As this issue went to press, official Washington awaited George W. Bush’s September 12 address to the United Nations, in which he was expected to end months of speculation over whether, and how, the US will act to produce “regime change” in Iraq. Despite White House spin claiming that Bush has not ordered military action simply because he is “a patient man,” the drive for war has been slowed by substantive doubts. The secretary of state seems to publicly disagree with the vice president on the priority of weapons inspections. Top generals are again on record ridiculing the proposed US invasion as a “Bay of Goats” operation being pushed by bellicose civilians who have never tasted battle. On the talk show circuit in late August, the exuberant unilateralism of the war party yielded center stage to harrumphs of caution emanating from Lawrence Eagleburger and Brent Scowcroft, former staffers for Bush’s father. Most importantly, polls now show that Americans, while supportive of “regime change” in principle, are skeptical of real-world scenarios for US intervention, especially without UN Security Council authorization or the participation of allies. Bush’s announcement on September 4 that he will seek Congressional approval for military action was an acknowledgement of political constraints on what the war party wishes was unfettered executive dispatch.
Having come this far, the “chest-thumpers,” as Eagleburger dubbed them, will fight to stay on track in their self-appointed mission to redraw the geostrategic map of the Middle East. A full debate in Congress will give the skeptics a platform, but will also amplify the already shrill rhetoric about the “mortal threat” posed to global security by Saddam Hussein. At the same time, the breadth of the opposition expressed in August to a unilateral attack shows that war is not inevitable. The Bush administration may still be compelled to back down.
Over the years, Middle East Report has been clear that Saddam Hussein’s regime — by virtue of its wars of aggression, its execrable human rights record and its defiance of international obligations — bears considerable responsibility for the increasingly dangerous impasse in the Gulf. The regime’s thoroughgoing self-interest is more transparent with its every denunciation of Western imperialism and proclamation of support for the Palestinian cause. But Baghdad’s culpability should not preempt discussion of the mercenary motives behind US determination to unseat Saddam, nor should it obscure the fact that US and British advocacy of regime change has continuously undermined the logic of weapons inspections and sanctions (and probably prolonged the latter) by removing Baghdad’s incentive to cooperate.
Kinder and gentler chest-thumpers, whose numbers will likely multiply if war plans gather speed, accuse the war’s opponents of blithely ignoring the desire of ordinary Iraqis for Saddam Hussein’s removal. Some go so far as to say that Iraqis would welcome American bombs if they would dislodge the Ba’thist dictator. Whatever else one might say about this line of argument, it proffers a false choice. Neither war nor indefinite continuation of Iraqi suffering under authoritarian rule and economic sanctions is an acceptable course of action, if policy is to be informed by concern for Iraqis’ welfare.
Important as it is to challenge pro-war positions, it is equally important to advance alternatives to both war and the status quo. One comprehensive set of recommendations, prepared by a coalition of NGOs, is accessible at the website of the Global Policy Forum. The report calls for, among other things, lifting economic sanctions while retaining targeted military and financial sanctions on the regime, pursuing a strategy of region-wide disarmament and prosecuting the Iraqi regime’s crimes against humanity in international courts. With war plans again in motion, these ideas deserve a hearing before the Bush team narrows the options to those of its own choosing.