Changing the Middle East

Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

Changing the Middle East

Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

Changing the Middle East
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 15 2004 7:48 AM

Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War


Since this is my first post I want to address Jacob's central question, that Fred and George have pressed so effectively. Given the costs, was the war worth it? I think it was. Many of the costs (ruptured alliances, the postwar mess) can be alleviated (through better planning, diplomacy, etc.). I don't minimize these and have been vocal in pointing them out. But they do not invalidate the entire enterprise.

I've often been associated with the "democratization spillover" argument, so let me point out that the elimination of Saddam Hussein has been a big plus for American national security. The most anti-American and expansionist regime in the Middle East has disappeared. An actual and potential threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Kuwait has been eliminated. A violent, rejectionist state has faced consequences. This has had a sobering effect on the region: See Syria and Libya's recent behavior. Given our interest in a stable Middle East, this is good.


Given our growing interest in a more decent Middle East it is even better. For the last few decades we have defined deviancy down in that region. Behavior that would be utterly unacceptable from other countries gets a pass because it's the Middle East. If we learned tomorrow that, say, the Brazilian government was supporting various terror groups, trafficking in chemical and biological agents, and allowing its media to glorify anti-American violence, we would be appalled. When it's Syria we shrug our shoulders and say, "It's the Middle East."

This is the real connection to 9/11. After 9/11 we came to realize that we couldn't let the Middle East keep festering in its dysfunction and hatreds. It was breeding anti-Americanism and terror. With Iraq in particular, business as usual was becoming increasingly difficult. Throughout this discussion we have assumed that there was a simple, viable alternative to war with Iraq, the continuation of the status-quo, i.e., sanctions plus the almost weekly bombing of the no-fly zones. In fact, that isn't really true. America's Iraq policy was broken. You have to contrast the dangers of acting in Iraq with the dangers of not acting and ask what would things have looked like had we simply kicked this can down the road.

I had been comfortable with the "Saddam-is-in-a-box" argument during the 1990s. But by the latter part of the decade the policy was collapsing. In 1996 Saddam invaded the Kurdish safe haven of northern Iraq, re-establishing his power in the area. In the next few years he repeatedly defied U.N. inspectors and busted sanctions. His neighbors—Jordan, Turkey, Syria—began illicitly trading with him. The French and Russians were openly working to get the sanctions lifted. Saddam adopted an increasingly bold negotiating strategy, refusing or reneging on various compromises that were offered him. In 1998 he stooped cooperating with the inspectors. In November 1999 he stopped exporting oil (under the oil for food program) so that he could send oil prices to their highest levels in a decade. On coming into office, Colin Powell, realizing how ineffective sanctions had become, tried to create a "smart sanctions" program that would target the regime and not the Iraqi people. The French and Russians scuttled it.

So, what we had by 2001 was a policy that was leaving Saddam strong but killing thousands of Iraqi civilians—by one UNICEF estimate over 30,000 a year, of which the majority were children under 5. This was not the containment of the Soviet Union. Iraq had turned into a gangsterland, on its way to becoming a Middle Eastern Chechnya. Its humanitarian crisis was broadcast every day across the Arab world and had enormous popular appeal. That is why, having no love for Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden listed it as one of his three grievances against America in his famous declaration of jihad.

Was a continuation of these trends—collapsing sanctions, total impoverishment, no inspectors, Saddam emboldened, and Iraq as the humanitarian cause of the Arab world—good for American interest and ideals? Particularly after 9/11?

George raises a very important question as to whether war is the best agent for democratization. No, it isn't. But there are certain places where change is unlikely to come from within—anytime soon. In particular in oil-rich countries, there is always enough money to pay the army, the secret police, and the torturers. That's why, over the last three decades, while dictatorships all over the world have tottered and tumbled, not one has fallen in the Arab world. Democracy doesn't always come at the point of a gun, but it often does take outside pressure to topple a bad regime—Germany, Japan, Eastern Europe, South Africa. And while external help can be suspect, sometimes outside pressure can help as it did in East Asia and Latin America.

The eggs are broken. Now we need to make a decent omelet. Of course George is right when he says that to succeed in Iraq we need greater popular legitimacy—and we could have gotten it in various ways. And he's right that democracy-building is long, slow, hard work—I've written much about that myself. I've read his intelligent accounts of all the problems in Iraq today. But would it really be easier to make progress toward a decent society had there been no war? And while I'm as sensitive as anyone to public opinion, please don't take too seriously the howls of Arab intellectuals, people who only a year ago hailed Saddam Hussein as their hero. They are reflections of a broken culture. If the goal is to make them happy, we will never achieve any progress in the Middle East.

The war against Iraq was a tough call. For me there was no single reason that was dispositive. But I believe that political and economic change in the Middle East is vital to tackling the war on terror. That, coupled with the humanitarian crisis, coupled with the security problem that Saddam posed, made me sign on to the war.

Yes, we could have tried to promote reform without a war—and we are. We could have better funded legal exchange programs in Egypt, helped women's education in Jordan, provided economic advice to Qatar—but would it have been an adequate and urgent strategy to address the virus that has infected the Middle East? In Iraq we have the possibility of helping a society break through the barriers of the past and set an example for the future. Of course it may not succeed, and things may not change in that region. Many of the Bush administration postwar mistakes make that outcome more likely. But one thing's for certain: If we hadn't tried, we can be sure that it would not succeed and nothing would change.