In the final years of the Soviet Union, as glasnost broadened the scope of permissible public debate, it was still deemed advisable to precede any expression of controversial views with a little disclaimer.  For example, “While I hold no brief for the Islamic dushmans terrorizing the people of Afghanistan, I think we should withdraw from that country”; or, “While rejecting the notion that Western-style capitalism provides the best model for the good life, I think that we should abandon central planning and collectivized agriculture in favor of free-market reforms.”   

It is a sign of these unpleasant times that I feel compelled to make such a statement when discussing Iraq, but so be it: I think, unreservedly, that Saddam Hussein is a nasty piece of work.  In fact, I wish that he were dead and gone and that someone very different held power in Baghdad.  (Admittedly, hardly any leader in the Arab world is very different from Saddam: To bully, cheat, and lie abroad, and to oppress and rob at home, is the rule rather than the exception in that political culture.)  The Iraqi dictator has brought nothing but misery to his own people, as well as chronic instability to the region.  His military adventures—including two disastrous wars—ended in fiascos, and, yes, he did “gas his own people.”  (Actually, it was the Kurds, whom he sees as anything but “his own” but who had the misfortune of living under his sway.)  If he could make them or buy them, Saddam would undoubtedly love to have all kinds of “weapons of mass destruction,” and, in extremis, he would probably use them against a foe unable to retaliate in kind.   

All of the above, while obviously necessary to the argument that the United States must topple Saddam by force, are not sufficient to make the argument stick.  Since different members of the Bush administration and the War Party have used different tools to support the basic argument, we need to examine them one by one.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the proponents of war against Iraq immediately claimed that Saddam Hussein should be dealt with “once and for all” because he was in cahoots with Al Qaeda.  This turned out to be untrue.  Saddam is a secular dictator with pan-Arabic, nationalist (rather than Islamic) delusions of grandeur.  Accordingly, his regime tends to support non-Islamic radicals, notably PLO dissidents—including Abu Nidal, who was recently found murdered in his Baghdad dwelling—and he fears Muslim fundamentalist groups such as Al Qaeda.  Bin Laden, for his part, regards the Iraqi dictator as a “bad Muslim” and wants him out of power.  The widely circulated claim that Muhammad Atta, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, had met an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague months before the hijackings was discarded in April 2002, when the top Czech spymaster and federal law-enforcement officials both said that an extensive investigation had found no evidence that the meeting had ever taken place.  The war enthusiasts, nevertheless, did not give up, resorting to desperate ploys: On August 22, William Safire claimed in the New York Times that “a score of terrorists” were captured by U.S. Special Forces in Northern Iraq, “including [a] Saddam agent, Saad, and [a] Qaeda operative, al-Kurdi.”  There is even a “Qaeda-Saddam joint venture” to produce “a form of cyanide cream that kills on contact.”  This was all unsubstantiated rubbish.

Anticipating the absence of a smoking gun, within weeks after September 11, the proponents of bombing Baghdad declared that none was necessary: We are waging a “War on Terror,” Iraq supports terrorists, and, ergo, Iraq is a legitimate target.  The ruins of the Twin Towers were still smoldering when Paul Wolfowitz declared that the time had come to settle the score with Saddam once and for all, and his old buddy Richard Perle—part-Rasputin, part Svengali—has echoed the line ever since.  In a letter to President Bush, Bill Kristol and two-dozen neocon leading lights (including Perle, Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer, Martin Peretz, and Norman Podhoretz) argued that,

even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

William Safire chimed in with his claim that “terror’s most dangerous supporter can be found in Baghdad.”

In reality, Saddam has provided support to a variety of groups that oppose his regional adversaries—including the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq dissidents fighting the government of Iran, Kurdish rebels fighting Turkey, and, since the intifada began in 2000, various Palestinian groups attacking Israel.  None of these groups has targeted America.  In this respect, his mischief is no worse than Pakistan’s support for the Kashmiri separatists who routinely resort to terror against India, or Georgia’s benevolent tolerance of Chechen terrorists within her borders.  Saddam’s terrorist-friendly sins pale compared to the Clinton administration’s warm embrace of the KLA, the collection of homicidal dope dealers and pimps who now run Kosovo, having murdered or ethnically cleansed every non-Albanian they could lay their hands on.  Yes, Saddam probably does channel money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, too, but in doing so, he is only following the example of the United States’ “reliable ally,” the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Unless Musharraf, Shevardnadze, Clinton, and Abdullah are measured by the same yardstick, Saddam’s “support for terrorism” is not a serious argument.

Next, the proponents of war resurrected the old claim that Iraq had to be attacked because it could be acquiring “weapons of mass destruction” (WOMDs), and it refuses to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to find out if this is so.  There is no proof that Saddam is actually developing his arsenal; that objection, however, was discounted by Donald Rumsfeld in a turn of phrase worthy of Torquemada: “The absence of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence.”

In congressional hearings last August, former U.N. arms inspector Scott Ritter—a Marine veteran, Bush voter, and a card-carrying Republican—claimed that the Bush administration does not want renewed inspections of Iraq, only war: “A handful of ideologues have hijacked the national security policy of the United States for their own ambitions.”  Ritter insisted that Iraq has been stripped of its WOMDs and of its capacity to make them.  This man, who spent seven years in Iraq with the UNSCOM weapons-inspection teams, is adamant: Iraq simply does not have weapons of mass destruction, any more than it has threatening ties to international terrorism.

