The New Republic | 10.10.02 | by Jonathan Chait

False Alarm

Why liberals should support the war

It is perhaps telling that the case for war with Iraq was most clearly made not by Republican President George W. Bush but by Democratic President Bill Clinton. "Predators of the twenty-first century," Clinton warned, speaking four and a half years ago, "will be all the more lethal if we allow them to build arsenals of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them. ... There is no more clear example of this threat than Saddam Hussein's Iraq." And if the world were to allow Saddam to continue to construct his terrible weapons? "Well, he will conclude that the international community has lost its will," Clinton declared. "He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal."

As American liberals contemplate the current president's proposed war with Iraq, it's worth pondering his predecessor's logic. For if you accept Clinton's reasoning--and few liberals objected at the time--you can hardly help but resolve that we must eliminate Iraq's nonconventional arsenal by any means at our disposal, including, if all else fails, war. Two things have changed since Clinton's comments: First, in late 1998 Saddam effectively shut down U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq, breaking the back of the already ailing inspections regime and granting himself four largely unfettered years in which to continue developing weapons of mass destruction; and second, in early 2001 Clinton was replaced in office by a Republican. The first of these points unquestionably strengthens the case for war: Saddam has provided strong evidence that he will not allow anything to deter him from pursuing weapons of mass destruction.

But many of my fellow liberals appear driven more by the second point. When asked about war, they typically offer the following propositions: President Bush has cynically timed the debate to bolster Republican chances in the November elections, he has pursued his Iraq policy with an arrogant disregard for the views of Congress and the public, and his rationales for military action have been contradictory and in some cases false. I happen to believe all these criticisms are true (although the first is hard to prove) and that they add more evidence to what is already a damning indictment of the Bush presidency. But these are objections to the way Bush has carried out his Iraq policy rather than to the policy itself. (If Bush were to employ such dishonest tactics on behalf of, say, universal health care, that wouldn't make the policy a bad idea.) Ultimately the central question is: Does war with Iraq promote liberal foreign policy principles? The answer is yes, it does.

Liberals and conservatives share many foreign policy values in common: encouraging democracy and capitalism, responding to direct aggression, and so on. That is why, for instance, both overwhelmingly supported overthrowing the Taliban and hunting down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In the post-cold-war era, though, liberals have centered their thinking around certain ideals with which conservatives do not agree. Writing in these pages in 1999, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer identified three distinctly liberal principles: advancing humanitarian (rather than merely national) interests; observing international law; and acting in concert with international institutions, such as the United Nations. Krauthammer cited these three principles in order to dismiss them. I disagree. Underlying all three is an understanding that American global dominance cannot last unless it is accepted by the rest of the world, and that cannot happen unless it operates on behalf of the broader good and on the basis of principles more elevated than "might makes right."

Do these three liberal precepts militate against war with Iraq? Certainly the liberal concern for humanitarianism should not stand in the way. We are contemplating, after all, the overthrow of one of the most internally violent and repressive regimes on Earth. Indeed, from a purely humanitarian perspective, the case for this war is stronger than for the Gulf war--in which we restored a dissolute, authoritarian monarchy in Kuwait and left Saddam's tyrannical regime in place. No matter how badly we might bungle a post-Saddam rebuilding of Iraq--and Bush's record in Afghanistan, alas, suggests little reason for optimism--it is difficult to imagine that deposing Saddam will not greatly improve the living conditions and human rights of the Iraqi people.

It's true that absent an internal coup, toppling the Iraqi government would lead to the loss of life among innocent Iraqis. But the fact that a military action causes casualties does not mean it cannot be justified in liberal eyes: Witness liberal support for U.S. action in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Somalia. Moreover, post-Gulf war advancements in precision bombing have made the American military better at minimizing civilian casualties. And there is abundant evidence that a large portion of the Iraqi populace is willing to endure physical danger in order to oust Saddam: All of the major Iraqi exile groups--even those that oppose the current sanctions regime--support a war to overthrow Saddam. Iraqi Kurds and Shias rose up against Saddam when he looked weak in 1991, and thousands gave their lives in the effort. Humanitarianism may not be a sufficient rationale for war in and of itself--liberals don't want to go around overthrowing every government that mistreats its citizens. But it certainly isn't a compelling reason not to go to war.

A more serious sticking point would seem to be international law. War with Iraq worries liberals in part because it seems to come right out of the blue. The Bush administration has inadvertently stoked this fear by blundering the argument. First, it has framed war with Iraq as a continuing response to the September 11 attacks. But there's not yet convincing evidence that Iraq lent meaningful support to Al Qaeda, and the lessons of last year's attack would suggest action against terrorist groups and the states that most aggressively support them (e.g., Iran and Syria), not Iraq. Barbra Streisand's contention in a memo to the Democratic leadership that "Sadam [sic] Hussein did not bomb the World Trade Center," is--however facile--true.

