|Ken Novak's Weblog
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Michael Ignatieff on Iraq
Michael Ignatieff on Iraq from the March 14 2004 NYT. He captures my point of view just about 100%. My only difference is that I think much more could have been done to minimize the multilateral costs for the US. Before the invasion, proceding without going back to the security council for another vote -- as France had suggested -- would have saved much political cost. If we needed the second resolution it might have been achievable with a delay until the autumn (or even resulted in a more coercive containment option without a war). After the invasion, inviting the other powers to participate under a UN political mandate might have allowed broader burden-sharing and greater legitimacy, and faster progress toward building a civil society (e.g., an earlier attempt at a national census for voting purposes).
And of course, as he suggests, the wishful thinking and rejection of planning help from the State Dept and the UN were inexcusable.
March 14, 2004
The Year of Living Dangerously
year ago, I was a reluctant yet convinced supporter of the war in Iraq. A year later, the weapons of mass destruction haven't turned up, Iraqis are being blown up on their way to the mosque, democracy is postponed till next year and my friends are all asking me if I have second thoughts. Who wouldn't have?
My second thoughts begin with the debate last year. We thought we were arguing about Iraq, but what might be best for 25 million Iraqis didn't figure very much in the argument. As usual we were talking about ourselves: what America is and how to use its frightening power in the world. The debate turned into a contest of ideologies masquerading as histories. Conservative Republicans gave us America the liberator, while the liberal left gave us America the devious, propping up villainous leaders and toppling democratically elected ones. Neither history was false: the Marshall Plan did show that America could get something right, while the overthrow of President Allende in Chile and support for death squads in Latin America showed that America could do serious wrong. Either way, however, the precedents and the ideologies were irrelevant, for Iraq was Iraq. And, it turned out, nobody actually knew very much about Iraq.
A year later, Iraq is no longer a pretext or an abstraction. It is a place where Americans are dying and Iraqis, too, in ever greater numbers. What makes these deaths especially haunting is that no one can honestly say -- at least not yet -- whether they will be redeemed by the emergence of a free Iraq or squandered by a descent into civil war.
I supported war as the least bad of the available options. Containment -- keeping Saddam Hussein in a box -- might have made war unnecessary, but the box had sprung a series of leaks. Hussein was evading sanctions, getting rich through illegal oil sales and, so I thought at the time, beginning to reconstitute the weapons programs that had been destroyed by United Nations inspectors. If he were acquiring weapons, he could be deterred from using them himself, but he might be able to transfer lethal technologies to undeterrable suicide bombers. Such a possibility might have been remote, but after 9/11 it seemed unwise to trifle with it. Still, I thought, force had to be a last resort. If Hussein had complied with the inspectors, I would not have supported an invasion, but the evidence, at least till March 2003, was that he was playing the same old games. Getting Hussein to stop these games depended on a credible threat of force, and the French, Russians and Chinese weren't ready to authorize military options. So that left disarmament through regime change. Where I live -- in liberal Massachusetts -- this was not a popular view.
Critics of the war said all of this was irrelevant. The real issue was oil. But they got the relevance of oil backward. If all America cared about was oil, it would have cozied up to Hussein, as it had done in the past. Oil was an issue in the war precisely because its revenues distinguished Hussein from the run of other malignant dictators. It was the critical factor that would allow him, sooner or later, to acquire the weapons that would enable him to go after the Kurds again, complete the destruction of the Shiites, threaten Saudi Arabia and continue to support Palestinian suicide bombers and, just possibly, Al Qaeda as well.
I still do not believe that American or British leaders misrepresented Hussein's intentions or lied about the weapons they believed he possessed. In his new memoirs, Hans Blix makes it clear that he and his fellow U.N. inspectors thought Hussein was hiding something, and every intelligence service they consulted thought so too. But if lying was not the problem, exaggeration was, and no one who supported the war is happy about how ''a grave and gathering danger'' -- as Bush carefully characterized the Hussein regime in his speech at the U.N. in September 2002 -- slowly morphed into an ''imminent'' threat. The honest case for war was ''preventive'' -- to stop a tyrant with malignant intentions from acquiring lethal capabilities or transferring those capabilities to other enemies. The case we actually heard was ''pre-emptive'' -- to stop a tyrant who already possessed weapons and posed an imminent danger.
The problem for my side is that if the honest case had been put -- for a preventive as opposed to a pre-emptive war -- the war would have been even more unpopular than it was. But this is also a problem for opponents as well. If they didn't think the case for preventive war was proved this time, what will convince them next time? Unless threats are imminent, democratic peoples don't want to fight, but if they wait till threats are imminent, the costs of war may become prohibitive. The next time an American president makes a case for war to meet a purported W.M.D. threat, almost everyone, members of the Security Council included, will believe he is crying wolf. But what if he's not? What if the example of Iraq leads electorates and politicians to respond too slowly to the next tyrant or terrorist?
While I thought the case for preventive war was strong, it wasn't decisive. It was still possible to argue that the threat was not imminent and that the risks of combat were too great. What tipped me in favor of taking these risks was the belief that Hussein ran an especially odious regime and that war offered the only real chance of overthrowing him. This was a somewhat opportunistic case for war, since I knew that the administration did not see freeing Iraq from tyranny as anything but a secondary objective.
On March 19, the night the bombing began, I was with an Iraqi exile (yes, I know, but some of them are honorable and courageous people), and he said, ''Look, this is the first and only chance in my lifetime for my people to create a decent society.'' When I said that here was the fundamental case for war, friends scoffed. Didn't I know that the administration couldn't care less if Iraq was decent as long as it was stable and obedient? I replied that if good results had to wait for good intentions, we would have to wait forever.