Ritter’s former boss, Rolf Ekeus, head of U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq from 1991 to 1997, supports this view and questions the stated reasons for withdrawing inspectors in the first place.  He has accused the United States and other U.N. Security Council members of manipulating the U.N. inspections teams for their own political ends.  Ekeus, one of the most respected Swedish diplomats, says there is no doubt that the United States attempted to increase its influence over the inspections to favor its own agenda: “As time went on, some countries, especially the US, wanted to learn more about other parts of Iraq’s capacity.”  He claimed that the United States tried to determine the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein and pressed the teams to inspect sensitive areas, such as Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, when it was politically favorable for them to create a crisis—“inspections which were controversial from the Iraqis’ view, and thereby created a blockage that could be used as a justification for a direct military action.”  In December 1998, one such fabricated crisis enabled President Clinton—then in the midst of the Lewinsky affair—to order UNSCOM inspectors out of Iraq two days before renewing bombing (without Security Council approval).  The majority of the targets bombed were derived from the unique access the UNSCOM inspectors had enjoyed in Iraq, and they had more to do with the security of Saddam Hussein than with WOMDs.

The current war fever is totally unconnected to weapons inspections.  John Bolton, the U.S. arms-control leader, declared that the United States “insists on regime change in Baghdad and that policy will not be altered, whether inspectors go in or not.”  Bolton is probably aware that it would be audacious for a boldly unilateralist administration to invoke Saddam’s violations of “the will of the international community” as a casus belli.  That is the Clintonistas’ line; the Bush team has no qualms about abrogating nuclear-arms-control treaties and biological-weapons conventions, torpedoing the International Criminal Court, and refusing to sign global-warming protocols.  (Admittedly, most of those conventions and documents deserve to be ignored or shredded, but, from a purely legal standpoint, the readiness to attack Iraq without a Security Council mandate represents a violation of international law of the highest order.)

More worrisome is the fact that the forthcoming war is also a violation of the U.S. Constitution.  President Bush may have been told by his unnamed “top legal advisors” that he does not need to secure the approval of Congress before launching a full-scale war on Iraq, but their claim is based on the assertion that the original Security Council resolution that paved the way for the Gulf War back in 1991 remains in full legal force—a claim that is not accepted by the Security Council itself!

When the War Party encounters legal and rational obstacles, it resorts to dehumanization and demonization: Saddam is evil—so evil, in fact, that no arguments are needed, and whoever insists on getting them is no better than he.  Yes, Saddam is the new Hitler, and if we don’t act now . . . Munich . . . higher price later . . . blah, blah, blah.  But this trick has been played once too often.  Even the neocons realize that it would be tricky for them to support the Wilsonian line, in light of the distinctly unsavory nature of so many regimes whose support they regard as essential to the neoimperial edifice they advocate.  Turkey, Croatia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and, yes, Israel all have so many skeletons in their closets that the “moral case,” however flexibly applied, would necessitate a literally unending American war for human rights and democracy.  

In the end, we are left with the uncomfortable realization that the U.S. government wants to attack Iraq because it can, because it expects to be able to do so with relative impunity, and because there are people within the administration who have vested interests and geopolitical and emotional agendas that have nothing to do with the national interest of the United States.  The ultimate reason for attacking Iraq is the same as Sir Edmund Hillary’s reason for climbing Mount Everest: because it is there.  This seemed to be the bottom line when Vice President Cheney, addressing a VFW convention in Nashville at the end of August, vowed that the Bush administration “won’t look away and hope for the best.”  The risks of inaction are far greater than those of action, warned Cheney: “We will take whatever action is necessary.”  Addressing the concerns of some Republicans who urged caution, he replied that the United States would be ready to help with the rebuilding of Iraq once Saddam had been removed.  He also predicted that Saddam’s removal would be greeted with joy inside Iraq and would help the spread of democracy across the entire Arab world.

This is pure rhetoric, spiced with wishful thinking.  There is no strategic vision, no cost-benefit analysis, no consideration of risks, and no definition of victory.  This is frivolity on par with the behavior of Europe’s leading statesmen in July 1914.  It remains unchallenged, amidst the bipartisan War Party’s near monopoly on the U.S. media, making America less open to meaningful debate than during either world war or the Cold War.  What began in October 2001 as a legitimate (although not fully legal) military response to the terrorist outrage of September 11 has degenerated into an hubristic power play.  Small wonder that only one foreign government in the world fully supports what Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney & Co.  want done.

There are other reasons for the war, in addition to our “passionate attachment,” and all of them are equally bad: to hide the fact that Afghanistan is a costly failure, to keep the administration’s several arms-industry buddies busy in these lean economic times, and, above all, to satisfy the hubristic longings of the neoconservative cabal that now possesses Bush’s ear, soul, heart, and tongue.  They give the President ever more menacing scripts to read and then claim that we have to attack Iraq because we are now painted into a corner, since the White House’s rhetoric no longer allows for a retreat.