Second, the Bush administration has justified war with Iraq as the first exercise of its new doctrine of "preemption," whereby the United States, in defiance of international law, can attack rival states that pose a non-imminent threat. Liberals, normally, find such a prospect alarming. "International law seems to count for nothing in this administration's view of the world," the editors of The American Prospect wrote in a joint antiwar editorial. "Not only does preemption violate the U.N. charter and set a dangerous precedent for other countries, it also risks triggering wars we might otherwise avoid." By framing war with Iraq as the model for a new foreign policy doctrine under which we can attack anybody we deem a threat, without any regard for the opinion of the world or even our allies, Bush has made it anathema to liberals.

But opposing the administration's expansive new preemption doctrine does not require one to oppose its intended war with Iraq. Here, again, the administration has bungled the argument. The more persuasive justification for war is that Iraq has violated a series of U.N. resolutions requiring its disarmament and compliance with weapons inspections. Yes, lots of countries violate U.N. resolutions. What makes Iraq's violation a casus belli is that it agreed to disarm as a condition of ending the Gulf war. War with Iraq does not require trashing international law. Just the opposite: Sustaining international law is central to its very rationale.

Indeed, if you want to get technical, the Gulf war never really ended. Hostilities came to a halt April 9, 1991, when Iraq agreed to U.N. cease-fire resolution 687, which required Iraq to "unconditionally accept the destruction, removal or rendering harmless" of its weapons of mass destruction and missiles with a range of 150 kilometers or more. But Iraq refused to cooperate with the U.N.'s efforts to locate and destroy these weapons. Time and again, Iraq demanded concessions from the inspectors--requiring advance notice, barring them based on nationality, and exempting "presidential sites," which included areas as large as Washington, D.C. Its allies on the Security Council continuously supported Iraq's cause, which merely emboldened Saddam to demand more concessions, until at last he dispensed with even the pretense of cooperating with UNSCOM. In a pathetic display of appeasement the United Nations created a new inspections regime to be staffed by more compliant inspectors, operating under absurdly restrictive conditions, but Saddam refused to cooperate with even that.

The dangerous legacy of this episode is obvious. When a belligerent dictator sees that he can flout the dictates of international law without resistance, he and other dictators will grow emboldened to pursue future aggression. And, of course, the underlying substance of Saddam's conflict with international law--his ongoing efforts to build long-range missiles and nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons--has only grown more crucial since his 1998 expulsion of the weapons inspectors. Nonetheless, this latter point has come into dispute of late, with many liberals arguing that the threat of annihilation would deter Iraq from using, or even threatening to use, nuclear weapons. "I think Saddam knows that if they ever used a weapon of mass destruction, that they'd be destroyed in turn," argued Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin. "They are interested in power." It naturally follows from this argument that Iraqi nuclear weapons would pose no significant danger to the world. If that's the case, though, not only should we not threaten war to stop the Iraqi weapons buildup, we should lift all sanctions designed to halt it. (After all, sanctions undoubtedly harm the Iraqi people.) The very fact that liberals vehemently insist upon the necessity of an inspections regime at the same time they claim deterrence will protect us suggests that they do not truly believe the latter argument.

And why should they? The claim that Saddam can be deterred from using weapons of mass destruction rests on the assumption that he is a rational actor. But Saddam's history, as former CIA Iraq analyst Kenneth Pollack argued in The New York Times last month, is replete with irrational behavior. In the 1970s he attacked Iranian-armed Kurds, resulting in a humiliating accord in which he ceded territory to Iran. He has launched two costly, ill-fated wars and ordered an assassination of President George H.W. Bush--an adventure that, had it succeeded, may well have led to an American invasion and the end of his regime. These are not the actions of a man concerned only with survival and power.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of Saddam's irrationality, however, is his very obsession with obtaining weapons of mass destruction. Had Saddam acceded to U.N. demands at the close of the Gulf war, international sanctions against Iraq would likely have been lifted years ago. In the absence of sanctions, Iraq could have pumped as many as six million barrels of crude oil per day; with the tens of billions of dollars that came from this, Saddam could have pursued his passion for palace-building to an unprecedented degree, built a conventional military more than strong enough to deter aggression by his neighbors, and perhaps even made his country a better place. Instead, under the sanctions regime, he has been allowed to pump just 1.4 million barrels of oil per day and has been prohibited from purchasing steel, computers, and other goods he surely covets. As a result his army is dilapidated and his populace poor and restive. Moreover, his intransigence has earned him repeated attacks from American planes and missiles, and large chunks of his country are, for all practical purposes, independent of his rule. If American deterrence renders Saddam's weapons of mass destruction useless, then why does he endure such sacrifices to acquire them? Perhaps his mania for building them is irrational--but, then, it's hard to see why he would be irrational in the acquisition of these weapons but rational in their use.

Perhaps because they don't fully trust deterrence to protect the world from Saddam, liberals have fallen back on another argument: OK, we can go to war with Saddam, but only if we garner the support of our allies and the United Nations. This line of reasoning, relying on the third liberal principle, multilateralism, has become the most prominent objection of war critics. A full-page advertisement in The New York Times last week, paid for by Common Cause and signed by the likes of Derek Bok, Mario Cuomo, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., sums up this thinking: "It would be unacceptable for the United States (except if it had to repel sudden attacks) to enforce the authority of the United Nations by actions that dispense with U.N. approval." The suggestion here is that U.N. approval amounts to a sine qua non of American military action. But liberals have not elevated it to this level before. Many opposed the Gulf war at the time, even though we led a broad international coalition and enjoyed U.N. backing. And many supported U.S. intervention in Kosovo, a campaign that lacked U.N. authority and was condemned by Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a result. International support, then, is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for liberals to support a war.

