Between Iraq and a Hard Place

By the time this appears, we may well be at war in Iraq, bombing the bejesus out of Baghdad and scouring the desert sands for Saddam. If not, it won't be for lack of trying on the part of the Bush administration. Only the inspired opposition of the United Nations or a series of backbone implants for members of Congress will prevent the looming conflict. At present, both appear to be forlorn hopes.

Domestic anti-war voices have been largely cowed or marginalized. Until former Vice President Al Gore's carefully modulated but forthright critique of the Bush Iraq policy in late September, followed by Sen. Ted Kennedy's clarion call to give peace a chance, the minimal opposition that had surfaced had mostly emanated from the Republican side -- from isolated (and isolationist) congressional mavericks and from old foreign-policy hands representing previous GOP administrations.

The Democrats in Congress, who might have been expected to stand up to the war hawks in the executive branch, have mostly melted away like a spring snow. Except for a small, courageous band in the House, led by Reps. Dennis Kucinich and Jim McDermott, the loyal opposition has projected unbecoming timidity, if not outright fear, in the face of the president's belligerent call to arms. Better to shed American blood overseas than be thought unpatriotic appears to be their stance - especially those with presidential ambitions. Of the latter, only Sen. John Kerry, inoculated from criticism by his sterling military record, has dared raise a peep. [Editor's note: Kerry, after initial misgivings, ended up voting for the war resolution. Voting against in the Senate were 21 Democrats, 1 Republican (Lincoln Chafee) and 1 independent (Jim Jeffords). Voting no in the House were 126 Democrats, 6 Republicans and 1 independent.]

So, barring a diplomatic miracle, we're going to war big time, as Dick Cheney would say. The intellectual rationale for an invasion of Iraq (and other invasions to come, we can assume) has been set forth in the form of a radically broadened Monroe Doctrine issued by the administration. As the premier superpower, it asserts, the US reserves the right to intervene not just in the Western Hemisphere but anywhere in the world to impose needed "regime change." Further, the US claims the right to attack any country at any time, if it feels in the least threatened or offended. Finally, the US maintains as its prerogative the right to remain the number one global military power and to preemptively remove any challenger to that title; there will be no "balance of terror" in the future, since America will monopolize all military hardware of consequence.

But why Iraq as the first test case of the new Bush doctrine of unilateral intervention and preemptive deterrence? At a minimum, the whole exercise seems contrived. One argument is that Saddam Hussein has, or soon will have, "weapons of mass destruction." There is no evidence of this, but the White House opposes the insertion of United Nations arms inspectors (the one way to find out) on the grounds they will prove ineffective.

As a corollary to the nuclear-threat argument, Bush spokesmen insist Saddam will use his unproven nuclear arsenal against America. This presupposes that he has the delivery capability (intercontinental ballistic missiles) to reach the US mainland, but it has been well established that he has no such capability. Even if he did, Saddam has to know that any first nuclear strike against the US would result in the instantaneous destruction of his own country; it would be an act of insanity.

Another argument for attacking Iraq is that it is a terrorist state harboring al-Qaeda operatives and sending them out to do their international dirty work. Again, there is no credible evidence this is so. On the contrary, Saddam Hussein's Iraq is fundamentally a secular state; it fought a war in the 1980s against Iran's theocracy and has a history of putting down the more extremist Muslim elements within its borders. As for 9/11, there is absolutely no proof of any Iraqi involvement in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Faced with the improbability of proving their nuclear/terrorist assertions about Iraq, Bush partisans have been forced to fall back on what they evidently view as the perfect squelch to silence their few critics. Saddam, they insist, is an "evil" dictator who has abused his own people. This is the lack-of-niceness rationale for going to war.

To be sure, Saddam is not a pleasant individual; he is not a man most of us would want to associate with on a social level. There is no doubt he has imprisoned, tortured and killed his own citizens, and periodically threatened his neighbors. But the same can be said, to varying degrees, for Qaddafi of Libya, Castro of Cuba, Assad of Syria, Jong of North Korea, and any number of Chinese leaders, past and present. If bad domestic behavior is to be the minimal requirement for inviting an American invasion, there are lots of qualified applicants around the globe.

The obsession with terminating Saddam Hussein obviously goes beyond any of the publicly stated rationales. It appears quite obvious, first of all, that George W. Bush feels impelled to finish his father's leftover work from the Gulf War and to clean the family slate; it's a personal nagging itch he just has to scratch. The build- up to a new foreign adventure also provides a convenient distraction from corporate corruption and the sluggish economy with an off-year election just around the corner. Oil undoubtedly plays a part as well; a man Washington doesn't like simply controls too much of it for comfort. But it's more than that. Family honor, national politics, and the economics of oil don't fully explain the seemingly desperate need to topple Saddam. Changes in the geopolitical environment and the new US role in the post-Cold War world need to be considered.

In this regard, thinking Americans would do well to examine a brilliant piece of foreign policy analysis by Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University. The Bacevich treatise, "New Rome, New Jerusalem," appears in the summer 2002 issue of The Wilson Quarterly. In it, the author provocatively (and convincingly) argues that, like it or not, the United States has now become an empire analogous to those of ancient Rome and 19th-century Britain. It is an empire with a difference, less interested in land acquisition and the direct rule of subject peoples than in imposing a way of life and certain core cultural beliefs (democracy, individual autonomy, free-market economics), but it is an empire nonetheless.

The American empire, suggests Bacevich, is more benign than previous imperiums, yet every bit as determined to get its way. We Americans know what's good for the world, and the world will just have to conform or suffer the consequences. Iraq, which refuses to admit who's boss, has to be taught a lesson; it has to be remade in our image. That imperial hubris is the essence of the Bush administration's need to attack Saddam Hussein. It's an attitude the late Sen. J. William Fulbright, writing at the height of the Vietnam War, called "the arrogance of power, the tendency of great nations to equate power with virtue and major responsibilities with a universal mission."

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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