Friday, August 20, 2004

Because we could

Now that this site is linked to smirkingchimp.com (check it out, it has all sorts of useful anti-Bush stuff, and it's a whole lot funnier than talkingpointsmemo.com, although you gotta love Joshua Micah Marshall), I'm trying to be, you know, more punchy, less lengthy. So here's yet another op-ed avoided by the major media outlets. But there's more to follow on the Lateness of Capitalism, of course.

We Did It Because We Could


Every justification of the war in Iraq offered before 2004 has now been discredited or still awaits verification—-save one. We now know that Iraq posed no imminent threat to the national security of the United States. For we know that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, and that he never collaborated with Al Qaeda in terrorist projects aimed at the U.S. We also know that a resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has not been promoted by the war in Iraq-—the road to Jerusalem won’t go through Baghdad, and the Arab dominoes won't be falling into place in our lifetime. Finally, we know that the “clash of civilizations” between Islamic jihadists and secular modernists has been exacerbated, not pacified, and not even addressed, by the deployment of American military power in the Middle East.
What’s left of the case for war? We cannot yet know that Iraq will become a democratic state capable of inspiring and supporting reformers in the region—and even if we could, what follows? That democracy flows from the barrel of a gun? That might makes right?
The only remaining justification for this war is that we have displaced and captured a brutal dictator. We admit that the reasons once offered for waging war in Iraq have turned out to be specious or unverifiable, but we conclude that no one can argue with the resulting regime change. Saddam is gone, who can complain about that?
There are two fundamental flaws in this belated bit of bait and switch. First, it obscures the simple fact that everyone except Saddam’s loyalists wanted regime change in Iraq. Those of us who opposed the war did not by our opposition signify support for the Baathist Party. And those of us who approved the war wanted regime change because we believed that Saddam’s WMD posed an immediate threat to the security of the region, the U.S., and the world. Or because we believed that Saddam was not an immediate threat to anyone, but that in the long run, his strident brand of Stalinism would require much more than mere containment. The question for all of us, left to right, was not whether to press for regime change, but how to do so. What means were both feasible and necessary?
The second flaw in the bait and switch rationale is that it comes dangerously close to claiming that “the end justifies the means.” This dictum is peculiarly poisonous to a political culture that purports to be democratic. For in a democracy, the means are the ends, and vice versa. The rule of law, for example, is the means by which we inscribe the principle of equality in our culture-—no one is “above the law,” we insist—-but it is also an end in itself, because it makes persuasion, not coercion, the ideal of political discourse. Abraham Lincoln said it best: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”
If the military means used to displace Saddam were not necessary-—not proportionate to the purpose and the occasion-—then the end now in view is no more justifiable than the means. Furthermore, if the means included misleading claims about the nature of the threat from Saddam, abuse of executive privilege and public powers, encouragement to torture Iraqi citizens, and repeated attempts both to exempt the U.S. from international law and to free the president from the constraints of the Constitution, then the end now in view is no less tainted than these means.
To admit that the only remaining justification of the war in Iraq is retrospective—-hey, how do you like that, for once we got rid of a bad guy!-—is to admit that we went to war under false pretenses. Many people have already recovered from this admission by saying, “Yes, it was a mistake to go to war, but something good came of it—-maybe the end does justify the means.” Alas, this is still not a justification. It is explanation without contrition: We did it because we could.