Tough Questions About the Iraq War That We Should Be Asking

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Excerpts from “The New World Order” by Tony Judt
New York Review of Books, July 14, 2005

Those of us who opposed America’s invasion of Iraq from the outset can take no comfort from its catastrophic consequences. On the contrary: we should now be asking ourselves some decidedly uncomfortable questions. The first concerns the propriety of “preventive” military intervention. If the Iraq war is wrong—”the wrong war at the wrong time”[1] —why, then, was the 1999 US-led war on Serbia right?

…The apparent difference—and the reason so many of us cheered when the US and its allies went into Kosovo —was that Slobodan Milosevic had begun a campaign against the Albanian majority of Serbia’s Kosovo province that had all the hallmarks of a prelude to genocide. So not only was the US on the right side but it was intervening in real time—its actions might actually prevent a major crime. With the shameful memory of Bosnia and Rwanda in the very recent past, the likely consequences of inaction seemed obvious and far outweighed the risks of intervention…

And yet it isn’t so simple. Saddam Hussein (like Milosevic) was a standing threat to many of his subjects: not just in the days when he was massacring Kurds and Shiites while we stood by and watched, but to the very end. Those of us who favor humanitarian interventions in principle—not because they flatter our good intentions but because they do good or prevent ill—could not coherently be sorry to see Saddam overthrown…

…There are lots of individual sovereign states. But only one of them, the United States of America, has both the will and the means to back international armed intervention and help deliver it. This has been obvious for some time, of course. But far from being grounds for international anxiety it was for many a source of reassurance. Not only did the US appear to share the humanitarian and democratic purposes of the various agencies and alliances it had helped set in place in 1945, but it was governed by a political class that saw the advantage of exercising a degree of self-restraint, believing with Harry Truman that we all have to recognize—no matter how great our strength—that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.[9]

[Some believe that] the United States itself has changed in unprecedented and quite frightening ways. Andrew Bacevich would agree with them. Bacevich is a graduate of West Point, a Vietnam veteran, and a conservative Catholic who now directs the study of international relations at Boston University. He has thus earned the right to a hearing even in circles typically immune to criticism. What he writes should give them pause. His argument is complex…but his conclusion is clear. The United States, he writes, is becoming not just a militarized state but a military society: a country where armed power is the measure of national greatness, and war, or planning for war, is the exemplary (and only) common project.
Why does the US Department of Defense currently maintain 725 official US military bases outside the country and 969 at home (not to mention numerous secret bases)? Why does the US spend more on “defense” than all the rest of the world put together? After all, it has no present or likely enemies of the kind who could be intimidated or defeated by “star wars” missile defense or bunker-busting “nukes.” And yet this country is obsessed with war: rumors of war, images of war, “preemptive” war, “preventive” war, “surgical” war, “prophylactic” war, “permanent” war. As President Bush explained at a news conference on April 13, 2004, “This country must go on the offense and stay on the offense.”

Among democracies, only in America do soldiers and other uniformed servicemen figure ubiquitously in political photo ops and popular movies. Only in America do civilians eagerly buy expensive military service vehicles for suburban shopping runs. In a country no longer supreme in most other fields of human endeavor, war and warriors have become the last, enduring symbols of American dominance and the American way of life. “In war, it seemed,” writes Bacevich, “lay America’s true comparative advantage.”

As a former soldier, Bacevich is much troubled by the consequent militarization of American foreign relations, and by the debauching of his country’s traditional martial values in wars of conquest and occupation…

The unrepublican veneration of our presidential “leader” has made it uniquely difficult for Americans to see their country’s behavior as others see it. The latest report from Amnesty International—which says nothing that the rest of the world doesn’t already know or believe but which has been denied and ridiculed by President Bush —is a case in point. The United States “renders” (i.e., kidnaps and hands over) targeted suspects to third-party states for interrogation and torture beyond the reach of US law and the press. The countries to whom we outsource this task include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria (!), Pakistan— and Uzbekistan…

…The Amnesty report lists sixty alleged incarceration and interrogation practices routinely employed at US detention centers, Guantánamo in particular….All of these practices—and many, many others routinely employed at Guantánamo, at Kandahar and Bagram in Afghanistan, at al-Qaim, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere in Iraq—are in breach of the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention against Torture, to both of which the US is a signatory (in January 2002, even the British Secret Intelligence Service warned its personnel in Afghanistan not to take part in the “inhumane or degrading treatment” of prisoners that was practiced by their US allies, lest they incur criminal liability [emphasis added] )[13]

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this grim story is the undisguised contempt with which the Bush administration responds to criticism. In part this is because criticism itself has become so uncommon…Bullied into acquiescence, newspapers and television in the US have allowed the executive power to ignore the law and abuse human rights free of scrutiny or challenge.

….Amnesty International cites several cases of detainees who “just could not believe Americans could act this way.” Those are exactly the words said to me by an Albanian friend in Macedonia— and Macedonian Albanians have good reason to count themselves among this country’s best friends and unconditional admirers. In Madrid a very senior and rather conservative Spanish diplomat recently put it thus:
“We grew up under Franco with a dream of America. That dream encouraged us to imagine and later to build a different, better Spain. All dreams must fade—but not all dreams must become nightmares. We Spanish know a little about political nightmares. What is happening to America? How do you explain Guantánamo?”[16]

….there is a fundamental truth at the core of the neocon[servative] case: the well-being of the United States of America is of inestimable importance to the health of the whole world. If the US hollows out, and becomes a vast military shell without democratic soul or substance, no good can come of it. Only the US can do the world’s heavy humanitarian lifting (often quite literally….

[1] Tony Judt, “The Wrong War at the Wrong Time,” The New York Times, October 20, 2002.
[3] That is also the message of The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing Inter-national Humanitarianism (Princeton University Press, 2004), by David Kennedy, an international lawyer at Harvard. Kennedy accuses international humanitarians—lawyers, doctors, relief agencies, election observers, and the like—of fetishizing their own structures and routines. They are too readily tempted, he suggests, into idealizing (and idolizing) their own work, with the result that they ignore or downplay both the frequently perverse outcomes of their efforts—furnishing cover for dictators and others with agendas of their own—and alternative, more radical solutions and policies that fall outside their remit.
[9] Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman, 1945 (US Government Printing Office, 1961), p. 141.
[13] See Guantánamo and Beyond: The Continuing Pursuit of Unchecked Executive Power, p. 90.
[16] Conversation at Real Instituto Elcano, Madrid, October 14, 2004.

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