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Iraq: no choice without cost

Eva Hoffman
3 February 2003

There are good and bad reasons to oppose the use of military force in Iraq. The bad reasons are to do so out of a kind of intellectual automatism, or because such a stance fits a ready-made ideological framework. It is easy these days to take the ‘anti-war’ position, and to feel both bracingly tough-minded and safely on the side of the angels.

The phraseology of protest is everywhere available: it’s all about oil; it’s all about America’s agenda to colonise the Middle East; if Tony Blair supports the use of force, that’s because he’s just George Bush’s poodle. It sometimes seems to me that in the guise of high-minded scepticism, we have grown more cynical than the politicians whom we accuse of such exclusively low motives.

The costs of inaction

I am not ‘pro’ the war in Iraq. What rational or minimally humane person is in favour of war as against peace? But those, of course, are not always the available alternatives. To my mind, the crux of the question in Iraq is pragmatic (although this is pragmatism with large geopolitical and moral implications), and it has to do with the calculation of dangers. Which carries the greatest risk: action or inaction? We know the risks of military intervention all too well: loss of life, the probability of civilian casualties, the awful possibility that Iraq does in fact have weapons of mass destruction (WMD) at the ready, and decides to use them if it is attacked.

These are nerve-wracking prospects. But it seems to me impossible to arrive at a realistic, or even a humane analysis of the situation if one only sees the dire consequences of action, while turning a blind eye to the potential consequences of inaction. If Iraq is developing WMD now, these will of course be much more advanced in several years. If it develops full nuclear capacity (and informed sources keep repeating that this will happen by 2005), then our hopes of deterring or containing Saddam Hussein will be practically nil.

And if, with those weapons at his disposal, this quite pathological leader decides to conduct another little foray into a neighbouring country, or to detonate a small nuclear device in Israel, then the instability in the Middle East, which the anti-war protesters predict as the outcome of intervention, would not only become a certainty but could turn into a scenario we do not want to contemplate in our grimmest nightmares.

War is never a preferable option. But if it can prevent much greater harm and violence, then surely it begins to be justified, if not perfectly just. Moreover, aside from the question of consequences in the international sphere, there is the equally important question of what action or inaction may mean for the Iraqi people. While altruistic concern is clearly not America’s primary motivation for challenging Saddam, the disburdening of the Iraqi population from a ruthless and murderous dictatorship would be – as almost all commentators acknowledge – an entirely beneficial consequence of ‘regime change’.

Yes, such change would also carry its hazards and unforeseen side effects: difficulties in installing a democratic government, and factional feuds. But those are the throes of change, as opposed to the iron stasis, systemic fear and sheer suffering engendered by a dictatorship that models itself on the Stalinist tyranny of its harshest era.

More broadly, I think we need to remember that there are circumstances in which it is non-intervention, rather than intervention, which is the unethical alternative. This seemed clearly true in Rwanda, where to stand by and do nothing was to become in effect complicit in genocide. It seemed true in the Yugoslav wars, where the world waited unconscionably for nine years, while the slaughter of innocents went on before our eyes.

It was all very well in those situations not to perpetrate violence ourselves, not to become implicated, to keep our hands clean – but let us not kid ourselves that this amounts to a humanitarian stance. Indeed, if compassionate concern is our main criterion, then we have to note that it is often intervention which saves lives, and non-intervention which results in lengthy and life-devouring wars (the Yugoslav wars, the Iran–Iraq war, or Sierra Leone, for example).

The ethics of intervention

It should also be noted that in recent decades, the promptings of self-interest in the US, no less than in Europe, have more often dictated inaction, rather than action. Of course, ‘we’ cannot intervene in every conflict which erupts around the globe. And it would be highly preferable if such interventions as are deemed legitimate were conducted by international institutions and underwritten by international law.

So far, we have not developed such laws, and I think that our profound uncertainty about what we can or should do in a variety of difficult situations springs from a lack of criteria for action, as we make the transition from the old politics of national self-interest to the brand new world of global actors and potentially transnational rules for the resolution of conflict. For the moment, we are caught between two systems and, every way we turn, we only see what we cannot or do not have the right to do.

But if international law is what we want, then I think we need to consider whether, in forging a new set of principles for a globalised world, we need to make provisions for protecting not only the sovereignty of states, but also the citizenries of those states against the more blatant forms of internal terror. I do not know whether our world – with its great variety of political cultures, governmental systems, failed states and extra-national groupings – is ready for international consensus on such matters. But it seems to me that we need to ask whether international law which protects Saddam Hussein – as against the Iraqi people – is either adequate to our circumstances or sufficient to our political ideals.

It is because questions like these may be tested in the crucible of the current crisis, as much as because of the dread WMD factor, that Iraq may indeed be the first conflict of the 21st century. But while such long-range dilemmas simmer, we need to make up our minds on what it is best, or least bad, to do in the immediate future.

From ambivalence to judgement

In trying to resolve my own ambivalences, I am finally guided by some empirical hunches (for politics is, above all, an empirical game). The first is that I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Tony Blair. He does not strike me as a militant personality and, in supporting the cause of military intervention, he is risking his popularity and political advantage. The only plausible explanation for the ardour with which he speaks on this issue is conviction; and the only plausible reason for his conviction is that he has sufficient information to know that Saddam poses clear and active threat.

My other hunch, or observation, is that the US – for all that it is led by one of the least sympathetic personalities to hit the world stage in many a decade – has not been trigger-happy in this, or other recent situations. Indeed, it looks to me as though the Bush team (for all that this is counterintuitive to our perceptions) is actually trying to avoid armed conflict in Iraq.

They have much at stake in doing so, and there may still be a shred of possibility that, with the encouragement provided to the internal opposition by the ‘credible threat’, Saddam will be ousted from within; or that, at the eleventh hour he will yield to pressure and the threat of overthrow, and accept asylum. If neither of those options are realised, then it is just possible that the groundwork for the incursion has been prepared well enough so that military action, when it comes, will be swift and precisely targeted. And, while all loss of life amidst violence is painful to contemplate, perhaps one can dare hope that such limited use of force will not claim many lives.

Of course, I may soon be proved to be wrong; but whatever the outcome, it seems to me that, in a situation as serious and ambiguous as this, it behoves us to forego the pleasures of easy indignation, or the pure air of the moral high ground. We may even have to decide that at times, it makes sense to support our imperfect leaders in their imperfect choices.

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