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Bear Left!

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Volume III, Number 617 February 2003

Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Tim Francis-Wright

If the Bush administration starts a full-blown war on Iraq, it will engender a dilemma that will shape American foreign policy for the foreseeable future. Is Iraq an exception or an exemplar? If Iraq is exceptional, what makes it special in the eyes of the United States? And if it is exemplary, what makes this war such a good blueprint for other countries?

The Bush administration has set forth a panoply of reasons for invading Iraq and deposing its leaders. Saddam Hussein is a despot, a bane to his people, a threat to his neighbors and the wider world. Under his watch, Iraq has stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. He has fostered and coddled terrorist groups. And Iraq, during his reign, has flouted United Nations resolutions imposed after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Saddam Hussein is certainly a despotic and dictatorial leader who has failed to aptly lead his subjects. But his despotism is hardly unique and hardly the most egregious on the planet. Most Islamic regimes in the Middle East have few to no democratic institutions, few political or civil rights for women, and massive corruption among the elite classes. Mere despotism or tyranny hardly qualifies countries these days as enemies of the United States (or, to be fair, enemies of most countries). From Equatorial Guinea to Burma, tyrants oppress their subjects and ruin their economies. Yet the United States continues to do business with many of these countries. We do not hear President Bush decrying the oil that American companies extract from Equatorial Guinea or the sweatshop-fresh garments that American clothing chains buy from Burmese factories.

The Bush administration has talked at length about the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq could use against its neighbors. No reasonable observer doubts that Iraq maintains vestiges of what were once large biological and chemical weapons programs. During the Reagan presidency, the United States government helped Iraq build up these programs, lest Iran gain too much of an upper hand in its war against Iraq. For years, Iraq has certainly wished for a nuclear weapons program, but wishes do not enrich uranium or create plutonium. Years of weapons inspections have found neither working nuclear weapons nor the materials and equipment needed to assemble them.

While the Bush administration prepares for war with Iraq, another country has a verified nuclear weapons program that will soon bear fruit. Its working missiles have the potential to threaten its neighbors with nuclear attacks. Not too long ago, it even invaded its southern neighbor and caused a massive, albeit contained, war. This country is North Korea, and the only consistent part of the Bush administration's policy toward North Korea has been one of utter incompetence. The current administration publicly belittled the Clinton administration's record of negotiating an end to the North Korean program to build nuclear weapons from plutonium. In exchange for shipments of fuel oil and assistance in building power reactors, North Korea put its existing program under close international scrutiny. Once in office, the Bush administration began criticizing every overture that South Korea made to North Korea, stopped all negotiations with the North Korean government, and eventually lumped North Korea into an inane and misleading "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq.

When the Bush administration revealed a few months ago that North Korea had secretly started a parallel weapons program, using uranium enrichment technology from Pakistan, it found itself in a morass. Not only had it known about the uranium program for months, but it could not do much about it. Administration officials worried, correctly, that invading North Korea or even attacking only its nuclear facilities might bring about another Korean War. Negotiating anew with North Korea after its vocal criticism of the Clinton administration would only serve to demonstrate that what Republicans disparaged as amateurish foreign policy was objectively good. Faced with tough choices, the Bush administration has opted to muddle along with respect to North Korea, in the faint hope that doing absolutely nothing will prove to be the best choice.

The problem about blaming Iraq for its weapons of mass destruction goes much further than a comparison with North Korea. In the past decade, two countries have actually developed nuclear weapons, the only weapons of mass destruction truly worthy of the name. Pakistan and India have deployed nuclear weapons and have threatened each other with their use. Pakistan even helped North Korea develop a capability to make weapons-grade uranium. The Clinton administration imposed sanctions on both countries once they tested nuclear weapons, but these sanctions proved less important that the need for a grand alliance against the Taliban in 2001. Neither India nor Pakistan was part of an "axis of evil"; neither faces invasion by the United States; neither is the subject of intense scrutiny by the United Nations Security Council.

The United States has looked with even more equanimity toward two other nuclear nations. The United States has known for years about the Israeli nuclear weapons program, but has neither criticized it, nor even acknowledged it, publicly. And the United States worked privately, not publicly, to convince South Africa to dismantle permanently its fully-functional nuclear weapons in 1993. Of course, neither Israel nor South Africa is a sworn enemy of the United States, but their examples show that the United States has stopped well short of the brink of war when important countries have developed and deployed weapons of mass destruction.

The United States should always be worried, even very worried, about governments that aid and abet terrorist groups who could harm the United States. Indeed, much of the widespread American support for the military actions in Afghanistan in 2001 was that those actions were supposed to dismantle the al-Qaeda terrorist group and bring its leaders to justice. In the months since President Bush promised to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," his administration has managed two dubious accomplishments. Not only has it failed to capture bin Laden, but it uses threats from al-Qaeda, even those that quickly prove to be bogus, to panic the American public. Every time the Homeland Security Alert System hits orange thanks to a spurious boast from a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, the terrorists have won yet another battle.

