to display Iraqi non-cooperation. And they join self-satisfied fools like Donald Rumsfeld in tearing down a relationship between nations, and increasingly between peoples, that took decades to develop. The net result will be the opposite of what they want: Saddam — convinced he still has a chance — will hold out, and there will be war.

On the other hand, I oppose attempts to silence or shame American citizens (or citizens of any country) against the coming war, from tearing down a lawn sign, to failing to allow a protest march to take place, to tarring a rally’s participants with the immaterial views of the organizers who sign the permit papers. Americans should always “err” on the side of free expression and free speech; we should try to hear and respect eachother, and not try to find picayune reasons not to. That applies to the anti-war side as well, by the way.

Good luck to us all, particularly to the innocents among the Iraqi people, to the American and allied and even most Iraqi soldiers caught in the middle of the storm, and to all of us in this country who will be joining a “home front” whether we like it or not.

As inconsistency appears to be the hallmark of my creed, I’ll compound it: with a non-believer’s prayer for all of us, and all of them, to any god who will accept it.

=====
* I emphatically part ways with some writers in that I continue to regard biological and chemical weapons as part and parcel of the WMD issue. As I wrote a while back, they’re quite massive enough for me. As has become clear during the inspections farce currently underway in Iraq, they also serve as a useful measuring stick: Iraq’s actions in hiding “mere” chemical or biological weapons does not augur well at all for its forthrightness about nuclear weapons development.
** The other difference, of course, is called “Seoul with 12,000 artillery pieces held to its head.”
*** Invasion of Kuwait: The Glaspie incident is cited by many as proof either that Saddam got a green light, or that we knew he was going to attack. Neither is the case. Many have seized on Glaspie’s statement that “…we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” But to not have an opinion on the precise location of a dotted line on a map was not to say that dotted line shouldn’t exist. Following her meeting with Saddam, Glaspie miscommunicated his position to Washington; the title of her July 25, 1990 cable to the State Department was “Saddam’s Message of Peace” (Pollack, p.34); Pollack and others read the opposite message between the lines of the interview, but Glaspie’s interpretation prevailed. Saddam attacked Kuwait on August 2nd. It’s clear Saddam expected to be opposed; he simply assumed the opposition would be token and that Americans would not stomach the casualties involved. Republican Guard units created beach defenses immediately after the invasion. Here is a PBS Frontline account of the buildup to the Gulf War. Incidentally, Saddam threatened the U.S. during the interview as follows: “We cannot come all the way to you in the United States, but individual Arabs may reach you.”
Bioweapons attack: An unconfirmed CIA report stated that an Iraqi plane with characteristic drop tanks, modified to spray biological weapons, was shot down along with its two escort planes before it could carry out the attack (Pollack, p.264). Pollack discounts the report as unconfirmed, but obviously thinks the possibility is worth mentioning. Saddam did move chemical weapons into the battlefield vicinity of Kuwait; he may simply have been prevented from using them by the rout that was Desert Storm.
Saddam statement: Pollack, p.187; according to the source Pollack cites, a LANL Center for National Security Studies report, Saddam also said he should have continued into Saudi Arabia.

**** In a long-ago “DC Blogfest“, the issue came up: Jim Henley, in the course of denouncing American policy about Iraq, threw in Kosovo for good measure, as he did again recently. Henley is a principled person, and I respect him for that, but to let your principles lock you into opposing the Kosovo intervention — after a near-decade of Serbian rapine and murder throughout the Balkans — is to be a slave to some principles while ignoring others I’m confident Henley shares. It is, frankly, a kind of blindness of its own to focus on mistakes, lies, whatever the 100,000 Kosovo dead report turns out to be, but ignore the larger truth that Milosevic and his Serbian thugocracy were guilty of mass murders and torments quite bad enough to justify the fear that more might well be in the offing. To Clinton’s enduring credit (and, yes, to Schroeder’s and Fischer’s less enduring credit as well), the larger truth the transatlantic community spoke in Kosovo was that even 1 or 10 or 100 more was finally, finally, finally enough.

UPDATE, 11/5/2004: By the summer of 2004, the absence of WMD and the poorly waged occupation forced me to re-evaluate. Many arguments above remain forceful to me, given that I didn’t know then what I know now. But some do not. I haven’t fully worked out how I’d respond to this item now, but some starts are here:
A reassessment — This was simply a ‘full disclosure’ item; I’ll update it if I post fuller reevaluations than these:

8 Responses to “With regrets: For war on Saddam”

  1. newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » Worth reading Says:

    [...] * For some of my own attempts at a reckoning with my own last-minute support (With regrets — for war on Saddam, 2/13/03) , see False premises , A screwed up war (both 10/28/04) and a post about the 9/24/05 [...]

  2. newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » Senator Clinton and the Iraq AUMF Says:

    [...] As some reading this blog know, I made arguments similar to Senator Clinton’s in 2003. But at least I now recognize at least some of the [...]

  3. newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » Thoughts on "Bush’s War"; on the road Says:

    [...] well — and ours too, at least for those of us (like me) who let ourselves be swayed into ever supporting it. I feel like I’ve said my mea culpas — and probably ought to extend them sometime. [...]

  4. newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » A reassessment Says:

    [...] it began. In February of 2003, I finally laid out my arguments in a lengthy piece titled “With Regrets: For War on Saddam.” I stuck with that position for quite a [...]

  5. newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » With regrets, indeed: confessions of a one-time Iraq war supporter Says:

    [...] Aziz Poonawalla asked me to let him post a blog posting of mine from February 13, 2003 – With regrets: For war on Saddam — along with a few comments about how I came to repudiate my former position on Iraq [...]

  6. Iraq War retrospective: the liberal case for war #iraq10 - City of Brass Says:

    [...] Another was Thomas Nephew, who is a friend of mine, who wrote a very lengthy piece entitled “with regrets, for war on Saddam” that is perhaps the best-argued case for war that existed at the time. This is one of the [...]

  7. one liberal’s case for war and subsequent repudiation #iraq10 - City of Brass Says:

    [...] with permission of Thomas Nephew. Read the original post at Thomas’ blog, with extensive footnotes and updates linking to the change of [...]

  8. newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » Happy Birthday Mission Accomplished Says:

    [...] And I should re-read it. [...]

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