They Invade a Desert and Call it Peace
The Bush administration has embarked on a course to lead the United States into an invasion of Iraq, into its largest undeclared war since the Vietnam conflict. No reasonable analyst could deem Saddam Hussein as anything other than rotten. He has impoverished his people and denied them a host of basic political and civil rights. He has flouted United Nations resolutions that would ensure his good behavior. He surely means ill to the United States and many of its allies. But even if Saddam Hussein is a bad person or a bad leader or a bad statesman, George Bush has done little to justify, to America or the rest of the world, an invasion of Iraq.
The question is not whether the United States could defeat the Iraqi armed forces. Iraq has suffered from not only years of economic sanctions, but also the damage to its military infrastructure from the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 and the Gulf War of 1991-1992. The question is whether a successful invasion of Iraq will be a good thing per se. Foreign policy through invasion is historically a policy of dictators and emperors, not a policy of democrats. The only good invasion is the one that has no reasonable alternative.
The most compelling rationale for any extraordinary act against Iraq is its potential to produce nuclear weapons. While many observers talk and write about "weapons of mass destruction," nuclear weapons are the only weapons truly worthy of the term. Any country that possesses nuclear weapons is a potential threat not just to its neighbors, but to any country within range of its weaponry. Virtually any sort of chemical or biological weapon has very little chance for widespread destruction. Chemical, biological, and radiological weapons can affect wide areas or large populations, but only if the particular agent can be dispersed widely enough, if the population affected lacks effective defenses against that agent, and if the agent is virulent enough to kill or maim its targets. The enormity of nuclear weapons does not depend on the weather. Defenses against them are essentially futile. And their extreme deadliness has, unfortunately, been proven in real life.
Keeping nuclear weapons out of the control of Saddam Hussein is a worthy objective of any American administration. Were Iraq very close to perfecting nuclear weapons, extreme measures might well be in order, perhaps measures akin to Israel's 1982 attack on Iraq's unfinished Osirak nuclear reactor in 1982. Although Saddam Hussein has worked for decades to build nuclear weapons, the Bush administration has been wholly unable to show that Iraq is anywhere close to procuring them. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies has observed, Iraq has worked very hard to develop nuclear weapons, but lacks the weapons-grade plutonium or uranium necessary to build them.
But even if Iraq were on the verge of producing nuclear weapons, an invasion could be unnecessary or worse. A host of less drastic options are always available to the United Nations, from naval blockades and further economic sanctions to air strikes on specific nuclear production facilities. An invasion brings with it what Clausewitz famously termed the "fog of war"; the chaos that accompanies leads to unintended consequences. But even an invasion that goes perfectly would create a totally unstable polity in Iraq. The Bush administration would need to answer a number of tough questions. Who would the United States want to run the new government, or governments, that would appear in its place? If an Islamist government, like the one in Iran, came to power, would the United States have to depose it as well? Would the Iraqi people welcome any leader handpicked by an occupying power?
The Bush administration has strained since the 11 September hijackings to link Iraq to international terrorism. Attempts to link Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden have been long on speculation but short on evidence. Saddam Hussein has, infamously, rewarded with $25,000 stipends the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, and he has sheltered elements of the Abu Nidal terrorist organization. But the facts show that other countries, inconveniently, are more prevalent sponsors of terrorism. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan proved to be the financial and military supporters of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the years leading up to the hijackings. India and Pakistan have for years aided and abbetted the murderous work of their proxies in the tinderbox of Kashmir. In each of these three countries, religious fundamentalists have supported fundamentalist terrorists elsewhere. Saddam Hussein might be many things, but he is a secular dictator: it should come as no surprise that he has little to nothing to do with fundamentalist terrorists like Al-Qaeda.
Our concern with Iraq exemplifies the fundamental problem of consistency that the Bush administration has in its foreign policy. For Iraq, one set of strict and unwavering rules has applied, but for our allies, another, more flexible, set of rules is instead in order. Putting a halt to the Iraqi nuclear weapons program would be touching if our ignorance of actual proliferators were not palpable. The last three countries to become nuclear weapons states all used subterfuge to obtain the requisite nuclear material or machinery, yet none have been vilified by the Bush administration. While the United States has never acknowledged that Israel has a substantial number of nuclear weapons, the weapons and the missiles to launch them exist. Furthermore, in the 1990s, both India and Pakistan successfully tested nuclear weapons. Worse yet, in the past twelve months, the leaders of these two countries have made thinly veiled threats to use these weapons in a war over Kashmir. The response by Washington, except to ensure that the Pakistani government actually controlled its nuclear weapons, has been underwhelming. In fact, in order to prosecute its actions in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has lifted sanctions imposed by the Clinton administration on India and Pakistan.
Iraq is not the only place where the double standard applies. In Israel and Palestine, the government of Ariel Sharon receives almost incessant American support, regardless of the number of illegal settlements that it builds, or the rights that it strips from Palestinians. Almost any other country would be condemned for violating United Nations resolutions, or at least for colonizing other territory. The Palestinian Authority, by contrast, receives almost incessant American criticism for terrorist attacks on Israel, even though most of the attacks come from Palestinians who want nothing more than to put Islamic fundamentalists in the place of the secular leadership of Yasser Arafat.
In its tough talk on Iraq, the Bush administration might only encourage the secretive Iraqi nuclear program. Suppose Iraq could demonstrate today that it possessed nuclear weapons. History has shown that the United States is deferential to nuclear weapons states, once they possess those weapons. The United States is in no position to invade Pakistan, for example, even though its links to Islamic terrorists are legion. Saddam Hussein could consider himself vulnerable only while his nuclear program remains gestational.
Since the Bush administration took office, it has champed at the bit for a chance to depose Saddam Hussein, but it has struggled for a good rationale. As USA Today has reported, the administration has even failed to ask for a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, a document that would provide a single, uniform analysis of the potential target. But it finds itself in a dilemma of its own making. Its white paper prepared for the United Nations contains a litany of complaints, from violations of human rights to defiance of United Nations resolutions. If American administrations had been consistent promoters of human rights or even of upholding international resolutions and agreements, then the case against Iraq might be compelling. In so many cases, expediency and realpolitik have trumped all other considerations. If the Bush administration holds Iraq to standards that it does not demand of even its most transitory allies, then it has ceded whatever right the United States could claim to moral high ground in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The Bush administration risks an even worse outcome if it uses the crisis about Iraq as a blueprint for its relations with other nations. Several key officials in the Bush administration have called for an American dominion over the oil fields in the Middle East, not just in Iraq, but in Saudi Arabia and other countries as well. Colonies and empires should be relegated to the history books. Talk of an empire, even one not in name but just in fact, belies the democratic promise that America has held for the rest of the world for over two centuries.
Tacitus quotes the Scottish leader Calgacus as saying "solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant": they create a desert, and call it peace. Calgacus accurately portrayed an important aspect of thepax Romana. Assuming our records survive the next nineteen centuries, what will history tell of the pax Americana?
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