Could a "better case" have been made for war?
Sat, 22 Mar 2003 14:37:47 -0800
Russell Turpin forwards a quote from Paul Berman in Salon:
> "In my interpretation, the basic thing that the
> United States wants to do -- overthrow Saddam
> and get rid of his weapons -- is sharply in the
> interest of almost everybody all over the world.
> And although the U.S. is proposing to act in the
> interest of the world, Bush has managed to
> terrify the entire world and to turn the world
> against him and us and to make our situation
> infinitely more dangerous than it otherwise
> would have been. It's a display of diplomatic
> and political incompetence on a colossal scale.
> We're going to pay for this."
> The full interview is in Salon. I thought it
> relevant to the current debate between Hall
> and Bone. You'll have to click through an ad,
> but they've made it pretty easy:
Berman suggests Bush-43 should have made the case for
outright regime change -- for the benefit of Iraqis, the
region, and the world -- more directly.
I don't think that approach would have done any better
at getting more people and nations on board. In many ways,
both history and the shameful hypocrisies of "the
international community" made the strong "liberal"
case for regime-change war unworkable. Bush's hands
were tied, because:
(1) Long before Bush-43 was in office, the US made
these arguments halfheartedly and insincerely -- and
our lack of followthrough left those arguments
Bush-41 discussed how awful the Baath regime was, but
deferred to the UN, deferred to the French, deferred
to the Russians, deferred to forces in his own
administration, and only acted against the regime's
expansionism and militarism -- not against its domestic
Yet even the tangential use of humanitarian arguments led
tens of thousands of Iraqis to believe we'd show some
followthrough -- and instead they were slaughtered.
Further, Saddam-2003 is no worse than Saddam-1998 or
Saddam-1991 or Saddam-1980s (when we aided his regime
to prevent an Iranian victory in the Iran-Iraq war).
Just as people say today, "why Iraq when not [awful
regime X]", they'd be saying "why 2003 when not 1998 or
1991?" I think this is ultimately a bogus objection;
just because we can't engage every wrong in the world,
at every time, doesn't mean we shouldn't choose some
places where we can engage -- but among the deeply
conservative (as in anti-change) reasoning that trumps
logical or moral reasoning among the vast majority of
people, such objections are very potent.
In contrast to the humanitarian case, the disarmament
case offers answers to the questions "Why Iraq?" and
"Why now?" There are the post-Gulf-War-I agreements
and UN resolutions setting specific standards for
Iraq's disarmament, for which specific violations can
be alleged and/or proven. There is the presumption that
violations of such agreements justify military action --
while the idea that domestic oppression justifies
international intervention has yet to be as firmly
(2) There is **no** chance the UN would back the
humanitarian "regime change" argument.
Are we supposed to believe that the French, who say "non!"
to enforcing a disarmament program well-established
by previous agreements and UN resolutions, would say "oui!"
to a more radical, morally judgemental program which
demanded total regime change?
Or that the Chinese, Russians, or temporary Security
Council members like Syria, Pakistan, and Angola would
embrace such a program?
The UN is not a parliament representing the world's
people; it is a club of the world's goverments, all
of whom are illiberal rights-violating mobsters to
one degree or another.
Further, the regime change argument leaves no room
for compromise or diplomatic finesse. It is an
all-or-nothing position; you can't inspect Saddam
out of power.
So for Bush to have made Berman's preferred case for
war would have meant jettisoning any role for the UN,
and any role for wishy-washy "we tried peace" allies,
from the very start. That could have been an even worse
world PR disaster. We might have faced a UN security
resolution *against* US action -- that we would have had
to veto -- rather than simply the absense of a
resolution endorsing our actions.
(3) People wouldn't believe (or even hear) the
humanitarian argument, when it was coming from Bush-43.
In fact, Bush-43 has been making the regime change
argument all along -- even if not as part of the UN
diplomacy (where, as noted above, it has little
potency). People just don't want to hear it.
The US has been making the case for years -- dating
back to the Congress-passed, Clinton-42-signed 1998
law PL-105-338 which made regime change in Iraq the
official policy of the US over 4 years ago:
But to the extent the media and world were even paying
attention, they don't believe Bush-43 is sincere, or
they insist on portraying this case as a contradiction
with the anti-"nation-building" stance of Bush-43 in his
campaign for office.
So each time Bush-43 mentioned the humanitarian case,
it was deemphasized by the media, mocked as unserious or
inconsistent, and considered incompatible with the ongoing
narrative of UN-give-and-take (which could never have
settled on a program of humanitarian-motivated, militarily-
enforced regime change).
That feedback loop meant that Berman's preferred rhetoric
receded into the background in the prewar era -- and the
humanitarian case didn't have much hope of improving
Bush-43's diplomacy or base of public support.
Now that the war is underway, I expect the dynamics will
change. Bush-43's ultimatum was not "disarm now or else"
but "leave or else". The artificial "disarmament" agenda
concocted to give a hope of winning UN approval is obsolete.
Stories from liberated regions inside of Iraq will make it
clear what an ongoing threat the Baath regime's ambitions
were to the Iraqi people, Iraq's neighbors, and the western
Berman will see his preferred case made -- but only now that
the world is ready for it.