If liberals and the left are united behind anything in our allegedly post-ideological age, it is that human rights and humanitarian considerations must always trump realpolitik. The left opposed the punishing economic sanctions endured by Iraqi civilians from 1991 to 2003, despite the sanctions’ undoubted success in “containing” the former Iraqi regime. The Bush administration, unable so far to detect a single spore of anthrax in Iraq, is now selling the invasion retroactively as a “humanitarian intervention,” mostly to well-deserved hoots of derision from left-liberals.
Yet even before the war, American hawks had expropriated solidarity with suffering Iraqis for their side. If a commentator was talking about the bloody repression of the Shiites or the horrors of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s prisons, the chances were that he was arguing for war. As war inched closer this year, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair even claimed that the lifting of sanctions was a goal of intervention. “Ridding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity,” Blair intoned. “It is leaving him there that is in truth inhumane.” The hypocrisy of Blair’s homily did the anti-war left little good. At the time, many leftists were pulling for France to succeed in extending UNMOVIC inspections, which would have meant another rollover of the sanctions.
The story of how the peace movement lost the humanitarian argument before the war offers some lessons for the serious challenge posed to the left by the US occupation of Iraq and the ambient chatter about “democratizing” the Middle East. For all the energy spent exposing bogus evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the plight of ordinary Iraqis under the murderous Baathist regime was the only intellectually honest reason to support war — and to this anti-war forces devoted insufficient attention.
The broader left-liberal current inherited a deep split in the anti-sanctions movement over “what to do about Saddam.” A handful of ultra-leftists demanded that all sanctions be dropped, including measures preventing the regime from reconstituting its arsenal of conventional weaponry. Groups that publicized the humanitarian devastation wrought by the sanctions opted, for various reasons, not to discuss the regime’s share of responsibility for their continuation. Meanwhile, human rights and arms control NGOs called for international tribunals and inspections, provoking accusations of mimicking the hawks’ rhetoric. The left’s failure to reach a consensus on a positive alternative to sanctions and authoritarian rule yielded the floor to the hawks. Such an alternative was needed when the belligerency of the neo-conservatives shifted the debate sharply to the right, leaving many leftists uncomfortably defending Secretary of State Colin Powell and the CIA. What humanitarian concerns were expressed by the anti-war movement tended to be fears of worst-case scenarios ’ mass civilian casualties, refugee flight and disease.
Left-liberals who opposed the war are now grappling with the complexity of what is occurring on the ground in Iraq, searching for an alternative to US occupation and, ultimately, the neo-conservatives’ doctrine of “democratization” by the sword. In the absence of this alternative, another lowest common denominator of a slogan, this time one proclaiming “US out of Iraq,” is on many lips — including those of some Iraqis.
One line of argument, pushed in the US by Democrats wanting to weaken President George W. Bush, relies on the politics of fear: Soldiers are being killed at an alarming rate. Iraqis are learning to hate Americans. The occupation is fostering radical Islamism and allowing Al-Qaeda to regroup, all at a cost of $4 billion a month. Eventually, the electorate will realize that the war has made Americans less safe and clamor for a military withdrawal.
Those who predict this outcome forget US nationalism, which is just as likely to rally behind intensified military retaliation to attacks on soldiers, especially if the casualty rate increases and Iraqis appear ungrateful for their “liberation.” The focus on Americans’ safety neglects the needs and aspirations of Iraqis themselves. The left would do better to hold the occupying powers accountable for delivering what they promised in Iraq: security, electricity, clean water, jobs and giving the Iraqis a say in their own governance. Iraqis want the war criminals of the former regime to stand trial. Kurds and other minorities want a system that guarantees their civil rights. These are worthy goals. The present policy of the occupation — focused on rooting out supposed “Saddam loyalists” — does little to advance them.
At one time, the left won arguments with the politics of hope. It needs to take this ground back. The neo-conservatives, though they have befouled it with their ulterior motives, will not relinquish it voluntarily.