Nor should it be. While some war critics speak of the U.N.'s judgment as if it came from Mount Olympus, in practical fact it is influenced by all sorts of considerations that liberals ought to abhor. When critics invoke U.N. backing, they mean not the General Assembly, which represents all nations, but the Security Council or generally just the four other permanent members thereof. And almost nowhere are the principles of power politics more evident in international affairs than among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, who owe their position to the fact that they are (or, in the case of France and Britain, were) the world's preeminent military powers. Indeed, one (China) is a dictatorship, and another (Russia) is a quasi-dictatorship. Not only have Security Council members undermined inspections and appeased Saddam, they have done so less because of any moral scruples than because they want to safeguard their corporations' profits. Liberals don't want to see U.S. foreign policy dictated by the interests of American oil companies. Why is it better if it is dictated by the interests of French and Russian oil companies?

But while international support cannot be an absolute moral prerequisite, then neither should its pragmatic advantages be discounted. For example, we certainly should not squander international goodwill on trivial things like buying off domestic pressure groups. If Bush truly put national security ahead of political concerns, for example, he wouldn't have infuriated American allies by pushing lavish farm subsidies and steel and textile tariffs or by ostentatiously opposing the Kyoto Protocol. But on critical issues--such as the potential threat posed by a nuclear Iraq--our national interests may supersede the advantages of international consensus. If given the choice of maintaining good relations with the rest of the world or disarming Saddam, I would pick the latter.

Still, the best-case scenario would be an aggressive effort to disarm Saddam that enjoyed substantial international support--and many liberals believe this is an attainable goal. "I could support an Iraq war with a genuine purpose of getting at its weapons of mass destruction, whether by force or (ideally) by forcing it to accept weapons inspections," submitted TNR contributing editor Robert Wright, arguing against war in Slate.com last week. Paul Starr, writing an antiwar column in The American Prospect, maintains, "If the Bush administration had proceeded differently--if it had established a legal basis for military action, perhaps by working through the United Nations; if it had built allied support; if it had genuinely pursued alternatives to forcible `regime change'--war might have emerged, by general agreement here and abroad, as a necessary final resort."

What makes such liberal criticisms so strange is that they hinge upon the assumption that Bush's unilateralism is the main obstacle to a tough, U.N.-backed inspections regime. This reading gets cause and effect backward: The only reason the Security Council is even considering a tough Iraq resolution is Bush's talk of regime change. After all, the United States spent nearly a decade trying exactly what liberals now implore Bush to do--working collaboratively with other members of the Security Council to come up with an Iraq policy that splits the difference between America's (overwhelmingly security-related) interests and Russia's and France's (overwhelmingly economic) interests. The result was a clear failure. France and Russia allowed Iraq to reduce the inspections regime to near-meaninglessness and then, when Iraq would not abide even by that, refused to endorse any consequences whatsoever. If our allies were too solicitous of Iraq to support loophole-ridden inspections backed by the threat of pinprick bombing, why would they support tough inspections backed by the threat of full-scale invasion now?

The only thing that might change their minds is the threat that Bush would attack Iraq without them. Such a prospect would weaken the relevance of their Security Council seats and endanger their economic standing in a post-Saddam Iraq. If forced to choose between tough inspections and nothing, the allies have shown they prefer nothing. If forced to choose between tough inspections and unilateral war, it now looks as though they will choose inspections. Had Bush foresworn unilateral action, as liberals have implored, the prospects for the tough U.N. inspections they now urge would be nonexistent.

So, if Bush is heading in the direction liberals want to go, why do they regard his policy with such hostility? The answer seems to be that they regard their policy as one that will render war a remote, mainly theoretical, possibility. The Common Cause ad pleads that war be only "a last resort" and maintains that Saddam "can be made to respond to diplomatic pressures if these are backed by a credible and sustained military threat." But of course a threat is only credible if you're prepared to follow through on it. And at the moment it would seem to be impossible to design a military threat credible enough to alarm Saddam but not so credible that it alarms Derek Bok.

Deluded by the hope that they can have multilateralism and disarmament without the risk of war, liberals have concentrated their intellectual energies on the slim possibility that the United Nations will approve an airtight inspections system and that Saddam will submit to it. If that happens, they would not support a unilateral Bush war. And for that matter, neither would I. But the chance of that happening is small. We have eleven years of accumulated evidence suggesting that the United Nations will not approve loophole-free inspections and that even if it does, Saddam will defy it once more. Which is why it's strange to find so many liberals who consider themselves antiwar conceding that, if all else fails, they would support military action against Iraq. "All else" has failed for more than a decade. And barring a profound character reversal by Saddam, "all else" will likely fail again in the coming months. Just how many times are we supposed to go down this road before we realize our last resort may be our only option?

Copyright 2002, The New Republic

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