So supporting the war meant supporting an administration whose motives I did not fully trust for the sake of consequences I believed in. That was not the only difficulty. Since Bosnia and Kosovo, there has been a slowly emerging consensus that intervening to stop ethnic cleansing or genocidal massacre can be justified as a last resort. And yet many states still seem to believe that the aspiration to free a people from a tyrannical regime is an ever expanding rationale for American aggression. Besides, regime change has obvious costs -- dead Iraqis, dead Americans and an America divided from many of its allies and from the United Nations. I could respect anyone who argued that these costs were simply too high. What I found harder to respect was how indifferent my antiwar friends seemed to be to the costs of allowing Hussein to remain in power. The costs -- of doing what they saw as the right, prudent, nonviolent thing -- would be borne by the Iraqis alone. It was Iraqis who would remain locked inside a police state. What this meant was no abstraction to anyone who had actually been in the country. So when people said, ''I know he's a dictator, but . . . ,'' the ''but'' seemed like a moral evasion. And when people said, ''He was a genocidal killer, but that was yesterday,'' I thought, Since when do crimes against humanity have a statute of limitations? And when people said, finally, ''There are a lot of dictators, and the U.S. supports most of them,'' this sounded to me like a suave alibi for doing nothing. Now, a year later, I hear the same people tell me they're glad Hussein is gone, but. . . .
To be sure, the Bush administration's case for war would have been more convincing if there had been any acknowledgment of previous administrations' connivance in Hussein's villainies, including Donald Rumsfeld's friendly visit to Baghdad as President Reagan's envoy in 1983, or the American failure to denounce Hussein's bloody invasion of Iran in 1980 and his gassing of the Kurds in 1988. Like Osama bin Laden, whom the United States bankrolled through the 1980's, Hussein was a monster partly of America's making. The experience ought to teach us that two maxims of so-called realist American foreign policy thinking from cold-war times need to be thrown in the trash. The first is ''The enemy of my enemy is my friend,'' and the second is ''He may be a bastard, but at least he's our bastard.'' Both principles drove us into the arms of bin Laden and Hussein, and Americans have had to die to free us from their lethal embrace.
It would have been nice if once in a while, American foreign policy makers would acknowledge these mistakes. But it didn't follow, as liberals seemed to suppose, that America's guilty history made it wrong to go after Iraq. Good deeds are often done by people with bad histories. And I couldn't see how I could will the end -- Hussein must go -- without willing the only available means: American invasion, if need be, alone. Peaceful regime change -- through sanctions, fomented coups and support for domestic insurrection -- had gone nowhere.
o I supported an administration whose intentions I didn't trust, believing that the consequences would repay the gamble. Now I realize that intentions do shape consequences. An administration that cared more genuinely about human rights would have understood that you can't have human rights without order and that you can't have order once victory is won if planning for an invasion is divorced from planning for an occupation. The administration failed to grasp that from the first moment an American tank column took a town, there had to be military police and civilian administrators following behind to guard museums, hospitals, water-pumping stations and electricity generators and to stop looting, revenge killings and crime. Securing order would have meant putting 250,000 troops into the invasion as opposed to 130,000. It would have meant immediately retaining and retraining the Iraqi Army and police, instead of disbanding them. The administration, which never tires of telling us that hope is not a plan, had only hope for a plan in Iraq.
Hope got in the way of straight thinking, but so did fantasy: that the Shiites, whom George H.W. Bush told to rise up in 1991, only to stand by and watch them be massacred, would greet their erstwhile betrayers as liberators; that a privileged Sunni minority would enthusiastically adapt to permanent minority status in a Shiite Iraq. When fantasy drives planning, chaos results.
The administration assumed that it was taking over a functioning state and realized, after the looters stripped the offices and the Baathist officials went into hiding, that America had inherited its very own failed state. The administration went into Iraq assuming that its challenge was humanitarian. It woke to discover that its challenge was armed resistance. All interventions entail some element of illusion, but if intervening requires this quantity of illusion for an administration to be willing to risk it, we should be doing less intervening in the future.
Now that we are there, our problem is no longer hope and illusion but despair and disillusion. The press coverage from Baghdad is so gloomy that it's hard to remember that a dictator is gone, oil is pumping again and the proposed interim constitution contains strong human rights guarantees. We seem not even to recognize freedom when we see it: Shiites by the hundreds of thousands walking barefoot to celebrate in the holy city of Karbala, Iraqis turning up at town meetings and trying out democracy for the first time, newspapers and free media sprouting everywhere, daily demonstrations in the streets. If freedom is the only goal that redeems all the dying, there is more real freedom in Iraq than at any time in its history. And why should we suppose that freedom will be anything other than messy, chaotic, even frightening? Why should we be surprised that Iraqis are using their freedom to tell us to go home? Wouldn't we do just the same?
Freedom alone, of course, is not enough. Whether freedom turns into long-term constitutional order depends on whether a vicious resistance that does not hesitate to pit Muslim against Muslim, Iraqi against Iraqi, can drive an administration, fearful about its re-election, into drawing down U.S. forces. If the United States falters now, civil war is entirely possible. If it falters, it will betray everyone who has died for something better.
Interventions amount to a promise: we promise that we will leave the country better than we found it; we promise that those who died to get there did not die in vain. Never have these promises been harder to keep than in Iraq. The liberal internationalism I supported throughout the 1990's -- interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor -- seems like child's play in comparison. Those actions were a gamble, but the gamble came with a guarantee of impunity: if we didn't succeed, the costs of failure were not punitive. Now in Iraq the game is in earnest. There is no impunity anymore. Good people are dying, and no president, Democrat or Republican, can afford to betray that sacrifice.
Michael Ignatieff, a contributing writer for the magazine, is director of the Carr Center at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.