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San Francisco Bay Guardian
A Matter of Principle marshals the humanitarian arguments for the Iraq war – wrongheadedly
By Tom Gallagher
WHEN EXPATRIATE BRITISH columnists Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn went at each other in the pages of the Nation magazine a few years ago, they set a standard for vituperation that few Americans had seen anywhere outside of Monty Python routines. While they didn't actually call each other ridiculous piles of parrot droppings, they weren't far from it. When Hitchens then resigned from the publication, while offering loud support of the Iraq war, some saw it as evidence that Cockburn had come out much the better in the vitriolic exchange: Not only had he driven Hitchens out of the magazine, but out of his mind as well.
But Thomas Cushman, editor of A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, doesn't think Hitchens is crazy at all. In fact, he gives Hitchens' "The case for regime change" place of honor as the book's lead essay. Hitchens won't disappoint anyone who finds the very idea of this book a bit odd, writing that, in retrospect, "the emphasis was perhaps too one-sidedly on Iraq as a 'rogue' state and insufficiently on the danger of Iraq's becoming a 'failed' state," a situation that could lead to "actual or attempted genocide, which nations signatory to the Genocide Convention are sworn to prevent and to punish." That is to say, if the US and the UK hadn't actually invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, they might have later been required to do so when he fell of his own weight – a blanket justification if ever there was one. He also warns us that "state failure often draws or drags neighboring countries into a 'black hole.' " Now that we have entered realms where the normal laws of the geopolitical universe don't hold, we are not surprised to further read that if Iraqi resistance to the occupation is "unexpectedly well-organized," for Hitchens this can only "demonstrate even to the incurious that an Islamist scheme was already in preparation" – fierce resistance justifying the invasion every bit as much as a welcoming populace would have.
Although the book's other authors are not equally creative, we must admire the pluck involved in producing a volume that concludes with a speech demolishing the war's public justification. British prime minister Tony Blair – "a model of liberal statesmanship" to Cushman – asserts that "regime change alone could not be and was not our justification for war. Our primary purpose was to enforce UN resolutions over Iraq and WMD [weapons of mass destruction]." They hadn't turned up at the time of this speech, 11 months after the war (and still haven't), yet Blair maintains that "in fact, everyone thought [Hussein] had them," a claim negated by the "Downing Street memo," which reports Blair's being told, prewar, that "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
University of Maryland history professor Jeffrey Herf appends a November 2004 postscript to his article, acknowledging that "[I]f I knew in spring 2003 what I know now ... I would not have supported the invasion," but most of the authors – many of whom are academics who make a strong argument for home schooling in higher education – provide torturous explanations of why they were more meritorious in being wrong than the antiwar movement was in being right. Political science professor and Dissent magazine editor Mitchell Cohen cites the failure to find the weaponry as evidence of Bush and Blair's sincerity, since "politicians known for exceptional savvy in public relations" certainly could not have "manufactured a threat of this enormity" and not taken the "final obvious step – planting the evidence." Journalist Richard Just acknowledges that "I and other liberal hawks underestimated how difficult it would be to build a decent society in Iraq and overestimated the extent to which the Bush administration was qualified for that task." The tens of millions of war opponents apparently lacked the credentials necessary to convince him.
Contributors seem strangely uninformed on the Yugoslavian civil wars, although they largely created today's "liberal hawks." French journalist Michel Taubman writes that "nationalist Serbs massacred two hundred thousand Muslims," apparently oblivious to the participation of the Croats and the significance of the hasty German and US recognition of the secessionist Croatian government that disenfranchised its Serb population and set the entire debacle in motion. And while it would be foolish to assume strictly economic motives for the Iraq, or perhaps any, war, someone should explain to political science professor Mehdi Mozaffari why the fact that the US spent $100 billion on the war while Iraq's oil revenue comes to only $12 billion is not actually "the best evidence against the alleged lucrative intention of 'war for oil.' " The cost of the war is borne by the population as a whole, while any profits accruing from Iraq's oil resources will go to the private companies that exert a disproportionate influence upon government policy.
The most disappointing essay surely belongs to Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta, of East Timor, a nation that, ironically, is generally ignored in discussions of US intervention in the massacre of innocents elsewhere in the world, because there the killing was done by an American ally using American weapons. Ramos-Horta was East Timor's representative to the UN in 1975, and when he writes of "having seen firsthand [the UN's] impotence in the face of Indonesia's invasi on of my country," he knows full well that this "impotence" was in large part caused by the numerous US abstentions and "No" votes on UN resolutions condemning the invasion.
The book's high point comes with British journalist Johann Hari, who has no truck with "the preposterous nonsense about weapons of mass destruction that was being spouted by the US and – to my great regret – British governments" and stands seemingly alone here in recognizing that "the economic model imposed on Iraq by the IMF is not US-style capitalism (never mind European social democracy). It is a strain of capitalism far more extreme than anything ever attempted in a democratic country, with full scale privatization of extremely basic services and almost no recourse for the government and public opinion against corporations." Hari's support for the war derives from postwar opinion polls that showed most Iraqis supporting the just-completed invasion. He recognizes, though, the effect of subsequent incidents like "the US Army's murderous excursion into Fallujah, where at least eight hundred Iraqi citizens were pointlessly killed" in reducing that support. And even in the immediate postwar period, these same polls showed occupying forces enjoying the confidence of less than 10 percent of Iraqis.
If there is a point to reading such a fundamentally wrongheaded book as this, it lies in the fact that while these arguments for the war may be weak, they are pretty much the same ones we will hear in favor of the continuing occupation, so we might as well get to know them. Besides, if I hadn't read it, I might never have known that the new Spanish defense minister, Jose Bono, once publicly called Tony Blair, "a complete dickhead."
A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq
Edited by Thomas Cushman. University of California Press, 320 pages, $21.95 (paper).