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The Moral Quandary | The Nation

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The Moral Quandary

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In late November, the journalism department at New York University hosted a forum on Iraq. The first five speakers, who included such liberal luminaries as historian Frances FitzGerald, cultural critic Todd Gitlin, former UN official Brian Urquhart and political scientist Michael Walzer, all expressed varying degrees of skepticism about the wisdom of invading Iraq. Then it was Kanan Makiya's turn. The son of a prominent Iraqi architect who came to this country in the late 1960s to attend MIT and never left, Makiya has spent the past fifteen years publicizing the horrors taking place in his native land. In Republic of Fear (1989) and Cruelty and Silence (1993) he chronicled the instruments of repression used by Saddam Hussein to brutalize his people and to suppress the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings after the Gulf War.

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Michael Massing
Michael Massing, a New York writer, is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and Columbia Journalism...

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Now Makiya warned the audience of 200 that he would be striking a "discordant note" with the rest of the panel. "When you look at this coming war from the point of view of the people who are going to pay the greatest price--the people of Iraq--they overwhelmingly want it," Makiya declared. He discussed the steps he and other Iraqi exiles were taking to convince the Bush Administration to make the installation of a democratic government in Baghdad one of its chief war aims. And he urged those in attendance to support that goal. A war to overthrow Saddam, he said, "could have enormous transformative power throughout the Middle East." If there is even a "sliver of a chance--even 5 to 10 percent--that what I'm talking about might happen," Makiya said, those committed to bringing democracy and justice to the world have a "moral obligation" to support military action in Iraq. Amid applause from the audience, the other panelists shifted uncomfortably.

Their discomfort is shared by many American liberals. For, on Iraq, the left finds itself in a quandary, torn between two fundamental principles. One is anti-imperialism--a deep suspicion of US military action abroad, especially when undertaken unilaterally. The other is humanitarianism--an impulse to see America use its influence to promote freedom and human rights around the world. In some cases, like Vietnam, the left has united under the anti-imperial banner; in others, like Bosnia, it has largely embraced the humanitarian standard. In Iraq, both principles seem to apply. How to weigh them? Only by coolly assessing the validity of the humanitarian and anti-intervention arguments can liberals hope to develop a position that is both coherent and defensible.

The humanitarian argument has been put forward most vigorously by Christopher Hitchens, which is unfortunate, since he's been unable to separate the issue from his own messy breakup with the left. In a recent article in the Washington Post, for instance, Hitchens denounced Saddam Hussein and antiwar activists with equal zest. On the day Saddam falls, he taunted, "I am booked to have a reunion in Baghdad with several old comrades who have been through hell. We shall not be inviting anyone who spent this precious time urging democratic countries to give Saddam another chance."

Such posturing has made it easy to dismiss Hitchens's views as mere self-promotion. But others have made the case for regime change more persuasively. One is Salman Rushdie. No friend of US foreign policy, Rushdie, in an op-ed piece in the Post, came out unequivocally for military action in Iraq. The case against Saddam, he wrote, is based on his decades-long "assault on the Iraqi people. He has impoverished them, murdered them, gassed and tortured them, sent them off to die by the tens of thousands in futile wars, repressed them, gagged them, bludgeoned them and then murdered them some more. Saddam Hussein and his ruthless gang of cronies from his home village of Tikrit are homicidal criminals, and their Iraq is a living hell." Rushdie added that "all the Iraqi democratic voices that still exist, all the leaders and potential leaders who still survive, are asking, even pleading for the proposed regime change."

Probably the strongest brief for intervention is The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, by Kenneth Pollack. A longtime analyst at the CIA who served on President Clinton's National Security Council, Pollack favors intervention mainly for strategic reasons, viewing Saddam as so serious a threat to international peace and security that he must be removed. But Pollack's horror at Saddam's brutality pervades and shapes his argument. In his book, he grimly describes the techniques used by the Baathist regime to intimidate and terrorize the Iraqi people. Iraq, Pollack writes, has a dozen intelligence and security agencies employing up to 500,000 people. Torture, killing, rape, genocide and other cruelties are parceled out to as many of the regime's personnel as possible so as to implicate them in its crimes. Tortures include gouging out the eyes of children to force confessions from their parents, cutting out the tongues of critics to silence them and dragging in a man's wife or daughter to be raped in front of him. While ordinary Iraqis must subsist on their monthly ration cards, Saddam has, since the end of the Gulf War, built fifty new palaces with "gold-plated faucets and artificial rivers, lakes, and waterfalls that employ pumping equipment that could have been used to address the country's desperate water and sanitation problems." When Saddam's efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon are added in, Pollack writes, it's clear that both the Iraqi people and the world at large would benefit from his ouster.

Do most Iraqis agree with this assessment? Given Saddam's totalitarian control, it's impossible to say. Some newspaper accounts have reported more popular opposition to the prospect of a US invasion than Kanan Makiya asserted at the NYU forum. But Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, recently spent three weeks in Iraqi Kurdistan, and virtually everyone he met supported military action. "People see this as the best chance in their lifetime to have a change of government," Bouckaert says. "They're desperate to get rid of Saddam." He added: "A lot of us in the progressive left have a certain reticence about going to war. So it was a shock for me to go to Kurdistan and see so many people in favor of such a course."

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