A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE
Humanitarian Arguments For the War in Iraq
THE RIGHT WAR?
The Conservatives’ Debate on Iraq
Listen to any conversation on the Iraq war in a Cairo teahouse or a Paris café and you are likely to hear that the removal of Saddam Hussein from power was nothing but the result of a plot hatched by pro-Bush Conservatives in the United States and Britain.
According to that theory President George W Bush was duped into invading Iraq by pro-Likud neo-conservatives who had infiltrated his administration with a view to using America’s power for the purpose of reshaping the Middle East on the basis of Israel’s strategic interests.
But was there such a plot?
And did American and British conservatives really back the invasion of Iraq?
By coincidence the two books reviewed here tackle those, and many other questions, in a series of often well-written essays written by a variety of academics, politicians, and philosophers that have long pondered the pros and cons of what is, by far, the most controversial war in recent memory.
What is interesting is that the first book, in which the war is justified on humanitarian grounds, is written almost entirely by left-wing thinkers, academics and politicians. ( The only exception is Roger Scruton, the most prominent philosopher of the right in Britain today). The second book, however, offers only right-wingers- from Henry Kissinger to Pat Buchanan- and is critical of the war for a variety of reasons.
By reading these two books side by side one draws a conclusion that defies the conventional wisdom on Iraq: the war had as many strong supporters on the left as it had strong opponents on the right. Thus to think that the war was a plot by neoconservatives is far-fetched to say the least. It is equally wrong to assume that the left was unanimous in its opposition to the removal of Saddam Hussein from power.
The arguments offered in support of the war could be summed up this way: regardless of Bush’s motives, the idea of freeing the peoples of Iraq from the Ba’athist yoke was a moral one. The fall of Saddam Hussein has allowed the Iraqis to dismantle the structures of despotism erected during five decades of repressive rule. Iraq now has a chance to try something different. And there is hope that it will choose a more humane system in which the state does not act as the enemy of the people. No one, of course, knows whether or not new Iraq will succeed. But no one can deny that for the first time ever Iraq can think of a people-based system of government.
The writers of essays in “A Matter of Principle” are often critical of the way the Bush administration has handled the post-war situation.
They also concede that the reasons that Bush, and to a lesser extent British Prime Minister Tony Blair, put forward for the invasion of Iraq may not have been legally sound and politically honest, if that is not an oxymoron.
Some also allow for the possibility that the US and its coalition allies decided to invade Iraq not out of humanitarian concerns but on the basis of calculations that had to do with strategic, security, and energy interests.
But even then they admit that it is possible for different interests to exist side by side. In other words the US and its allies acted out of what could be called enlightened self interest. In removing Saddam Hussein from power they were serving their own interests while also doing something good for the people of Iraq.
The general tone of virtually all the essays is favourable to further similar interventions. The argument is that the world cannot sit back and watch as repressive regime terrorise, imprison, torture, maim and kill their citizens while building war machines to attack their neighbours.
The second book, edited by Rosen and representing the conservative point of view, disagrees with that thesis. It argues that the sovereignty of nation-states, a concept that developed with the Treaty of Westphalia in the 18th century, must remain sacrosanct. It is no business of other states if a nation-state is engaged in the repression or even massacre of its citizens.
The theory that the war was initiated to serve Israel’s interest is advanced by the ultra-rightist journalist Pat Buchanan, once a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan.
Kissinger’s essay is interesting because it indicates a subtle change of course by the grand old man of American diplomacy. Kissinger initially supported the war, though it violated his cherished doctrines of balance of power and Realpolitik. Now, however, he is trying to appear less enthusiastic, perhaps because support for the war has declined even among pro-Bush Republicans.
One argument used by several essayists is that the Iraq war has antagonised the Muslim world, thus undermining Western security.
This is a strange argument. For if the Muslims were to become angry why would they accept the invasion of Afghanistan and not of Iraq? In fact the more radical Islamists should be angrier over Afghanistan where their ideological brethren ruled rather than Iraq where the Ba’ath presented a secularist, and at times actively atheistic, profile. An Islamist militant would prefer Mullah Muhammad Omar to Saddam Hussein.
Read together the two books offer at least three crucial lessons.
The first is that the very idea of war is overwhelmingly unpopular in the West. In fact, a majority of Westerners look upon war with as much horror as they do on cannibalism, slavery, and incest. There was a time when, citing Aristotle, Western intellectuals regarded war as the highest form of human endeavour. War was the noblest art in whose service all other arts found meaning and justification. That time is long gone and, today, the average citizen of the Western democracies is prepared to do virtually anything, and put up with a great deal, to avoid war.
The second is that the arguments for and against any military action are more geared to domestic politics in the West than the merits or demerits of the war itself. Thus opponents of the war in the US are not as interested in Iraq as they are in using the issue as a means of weakening the Bush presidency.
Finally, both books show that the debate over the Iraqi war is far from fading away. In fact, may be, it is just beginning.