Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Thursday, March 20, 2003  

The bombs are falling. Early reports from the Pentagon are hopeful that in these first hours, Saddam Hussein may even be dead. The war is on—and it will now play out however it can play out, with peace activists and diplomats mute on the sidelines, hoping now that all the intelligence and all the might of the US armed forces will amount to a very quick, very successful resolution.

Meantime, there’s a surge of support for the US at home, abroad, and among foreign nations recently opposed to the war. There are backlashes against those who criticized the White House’s actions leading up to the war, and now, there are even those encouraging progressives to support the war—for progressive reasons.

In an article on Salon, Edward W. Lempinen tries to make this point:

“What are we doing to make sure that not another woman is raped or beheaded as a form of political terror? What are we doing to make sure that not another man is humiliated and rendered mute and powerless as the ex-general was? What are we doing to shut down the headquarters of General Intelligence? In the community of human rights monitors, work toward these goals is heroic and often dangerous. These would seem also to be urgent goals for all who consider themselves progressive. But for the most part, in all the angry debate over the war, the left rarely discusses these issues. We acknowledge Saddam as a ruthless dictator and lament his human rights abuses, but we focus our rage on Bush.”

War is a time of extreme chaos. As people slide into increasingly reactive states of mind and opinion, it’s critical to remind ourselves why this is a bad war: not for leftists or anti-Bushies or pacifists, but for America.

The Pre-emption Doctrine
This war is the first war of the Bush doctrine of pre-emption. The White House has given many reasons why we should invade Iraq, but this is the heart of the argument: because of the “clear and present danger” Iraq poses to the United States, the US is justified in taking a pre-emptive strike. That the US is its own final arbiter in choosing which nations to attack—and when and how—was made clear when the it ignored the will of the UN and began bombing Baghdad today.

The precedent this doctrine establishes is as counter to the United States’ ideals as a democratic nation, and it places the country outside the scope of international law or world oversight. Whether this is relevant to American citizens isn’t exactly the point: rather, the very position the US has placed itself strategically—as an uncooperative member of the world politic—should alarm a nation fighting terrorism.

The Moral War
The second-most cited argument for this war is that we must defeat a ruthless dictator. This argument is well-established; it’s the emotional counterbalance to the realpolitik of pre-emption. It is the argument that appeals to good-hearted people, from Ma and Pa Main Street to Edward W. Lempinen to President Bartlett on the West Wing. But it is a hollow and simplistic argument.

1.) There are some dozens of dictatorial regimes throughout the globe. If the United States is prepared to make the argument that it is going on a campaign of ridding the world of tyrants, so be it. But: let’s have an open dialogue about which regimes are going to be targeted; let us hear which countries are next and why they are more or less dictatorial than others on the list; let’s be very clear that impediments like, say, the presence of nuclear weapons, will not deter us from our righteous cause. If a country is prepared to make foreign policy priorities based on the protection of human rights and liberty, it better damn well get in the business of protecting human rights and liberty—not just use it as an excuse when the opportunity arises.

2.) If the US is serious about protecting human life and liberty globally, Americans should demand that it sever ties with famously repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia. If we’re about human life and liberty, then we’re about human life and liberty.

3.) If the US is sincerely committed to the protection of human rights, we should expect to see serious cooperation with foreign governments at all levels—not just invasions when it suits the White House. This means addressing the economic, natural resources, nutritional, educational, and medical needs of the countries that are destabilized by these problems. It means seriously dealing with Israel-Palestine, India-Pakistan, Russia-Chechnya, and so on.

On a less hyperbolic note, if the White House is serious about addressing human rights around the globe, we should expect a very serious articulation of this plan, as fully formed as the pre-emption doctrine. Americans are prepared to give the President latitude here, but not based on the mendacious, craven arguments he has thus far advanced.

The Safety Argument
The final significant argument advance by the proponents of war is that it will ensure the United States’ safety. The superficial justification is that Iraq poses an immediate threat to its neighbors, and a distant threat to the US through “terror networks.” Yet no one buys this one: the Iraqis have been under the literal shadow of US planes for a dozen years and is no threat to its neighbors; as to terror links—not a single other country has agreed that these exist.

The more substantial argument here is geopolitical. It’s also the most appealing argument—Saddam Hussein is a dangerous tyrant, and does seem capable of anything. But here again, there’s a credibility problem. With the changed world situation after 9/11, the US for the first time has a serious threat to its own soil. Realignment after the Soviet collapse have made power centers of Beijing, Delhi, Islamabad, and Pyongyang. As the White House addresses these challenges, the argument that Baghdad should consume the US’s attention, money, and resources is weak at best. Is Baghdad more of a threat than Pyongyang? Actually, it might be—but here again we have the credibility problem: Bush never made the argument. His assertions shift from misleading, absent, or untrue evidence to simplistic moralizing. Based on nothing more than that, what should Americans think?


The White House never made a clear argument about why it invaded Iraq. That’s reason enough to oppose a war. But far worse, the President introduced a number of foreign policy shifts to justify this war that remain unexamined, unexplained, and hidden behind false arguments.

It doesn’t’ mater how this war turns out. The very act of going to war establishes a number of dangerous precedents: the US is now prepared to go to war arbitrarily against whom it deems the most dangerous—without public dialogue or international collaboration—without clear disclosure to American citizens about the cost, risks, hidden political and commercial goals, or long term benefits.

This is what reasonable Americans need to separate from the chaos of war, the flashy logos, and the thunderous wartime rhetoric: we all need to keep our eye on the ball. This war is a bad war because it has no clear foundation, no clear objectives, and puts into place policy priorities that American citizens should be loth to follow.

posted by Jeff | 12:51 PM |
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