How would people be discussing the issue of "regime change" in Iraq if the question were not being forced upon them by the Administration? In other words, is the American and European and international audience for this debate no more than just that–an audience, complete with theater critics and smart-ass reviewers? Or to put the matter in still another way, would the topic of "regime change" be dropped if the Bush White House were not telegraphing all its military intentions toward Iraq while continuing to make an eerie secret of its political ones?
I approach this question as one who has been in favor of "regime change" in Iraq for quite a long time, and who considers himself a friend of those Iraqis and Iraqi Kurds who have risked so much to bring it about. I don’t feel that I require official permission or exhortation to adopt the argument, but I do feel that it’s a relinquishment of responsibility to abandon it. Unlike the chronically enfeebled and cowardly Democratic leadership in Congress, I don’t beg like a serf for the President to "make his case" about weapons of mass destruction. Nor do I feel comfortable waiting like a mendicant for him to speak out about the Kurds, or demanding that he pronounce in a less or more scary way about Saddam Hussein’s underhanded friendship with the dark world of the international gangsters. I can make inquiries of my own, thanks all the same, and even form some conclusions.
The other day I was on some show with Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a leading member of Washington’s black-comedy troupe, who said that unless–like him–you had actually met Saddam Hussein you could have no conception of the reality of stone-cold evil. I reminded the Senator that on the occasion of his meeting with the Iraqi leadership, he had actually emerged to say that Saddam was getting an unfairly bad press, and recommended that he invite more reporters to record the achievements of the Baath Party. That was before the invasion of Kuwait, to which George Herbert Walker Bush and James Baker demonstrated an initially indulgent attitude. During the subsequent bombing of Baghdad, Senator Simpson was to the fore in denouncing Peter Arnett of CNN for being in Iraq at all, and later in circulating the allegation that Arnett had once had a brother-in-law who might have been a sympathizer of the Vietcong.
One can play this simple game, of hypocrisy and "double standards," indefinitely. I have played it myself and with better-seeded contestants than Senator Simpson. But a few nights ago I had a long conversation with my friend Dr. Barham Salih, the prime minister of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, and thus one of the very few politicians in the area who have to face an election. He recently survived an assassination attempt by a gang that he is convinced is ideologically and organizationally linked to Al Qaeda. Salih is for a single standard: a democratic Iraq with a devolved Kurdistan (he doesn’t like it when the Administration talks about Saddam Hussein gassing "his own people," because the Kurds are by no means Saddam’s property). Salih speaks of a war "for Iraq" and not "on Iraq." He doesn’t believe that the population can remove the dictator without outside help, but he also thinks the Turks are being given too much official consideration–partly because of their military alliance with Israel–in determining the outcome.
This is a serious dilemma for a serious person, who is being asked to stake his own life and the relative freedom of his people on the outcome. It’s also a dilemma for us. Is the Bush Administration’s "regime change" the same one the Iraqi and Kurdish democrats hope for? Rather than use the conservative language–of the risks of "destabilizing" the Middle East–liberals and radicals ought to be demanding that the Administration and Congress come clean about this. Meanwhile, one sees constant photo-ops of the President making nice with the Saudis, who have reasons of their own to worry about destabilization, while Kurdish leaders are met with in secret and at a much lower level.
"I am very disappointed with the left," Salih told me. In the past the Kurdish cause was a major concern of the internationalist, human rights and socialist movements, but now a slight shuffling and evasiveness seems to have descended. Some of this obviously arises from a general reluctance to be identified with President Bush, but that, one hopes, is too paltry to explain much.
The other concern is more immediate. Since it is estimated by the Pentagon hawks that a war with Saddam Hussein (not, please, "with Iraq") might well bring about the fall of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, and since we also know that there are those around General Sharon who are looking for a pretext to cleanse the Palestinians from the West Bank and expel them onto Jordanian soil, there exists the possibility that a serious moral and political disaster is in the making. Here, then, is a proposal that ought to command broad and deep support, including from the European "allies":
The government of Israel should be required to say, in public and without reservation, that it has no such plans and would never implement such a scheme. It should be informed in public by the President that this undertaking is required on penalty of regime change in case of default. This, after all, is no more than is regularly required from the Palestinians. And it is not just a matter of moral equivalence but of self-interest.
Sooner or later the Saddam Hussein regime will fall, either of its own weight or from the physical and mental collapse of its leader or from endogenous or exogenous pressure. On that day one will want to be able to look the Iraqi and Kurdish peoples in the eye and say that we thought seriously about their interests and appreciated that, because of previous interventions that were actually in Saddam’s favor, we owed them a debt. It’s this dimension that seems to me lacking in the current antiwar critique.