The Bush administration has desperately tried to link al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government. While the Iraq government and al-Qaeda both hate the United States, they share almost nothing else. Saddam Hussein runs a manifestly secular government, while al-Qaeda is a fundamentalist Islamic group. Iraq, like many other enemies of Israel, sends funds to the families of successful suicide bombers. But Iraq does not and has not supplied al-Qaeda with recruits, cash, or military support. If funding actually existing terrorist groups were the real rationale for war, the United States would be readying an attack on Saudi Arabia. Likewise, Pakistan is now an American ally despite its clear military support to the Taliban government, and therefore to al-Qaeda.

The best rationale that the Bush administration has for war with Iraq is its violation of United Nations resolutions passed since its occupation and attempted annexation of Kuwait in 1990. The Bush administration argues that the Iraqi government is so intransigent that war is the only real possibility. What has happened since 1990 in the absence of war, however, undermines its claims. When United Nations weapons inspectors discovered the secret Iraqi nuclear weapons program in 1992 and 1993, they effectively destroyed any capability that Iraq would have to create nuclear weapons. The current round of inspections has found more violations, some potentially serious, like the discovery of artillery shells that could accept chemical warheads. Other violations have been more technical in nature, like the missile test results that show that Iraq has missiles that can go a full 21 miles further than the 93 miles allowed under United Nations sanctions. The Bush administration was shocked by that finding, but the United States is full of motorists who consider driving less than ten miles above a speed limit to be a clear sign of frailty.

The experience of Israel in the West Bank shows the American hypocrisy regarding United Nations resolutions. A host of resolutions aim to force Israel to cede back its territorial gains from the 1967 Six-Day War. But the United States is essentially alone in the world in supporting Israel's longstanding disobedience. Israel illegally subsidizes and provides services to settlers in its occupied territories. Its citizens often displace Palestinians without due process or fair compensation. The United States is unlikely to invade Israel, much less criticize it in any sort of sustained fashion, any time soon. There are a host of differences between Israel and Iraq—among other things, Israel has real democratic institutions, allows a free press, and merely spies on the United States—but obeying the edicts of the United Nations is not one of them.

The impetus for the war on Iraq comes from three desires, none of which the Bush administration particularly wants to discuss. First, Iraq controls large reserves of oil. The current sanctions regime allows the United States to purchase a substantial amount from Iraq under the oil-for-food program. Deposing Saddam Hussein would give the United States an opportunity to lift the sanctions and greatly increase its imports of Iraqi oil without mollifying an enemy.

Second, attacking Iraq allows a rematch of the Gulf War. Many of the military thinkers in the original Bush administration wanted to continue the battles all the way to Baghdad, but the United Nations mandate in 1990 was to reverse the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait, so a full-bore invasion had to wait. Now, the thinkers in the second Bush administration see an opportunity to take the military to Baghdad. Even Americans who oppose a war still see Saddam Hussein as an enemy, so selling the war plans will be easier in 2003 than in 1990. From an operational standpoint, even though the United States easily carried the battles in 1990, American forces will face substantially weaker Iraqi forces this time.

Third, influential civilians in the Bush administration like Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle see a war with Iraq as an opportunity for the United States to solidify its hegemonic status in the world. If the United States is supposedly the world's only superpower, then it supposedly ought to be able to throw its weight around. For obvious reasons, the Bush administration keeps this last rationale out of its public statements.

Ignoring the propriety of a war with Iraq, the United States faces a daunting dilemma. If Iraq is an anomaly as far as other countries are concerned, if the United States will not preemptively attack other countries as things now stand, it is hard to see the logic in war with Iraq. Iraq poses no real threat to American interests for the foreseeable future. It lacks, and will lack for years to come, any weapons of true mass destruction. Iraq has done nothing recently remotely on a par with its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. While al-Qaeda represents a real threat to the United States, especially after its actual attacks in September 2001, attacking Iraq will not hurt al-Qaeda one iota. Indeed, attacking Iraq—an Islamic nation with a secular government— may foment both hatred of the United States and abandonment of secularism in Islamic countries.

If Iraq is not anomalous, as Undersecretary of State John Bolton implied this weekend when he mused that Iran, Syria, and North Korea would be the next targets of the United States, then the future bodes ill. The United States, supposedly a bulwark of freedom and justice, would view itself not as the world's policeman, but its omnibus judge, jury, and jailer. It is hard to think of a doctrine like this as desirable precedent. After all, al-Qaeda could logically claim that its September 2001 attacks were preemptive strikes against an aggressive enemy and thus were in keeping with American policy. Do Americans want Libya, or Cuba, or Serbia, or North Korea, or China, or even the United States, to be able to attack other countries preemptively? Is the United States ready to impose its will on every country on Earth? is the Bush administration so convinced of its perpetually infallible notions of what is just and appropriate? History is seldom kind to warmongers, and the United States is threatening to join a club with an unseemly membership.

The protests in the past week may not prevent or even forestall a full-blown war in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of people rallied in New York City despite poor weather and the lack of a parade permit. London saw its largest political demonstration in history. In towns, small cities, and metropolises, even at the South Pole, millions of citizens expressed their dismay and outrage at what the United States threatens to do in the name of democracy. Alas, the American government and its leaders probably have too much political capital invested in war to avoid one for long. The protests could and should serve as a nucleation point for the crystallization of public opinion against what that war will represent.