Macbeth in Mesopotamia

Macbeth in Mesopotamia

Concerning the impending or perhaps imminent intervention in Iraq, we now inhabit a peculiar limbo, where the military options are known while the political and moral options are not.


At a reception in Washington a few weeks ago I ran into some comrades from the Iraqi National Congress, which was once accused by its enemies of being a mere pliant tool of American imperialism. They asked to be introduced to a senior Administration official at the event, and I said I’d do my best. When I produced him for my friends, he turned his back and walked away at quite an impressive speed.

Concerning the impending or perhaps imminent intervention in Iraq, we now inhabit a peculiar limbo, where the military options are known while the political and moral options are not. It is very evident that some elements within the Bush Administration are perfectly content to give Saddam Hussein ample time to prepare his defenses, but it is less clear why the same sources become so intensely secretive when asked what they have in mind for the Iraqi and Kurdish peoples. Not that this is anything so new–preparation for the last Gulf War was well in hand before Secretary of State James Baker announced that its principal rationale was "jobs, jobs, jobs."

There are three simultaneous clusters of argument in play. First comes the question of justification. Is Saddam to be removed because he possesses weapons of mass destruction, or because he has used poison gas and chemical weapons in Kurdistan, or because he has had indirect contact with Al Qaeda, or because he poses a menace to his neighbors? Second comes the question of feasibility and, more or less simultaneously, of advisability. Might not a military strike against the Baathists make a bad situation worse, not just in Iraq but in the entire Middle East? Third comes the question of quo warranto: By what right would the United States appoint itself the arbiter of Iraqi and Arab affairs?

Even when disentangled, these threads are tenuous, and tenuous in their relationship to one another. Still, a supporter of intervention might argue as follows: The United States, especially after September 11, has a right or even a duty to act pre-emptively against any regime that even looks at it in the wrong way. And its opportunist handwringing "allies" in Europe and the Arab world would be secretly delighted if Washington did what they cannot do for themselves by doing away with Saddam. The Iraqi people might or might not fill the streets with joyous demonstrations at their own deliverance, but they would have been given a chance to have a democratic life, and they would be free from the sanctions and from other obstacles to civilized normality. (As a beautiful but seldom-mentioned side benefit, the influence of the revolting Saudis, in the region and in America, would be correspondingly reduced.)

An opponent might argue that the inspections offer a better chance of containing the deadly weaponry, and also of observing the rights of sovereign states. Invasion might cause much death and destruction, and exert a destabilizing effect on the region in general. It might also trigger the use of the very weapons whose removal was its ostensible justification. Moreover, the United States cannot just proclaim itself as the forcible maker and unmaker of Arab governments, and this caution would apply with redoubled force to a President who is simultaneously the patron and armorer of General Sharon.

There is an in-between argument, which can be heard among Bush officials in Washington and also among Iraqi and Kurdish exiles and oppositionists. In its Bush version, this argument says you can’t announce that you will remove a regime and then not keep your pledge. In its Iraqi dissident form, it says that you can’t subject the Iraqi people to the cruelty of sanctions for so long while leaving the despot in place. The first version is grotesque; the second version has some honor to it. (And those who simply call for lifting the sanctions are inviting Saddam Hussein to exact or rather to extract his customary percentage of every import license, and thus acquire the sinews of rearmament.)

A dirty secret is involved here. From the US point of view, the present regime in Iraq is nearly ideal. It consists of a strong Sunni Muslim but approximately secular military regime. All it needs is a new head: Saddamism without Saddam. Mesopotamia means "between two rivers," and we are, like Macbeth himself, "in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er." The United States had at least a hand in the coup that brought Saddam to power. It encouraged him in his attack on Iran and in the filthy war that followed. At the very time of his worst conduct in Kurdistan, Washington was his best friend. When he plotted to straighten the Kuwaiti frontier in his favor, he was given the greenest of lights. This is a record of continuing shame. However–and one cannot underscore this enough–these, too, were all interventions in the affairs of Iraq. And if there can be interventions one way, in favor of the regime, there is at least a potential argument that an intervention to cancel such debts would be justifiable.

The "peace" forces may riposte that this is illogical and that all interventions are equally obnoxious. However, we have before us the example of liberated Kurdistan. The Kurdish autonomous area in northern Iraq is an unintended consequence of the last bungled Gulf War. In this enclave there are the rudiments of pluralism, civil society and a free press. Some part of what we owe the Kurdish people has been repaid, and as a result of civilian and international pressure rather than any Western grand design. Could the same success be repeated across Iraq, without endangering what has been won? We cannot know for sure, because the Administration refuses to say whether it wants a military junta in Baghdad, a monarchy, a vassal–or even an Iraqi state at all. Given the open rehearsals for invasion, there can be no "security" excuse for this weird silence. Citizens should be demanding that our rulers publish a clear statement both of war aims and political objectives. The long-suffering inhabitants of Iraq deserve to hear and debate this, and we have not just a right but a duty to do so as well.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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