My Ideal War
How the international community should have responded to Bush's September 2002 U.N. speech.
Up until now, I have resisted all urges to assume the mantle of generalship and to describe how I personally would have waged a campaign to liberate Iraq. I became involved in this argument before the Bush administration had been elected, and for me it always was (and still is) a matter of solidarity with the democratic forces in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan and of the need for the United States to change its policy and be on their side. I am now authoritatively told that we should have been on their side to the tune of 100,000 or so extra troops, and I must say I do not object. Nor would I have objected then. However, it's the point of principle that matters. And one simply cannot turn to international friends and say, look, what with the state of the opinion polls, I think we'll have to be seeing a bit less of each other.
This commitment doesn't override truth, and I know that a lot of people feel that they were cheated or even lied into the war. It seems amazing to me that so many people have adopted the "Saddam Hussein? No problem!" view before the documents captured from his regime have even been translated, let alone analyzed. I am sure that when this task has been completed, history will make fools of those who believed that he was no threat, had no terror connections, was "in his box," and so forth. A couple of recent disclosures lend some point to my view. The first are the findings published in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, and the second is the steady work of Stephen Hayes, over at the Weekly Standard, aimed at getting some of the captured documents declassified.
The long report in the May-June Foreign Affairs gives us a view of the regime that confirms the essential contours of Kanan Makiya's Republic of Fear. A system of hideous cruelty we have learned to take for granted, but this also reminds us of a system of amazing irrationality. Saddam Hussein wanted, until the very last days, to maintain ambiguity about his possession of weapons of mass destruction. Given his past record, there was absolutely no reason why any serious government should have taken his word that he had dropped this stance. (And we also know, from the Duelfer report and many other sources, that he hoped to retain his latent ability to restart production once the sanctions—which were themselves a crime against the Iraqi people—had been lifted or rendered ineffective.) It is in the light of that last point that one of the article's crucial discoveries must be read. Saddam believed until the end that the French and Russian governments would save him. He also knew what we—at the time—did not: The oil-for-food system had turned into a self-sustaining racket that cemented his support in French and Russian circles. He thought that contracts would speak louder than words, and in this instance he wasn't completely crazy to do so.
As for the "terror" connection, Hayes in a series of unrebutted articles has laid out a tranche of suggestive and incriminating connections, based on a mere fraction of the declassified documents, showing Iraqi Baathist involvement with jihadist and Bin Ladenist groups from Sudan to Afghanistan to Western Asia. If you choose to doubt this, you might want to look at the threat, neglected by the U.S. military, of the "Fedayeen Saddam." (See also Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor's admirable new book Cobra II.) This interestingly named outfit, known to many of us for some time, did most of the serious fighting against the coalition after the ignominious and predictable collapse of the Iraqi army and the Republican Guard. Its ranks were heavily augmented with foreign jihadists, and from this para-state formation and its recruitment pattern, we get an idea of the way in which things would have gone in Iraq if it had been left alone. Never mind "imminent threat," if that phrase upsets you. How does "permanent threat" sound?
So, now I come at last to my ideal war. Let us start with President Bush's speech to the United Nations on Sept. 12, 2002, which I recommend that you read. Contrary to innumerable sneers, he did not speak only about WMD and terrorism, important though those considerations were. He presented an argument for regime change and democracy in Iraq and said, in effect, that the international community had tolerated Saddam's deadly system for far too long. Who could disagree with that? Here's what should have happened. The other member states of the United Nations should have said: Mr. President, in principle you are correct. The list of flouted U.N. resolutions is disgracefully long. Law has been broken, genocide has been committed, other member-states have been invaded, and our own weapons inspectors insulted and coerced and cheated. Let us all collectively decide how to move long-suffering Iraq into the post-Saddam era. We shall need to consider how much to set aside to rebuild the Iraqi economy, how to sponsor free elections, how to recuperate the devastated areas of the marshes and Kurdistan, how to try the war criminals, and how many multinational forces to ready for this task. In the meantime—this is of special importance—all governments will make it unmistakably plain to Saddam Hussein that he can count on nobody to save him. All Iraqi diplomats outside the country, and all officers and officials within it, will receive the single message that it is time for them to switch sides or face the consequences. Then, when we are ready, we shall issue a unanimous ultimatum backed by the threat of overwhelming force. We call on all democratic forces in all countries to prepare to lend a hand to the Iraqi people and assist them in recovering from more than three decades of fascism and war.
Not a huge amount to ask, when you think about it. But what did the president get instead? The threat of unilateral veto from Paris, Moscow, and Beijing. Private assurances to Saddam Hussein from members of the U.N. Security Council. Pharisaic fatuities from the United Nations' secretary-general, who had never had a single problem wheeling and dealing with Baghdad. The refusal to reappoint Rolf Ekeus—the only serious man in the U.N. inspectorate—to the job of invigilation. A tirade of opprobrium, accusing Bush of everything from an oil grab to a vendetta on behalf of his father to a secret subordination to a Jewish cabal. Platforms set up in major cities so that crowds could be harangued by hardened supporters of Milosevic and Saddam, some of them paid out of the oil-for-food bordello.
Well, if everyone else is allowed to rewind the tape and replay it, so can I. We could have been living in a different world, and so could the people of Iraq, and I shall go on keeping score about this until the last phony pacifist has been strangled with the entrails of the last suicide-murderer.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of soldiers by Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images. Photograph of soldiers on the Slate home page by John Moore/Getty Images.