The flawed case against regime change.

A wartime lexicon.
Nov. 7 2002 3:05 PM

Machiavelli in Mesopotamia

The case against the case against "regime change" in Iraq.

Part of the charm of the regime-change argument (from the point of view of its supporters) is that it depends on premises and objectives that cannot, at least by the administration, be publicly avowed. Since Paul Wolfowitz is from the intellectual school of Leo Strauss—and appears in fictional guise as such in Saul Bellow's novel Ravelstein—one may even suppose that he enjoys this arcane and occluded aspect of the debate. For those lacking a similar gift for hidden meanings, the best way to appreciate the unstated case for war may be to examine the criticisms leveled by its opponents. These criticisms, which rely on supposed inconsistencies and hypocrisies on the pro-war side, are themselves riddled with contradictions.

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First, the opponents of war say, why choose Saddam Hussein when there are so many other bad guys? Second (and related), why exempt Saudi Arabia, which has proven ties to al-Qaida? Third, what about Palestine, for which we already bear a responsibility? Fourth, haven't the Republican establishment, from Dick Cheney to Donald Rumsfeld, been the smiling patrons and financiers of Saddam in the past? There are other points, but you know the tune by now.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

Accidentally, this liberal critique helps expose the fact that the chief opponents of a "regime change" strategy are in fact conservatives. They consist of the friends of Saudi Arabia and Turkey (who likewise oppose the strategy) and of the periphery, at least, of the Kissinger Associates. And they include, as far as we can tell, the president's father. The jeer about Dubya finishing what Daddy began has, you will notice, subsided lately, as 41's old foreign policy hands have been signing on with the peacemakers.

Taking the points in order, it's fairly easy to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein is a bad guy's bad guy. He's not just bad in himself but the cause of badness in others. While he survives not only are the Iraqi and Kurdish peoples compelled to live in misery and fear (the sheerly moral case for regime-change is unimpeachable on its own), but their neighbors are compelled to live in fear as well.

However—and here is the clinching and obvious point—Saddam Hussein is not going to survive. His regime is on the verge of implosion. It has long passed the point of diminishing returns. Like the Ceausescu edifice in Romania, it is a pyramid balanced on its apex (its powerbase a minority of the Sunni minority), and when it falls, all the consequences of a post-Saddam Iraq will be with us anyway. To suggest that these consequences—Sunni-Shi'a rivalry, conflict over the boundaries of Kurdistan, possible meddling from Turkey or Iran, vertiginous fluctuations in oil prices and production, social chaos—are attributable only to intervention is to be completely blind to the impending reality. The choices are two and only two—to experience these consequences with an American or international presence or to watch them unfold as if they were none of our business. (I respect those who say that the United States should simply withdraw from the Middle East, but I don't respect them for anything but their honesty.)

Once this self-evident point has been appreciated, it becomes a matter of making a virtue of necessity. If an intervention helps rescue Iraq from mere anarchy and revenge, some of the potential virtues are measurable in advance. The recuperation of the Iraqi oil industry represents the end of the Saudi monopoly, and we know that there are many Wolfowitzians who yearn for this but cannot prudently say so in public. The mullahs in Iran hate America more than they hate Saddam, while Iranian public opinion—notice how seldom "the Iranian street" is mentioned by peaceniks—takes a much more pro-American view. It's hard to picture the disappearance of the Saddam regime as anything but an encouragement to civil and democratic forces in Tehran, as well as in Bahrain, Qatar, and other gulf states that are experimenting with democracy and women's rights. Turkey will be wary about any increase in Kurdish autonomy (another good cause by the way), but even the Islamists in Turkey are determined to have a closer association with the European Union, and the EU has made it clear that Turkey's own Kurds must be granted more recognition before this can occur. One might hope that no American liberal would want to demand any less.

In Palestine and Jordan the situation is far more fraught, because loathing for the vile Ariel Sharon has often translated into sympathy for Saddam, and because Saddam has been cultivating the Palestinian rejectionists. However, with his demise this support will have literally nowhere to go, and Chairman Yasser Arafat's discredited entourage will have no serious "rejectionist" option left to them, either. This will be the ultimate test of statecraft: Will a realistic Palestinian acceptance of a territorial solution be acknowledged in the form of a dismantling of settlements? By "statecraft" I mean the word literally, since Bush is the first president to have employed the word "state" and "Palestinian" in the same sentence. It is not easy to be optimistic here, but then again there is little to lose, since the so-called "Oslo" process is a proven failure from the viewpoint either of principle or practice.

From conversations I have had on this subject in Washington, I would say that the most fascinating and suggestive conclusion is this: After Sept. 11, several conservative policy-makers decided in effect that there were "root causes" behind the murder-attacks. These "root causes" lay in the political slum that the United States has been running in the region, and in the rotten nexus of client-states from Riyadh to Islamabad. Such causes cannot be publicly admitted, nor can they be addressed all at once. But a slum-clearance program is beginning to form in the political mind.

Iraq is, for fairly obvious reasons, the keystone state here, and it is already at critical mass. Thus it seems to me idle to argue that a proactive policy is necessarily doomed to make more enemies. I have always disliked this argument viscerally, since it suggests that I should meekly avoid the further disapproval of those who hate me quite enough to begin with. Given some intelligence and foresight, however, I believe that an armed assistance to the imminent Iraqi and Kurdish revolutions can not only make some durable friends, it can also give the theocrats and their despotic patrons something to really hate us for.

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