What would Jed Bartlet do?

Paul Hirst
19 February 2003

The staffers at Number 10, Downing Street, the heart of British government, are addicted to West Wing. They are fascinated by the insight into the political plumbing, and enjoy vicariously the experience of real power.

Jed Bartlet is the ideal president that the US has never had since Franklin D. Roosevelt. He has brains, principles and guts. He is an egalitarian at home and tough but fair abroad. What would he do about Iraq? Finding out might help Blair decide the sort of US policy he ought to believe in if he wants to be as good as Jed, and then measure how far and on what terms he should support the present occupiers of the White House.

‘Two million people can’t be wrong’ said a certain Volkswagen advertisement, but they can be half right. They are right about mistrusting the present US administration, its apparent haste for war and its mixed motives in the Middle East. Better that than bloodthirsty jingoes.

They are wrong in saying, to the extent that the thousands of messages bundled up in one march do so, that we want peace and that war solves nothing. This is a real crisis, and we must have an outcome that does not leave Saddam Hussein in power and unchecked. As European Union (EU) leaders realise, only the urgent and real threat of war can make Saddam Hussein comply, and only the US can make the threat real.

America is the only power with the global reach and the capacity to take down regimes such as Saddam’s effectively and quickly. The US is the ultimate guarantor of the security and peace of the present world order; the peace Europeans and the protestors in London want to enjoy. US force ultimately protects the international economy from which Europeans are huge beneficiaries.

The UK talks big but is militarily weak. It could just prevail against Kuwait but not Iraq. Those on both sides in the UK, those in favour of and those against war, should remember that the country is a useful bit player, nothing more. The US cannot be bound by the rules that apply to lesser states. It is not on a par with Belgium or Guatemala, since it must act if necessary to uphold the actual international system and its unwritten rules. States do not and have never enjoyed absolute sovereignty. They have to behave according to the prevailing norms set by other states.

Back to Jed Bartlet. Bartlet would not dissent from this. He would not regard the United Nations (UN) as sovereign and the resolutions of the Security Council as the sole basis for legitimate international action. No US president since the victorious allies created the UN has ever believed this. All have guarded US sovereignty and freedom of action. The difference is that Bartlet would realise that US action must be consistent with its own values.

The current US administration has too many people willing to go to war unilaterally to prove that you can, or to teach lesser states a lesson – people who are willing to browbeat allies and friends regardless of the long-term consequences. Bartlet would certainly threaten war. But Bartlet would not ignore the need for allies or the need to act prudently, exhausting other options first.

Saddam Hussein is taking comfort from the massive demonstrations and from the disarray in the relations between the US and the EU. Bush is in large measure responsible for this, and it is rich to blame the protestors. Even so, citizens must take the consequences of their actions seriously – it is foolish to strengthen Saddam because one despises Bush.

The current differences are stupid and the recent EU statement shows that the EU is not out to make trouble. Bartlet would not appoint a man like Rumsfeld, but he would rein in stupid and incautious statements about loyal allies that can only weaken cooperation. Bartlet would realise that there is a huge middle ground between the US hawks and Gerhard Schröder. Above all, he would open diplomatic relations with Iran to isolate Iraq.

There would be in a Bartlet presidency the possibility of a new UN resolution that used the position of France, Germany and Russia and raised its level of challenge to Iraq. The aim would be to institutionalise major intrusions into Iraqi sovereignty to guarantee peace and temper the worst aspects of the regime. The aim would not be regime change, but change in the regime. This is wholly justified by the fact that Iraq is a repeat aggressor, against Iran and Kuwait, and that it has brutally suppressed legitimate freedom struggles within, cruelties that make Serbian action in Kosovo seem mild.

Consider then Bartlet’s five-point plan:

  1. Iraq to accept a large permanent arms inspectorate.
  2. Iraq to accept a force of 25,000 Nato troops with freedom of movement to enforce the will of the inspectors.
  3. The Iraqi air force to be disbanded and Iraqi airspace to be guaranteed by NATO planes.
  4. The 'oil-for-food programme' and food aid to be controlled and distributed directly by the UN.
  5. The autonomy of the Kurdish region to be guaranteed and a commitment made to freedom of the media within the rest of Iraq.

These terms are tough, but they do offer the regime a form of survival in the face of imminent war. They do not liberate the Iraqi people, but they go some way to curbing the worst excesses of the regime whilst not incurring the risks of trying to dismantle it from outside. It would avoid a possible destruction of democracy in the Kurdish autonomous region and it would avoid a US protectorate. It also makes France and Germany actively engaged in defence of the peace they advocate, since as two of the largest European Nato allies they could be expected to shoulder a major part of the responsibility for providing troops.

This would meet the protestors’ demands to avoid precipitate action whilst dealing with what they did not address, how to deal with Saddam. And if Saddam refused, the international community would have genuine grounds for war.

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