Do We Actually Need to Wage War on Iraq?

The United States wants to remove Saddam Hussein from power; its main allies would be content with his disarmament. The United States, therefore, wants to keep the United Nations weapons inspectors out of Iraq; its allies want to get them back in.

To reconcile these aims – at least formally – is the point of the intense jockeying now going on at the UN. The United States wants a new Security Council resolution drawn up so as to make the early use of force legal. France and Russia, while not opposed to the use of force as a last resort, want to use existing Security Council resolutions to give disarmament a last chance. Britain finds itself between a rock and a hard place. It is co-sponsor with the United States of a resolution whose not-so-hidden aim is to force out Hussein, while being openly committed to nothing more than his regime’s disarmament.

In one sense, the maneuvers at the United Nations are a side show.

The United States will go ahead with “regime change” whatever the UN decides. So, the unenviable choice for America’s allies is either to accede to the U.S. demand for a new UN resolution that brings about “regime change” in Iraq – probably by war – or to acquiesce in unilateral U.S. action to remove Hussein. No other choice is available, because there is no force capable of stopping the United States. This is the reality of a world with only one superpower.

The U.S. draft resolution – at the time of writing – makes eight demands on Iraq. Under extreme pressure, Iraq might be expected to accept seven of them, but not the one which gives the inspection teams “the right to declare for the purposes of this resolution … ground and air-transit corridors which shall be enforced by UN security forces,” i.e. which allows U.S. forces to enter Iraq where and when they want.

The technique of demands drawn up to be rejected, rather than accepted, is not new. On July 23, 1914, Austro-Hungary presented a 10-point ultimatum to Serbia following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, giving it 48 hours to reply. Serbia accepted nine points but, not unexpectedly, rejected the 10th, which would have allowed Austrian officials to conduct the murder investigation on Serbian territory unhindered. The Austrian invasion of Serbia followed a few days later, and led to World War I.

A more recent example, also involving Serbia, was the so-called Rambouillet accord of March 20, 1999. In order to enforce “peace and self-government in Kosovo,” NATO forces were to enjoy “free and … unimpeded access throughout the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.” U.S. bombing started four days after Serbia’s rejection of this implementing provision.

Monstrous though Saddam Hussein’s regime is, there is much less justification for forcing a war on Iraq today than there was for going to war in 1914 or 1999. In the first case, the existence of Serbia posed a threat to the survival of Austro-Hungary; in the second case, there was – arguably-a humanitarian disaster in the making which only the expulsion of Slobodan Milosevic from Kosovo could avert.

Today, there exists no legal or security case for a pre-emptive U.S. attack on Iraq. Hussein is not a threat to the United States, though he may be a menace to some of his neighbors. He is not an Islamic fundamentalist, and no evidence has been adduced of Iraqi involvement in the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. In any case, effective disarmament of the Hussein regime – a legitimate peace aim following Iraq’s expulsion from Kuwait – can be secured by a toughened inspection regime: Even the much-evaded inspection system in place between 1991 and 1998 succeeded in liquidating most of its external military capacity.

There is a moral argument for removing any regime which oppresses its own people, whatever international law says. But it is rather late in the game to come up with this in Hussein’s case and, in any event, why stop with Iraq? The newly-proclaimed moral argument is simply a pretext for a war desired for other reasons.

Why, then, is the United States so eager to wage a war against Iraq? Put to one side President George W. Bush’s personal motive for “finishing dad’s business” and vague talk of oil interests. These may play some part in the thinking of the Bush administration but they are not of its essence. The fundamental reasons seem to be three.

The first lies in the area of psychological reassurance. The American people, devastated by the attack of Sept. 11, are looking to their government to restore a lost invulnerability. Given the subterranean and elusive nature of the terrorist threat, the only available riposte is against visible instruments of anti-American power, however little threat these actually pose.

In practice, absolute security is impossible and attempts to achieve it by using pre-emptive strikes against “rogue states” open up the grim prospect of “perpetual war to achieve perpetual peace.”
Secondly, the United States is probably trying to alter the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of Israel by setting up a client state in Baghdad.

Finally, and somewhat at odds with the first reason, the United States today is immensely conscious of its power to reshape international relations to its own and – it would say – the world’s benefit.

Russia cannot stop the United States from going to war if it chooses to do so. It can veto a Security Council ultimatum, but that will not stop the United States. However, there is a big difference between dignified acquiescence and undignified support. The political benefits the United States can offer in return for active support are pretty meager. Russia does what it wants in Chechnya and Georgia despite the United States, and promises of huge oil pickings in a new Iraq are unlikely to materialize.

There is no business reason for the United States to give Russia access to the vast Iraqi oil reserves, and the political calculation that the United States will “reward” Russia for its support by sacrificing the interests of its own oil companies and those of its long established allies is pretty flimsy. If Russia, lured by inducements, were to support the U.S. policy of regime change in Iraq, it would be sacrificing its principle of great-power cooperation, centered on the Security Council, in return for fool’s gold.

Russia can best play its relatively poor hand in world affairs by cooperating with the world’s superpower to the maximum extent compatible with preserving its independence and self-respect. It should always support the United States when it thinks it is right, but not be afraid to oppose it when it thinks it is wrong. It should reject Bush’s simplistic alternative: “You are either with us or against us.” Putin’s response to the Sept. 11 outrage was the right response to a monstrous act. Slavish adherence to the U.S. line on Iraq would be wrong.

And what is true of Russia applies to America’s other partners. We stand at a threshold in world affairs. The future can develop either according to the dictates of an unstable imperialism, with a growing gap between the West and Islam and scattered military interventions and terrorism feeding on each other, or according to the logic of a cooperative hegemony of the great powers, with a growing plurality of decision-making.

In truth, the United States is suited neither by its history nor present civilization to be a serious imperialist. It was the first product of anti-colonialism. Vietnam showed that it had no appetite for ruling foreign countries. Since Vietnam, its willingness to suffer casualties in pursuit of foreign policy aims has shrunk to almost zero.

A haphazard U.S. imperialism, which stirs up the rest of the world to fury, while failing to produce the benefits of orderly government, would be the worst possible outcome of Sept. 11.