Tuesday, January 27, 2004

After Iraq: Are we safer?

The Republican talking points are out there: If anyone says that the war wasn't worth fighting, then they must want Saddam Hussein back in power. This, somehow, makes us less safe.

First, it should be said that the former charge is completely ridiculous. I don't know a single person who doesn't think it's a good thing that Saddam's out of power. However, that doesn't mean the war was worth fighting. In the recent issue of Details, I found the best argument against the "getting rid of Saddam makes the war all worth it" blather of the right. In a tiny, throwaway sidebar to a story about carbohydrates in food, the Iraq war is compared to the Atkins diet. It's perfect. In fact, you can insert any fad diet or health program and have the perfect analogy. Hell, even smoking works.

The point is this: The Atkins diet may help you lose weight, but it's not good for your long-term health. Eating only lettuce will have the effect, with different (but equally detrimental effects) to your overall health. And smoking, Ephedra and Fen-Phen can all decrease your appetite, with only the minor added problem that they'll also kill you.

At the point of death, of course, you begin to lose weight like a champ.

In other words, it's a good thing that Saddam's gone, but was it worth the cost to go to war now? We had so many other things to worry about -- al Qaeda, jobs, etc. -- and, after the tax cuts, very little money in the national coffer. What, then, made Saddam so evil that he had to be disposed of immediately? Asking this question doesn't mean I want Hussein back in power. Asking a formerly obese friend if smoking crack was the right way to lose weight doesn't mean I want him to get fat again.

But, say the true believers, Saddam's a mass murderer.

That's true, of course, but the timing is still suspect. As the keynote essay in Human Rights Watch's World Report 2004: Human Rights and Armed Conflict makes clear, humanitarian intervention is only an excuse when you're actually intervening. Showing up 16 years too late does no one any good.

Because the Iraq war was not mainly about saving the Iraqi people from mass slaughter, and because no such slaughter was then ongoing or imminent, Human Rights Watch at the time took no position for or against the war. A humanitarian rationale was occasionally offered for the war, but it was so plainly subsidiary to other reasons that we felt no need to address it. Indeed, if Saddam Hussein had been overthrown and the issue of weapons of mass destruction reliably dealt with, there clearly would have been no war, even if the successor government were just as repressive. Some argued that Human Rights Watch should support a war launched on other grounds if it would arguably lead to significant human rights improvements. But the substantial risk that wars guided by non-humanitarian goals will endanger human rights keeps us from adopting that position.

Over time, the principal justifications originally given for the Iraq war lost much of their force. More than seven months after the declared end of major hostilities, weapons of mass destruction have not been found. No significant prewar link between Saddam Hussein and international terrorism has been discovered. The difficulty of establishing stable institutions in Iraq is making the country an increasingly unlikely staging ground for promoting democracy in the Middle East. As time elapses, the Bush administration?s dominant remaining justification for the war is that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who deserved to be overthrown?an argument of humanitarian intervention. The administration is now citing this rationale not simply as a side benefit of the war but also as a prime justification for it. Other reasons are still regularly mentioned, but the humanitarian one has gained prominence.

Does that claim hold up to scrutiny? The question is not simply whether Saddam Hussein was a ruthless leader; he most certainly was. Rather, the question is whether the conditions were present that would justify humanitarian intervention?conditions that look at more than the level of repression. If so, honesty would require conceding as much, despite the war?s global unpopularity. If not, it is important to say so as well, since allowing the arguments of humanitarian intervention to serve as a pretext for war fought mainly on other grounds risks tainting a principle whose viability might be essential to save countless lives.

The essay goes on to say that, if we'd wanted to, we could have intervened and saved thousands of lives in Iraq, but that was back in the late 1980s and early 90s.

If you doubt that this is an accurate portrayal of events or that humanitarian reasoning for the war was secondary, I challenge you to find an instance where Bush said that Saddam Hussein must start treating his people better to prevent war. He never did. There were numerous instances of he-must-disarm speech, but I don't think you'll find one where he added that Hussein also had to start paying closer attention to human rights.

The point of the war, which is obvious to anyone who paid attention, was to make America safer. Saddam, the Bush administration said on many occasions, had weapons of mass destruction on hand and, being crazy, might use them against us. There are two answers to the question of whether he had them or not: he did or he didn't. It seems right now that the latter is true, as David Kay has reported. Robert Kaplan summarized much of the Kay report this way in Slate:

Iraq's weapons and facilities, (Kay) says, had been destroyed in three phases: by allied bombardment in the 1991 Gulf War; by U.N. inspectors in the half-decade after that war; and by President Clinton's 1998 bombing campaign...Kay adds that Saddam tried to resuscitate some of these programs, but?due to sanctions, fear of inspections, and lack of resources?he was not able to do so.

The weapons were gone before the shooting started. We were safe all along.

Unless, the former of the two previous choices was true and Saddam had WMD. The question remains, though, did the war make us safer? Hell no.

The inspections were working, Kay suggested in his October report. Saddam was kept in a box. But what if he did have weapons and, by attacking when we did, we scattered them like a child kicking dandelions? Kay himself skirted this issue Sunday on NPR:

Because of the breakdown of social and political order at the end of the war -- and rioting and looting continued unchecked for at least two months -- we're going to be left with ambiguity as to what we found. My summary view, based on what I've seen, is that we are unlikely to find stockpiles -- large stockpiles -- of weapons. I don't think they exist.

Or maybe he meant he hopes they don't exist.

The upshot is this: We are not safer today because of the Iraq war and neither are Iraqis. We are either just as safe as ever and our soldiers died for nothing (if there were no WMD) or we are in a much worse situation (if the alleged weapons have been scattered to the four winds). The war was fought at the wrong time and at too high a cost. Those who refuse to face the facts and, instead, turn to alternate reasons for our attacks are showing that they are unable to face hard facts and should not be trusted.


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