The Phoney Debate on Iraq

by Will Youmans

This may surprise you: something like a debate has broken in Washington DC over a foreign policy question. And, to make things even more interesting, it is playing out in the media. It appears that the near-stalemate between the State Department’s multilateralists or as some call them, realists, and the Pentagon/Department of War/Reaganite crowd has spilled over into the wonderful world of partisan bickering. One side of that back-room debate, the hawkish unilateralists (headed by Rumsfeld/Perle/Wolfowitz) decided to "go public."

The Democrats’ arguments fall closer to the State department’s, which are few and simple: 1) Bush has to "make the case" for war on Iraq. That means prove that Saddam Hussein has chemical or nuclear weapons. 2) Bush must get support for attack from other countries in the world, especially from Europe and the states surrounding Iraq (which has been a failure thus far). 3) Specify the extent of the commitment or resources, troops, money etc. this project is estimated to cost. 4) Involve the people in the decision-making, or better yet Congress. 5) and some are calling for a program of nation-building. The first point is the main one Democrats are repeating, and the rest get less airplay.

My main impression is that the Democrats are carefully positioning themselves with domestic politics in mind. They know a war on Iraq would boost Dubya – who is probably slow-moving against Iraq since his election is still two plus years away – and be detrimental for their own electoral ambitions; but so would taking a principled stance against attacking. So they are setting a higher standard for the US war machine to begin revving.

What our liberal friends in the beltway are not doing is providing a solid position against invading Iraq. Like the big softies they are, Dems are warning that we should seriously weigh the consequences first with a public debate. Right. If it were true, it would be another obstacle since this is a debate the public is tremendously undereducated to participate in anyways. Just a decade ago, the American public was fired up by Bush Sr,’s comparison of Hussein to Adolf Hitler. This analogy struck those who know about the Middle East as odd since Nazi Germany was a major world power and Iraq had the GDP of Kentucky (which is to say nothing about the Osama bin Laden as Hitler analogy often repeated since 9-11). Since then, Hussein proved to be harmless to anyone but his own population, who ended up being more victimized and destroyed by the US/UN’s systematically murderous folly known as the sanctions.

The Dems are banking on the absence of the moral clarity that Bush had with Afghanistan (which media miraculously refer to as a success despite the obvious failure of the primary objective — to catch or kill bin Laden). I totally interpret the Democrats’ arguments in the context of domestic political posturing. They are trying to deny Bush access to a political goldmine. Americans, like most people, tend to rally around the flag during times of war and, to be partially redundant, before sporting events.

One obvious test is to go back and look at what the Dems were saying when Clinton made militaristic moves for his own domestic expediency: Operation Desert Fox against Iraq, and the missile attacks on Afghanistan and a Sudanese baby milk factory (or was it a pharmaceutical plant) timed to coincide with key hearings on the Lewinsky deflowerment scandal. They were quite uninterested in cases being made for those actions, though Clinton did atleast go through the measure of prevaricating, I mean prefabricating, a pretense with those weapons inspectors who voluntarily left Iraq under the guise that Hussein made their jobs undoable. This suggests the model for creating a pretense, which many old policy hacks such as Snowcroft and Kissinger suggest.

I would not confuse this posturing and early electoral maneuvering with debate. Debate is where one side has a position and the other side has another, usually opposite view. Here, there is no disagreement as to whether the United States has a right to attack Iraq. That is the fundamental assumption both "sides" accepts. The Dems are very far off the mark with their main concerns. Everyone in the world agrees that Saddam Hussein should not be in power. The question for debate is does the United States have the right to do it. Right now, both the Dems and the Republicans say yes to that. What in the Democratic position prevents Bush from inventing a pretense?

Still, part of me is glad they are discussing something. It makes people more likely to read my rants. More importantly, it clearly demonstrates the utter narrowness of foreign policy discourse. The most objectionable premises are accepted as natural right. What is most fascinating is that the existence of this deluge of talking head-exchange demonstrates that Iraq’s threat is not imminent – the standard for invasion provided by a liberal reading of applicable international law, another topic interestingly absent from these discussions. Plus, if Iraq’s danger was so real, why are all of the most vulnerable neighbors against any military action?

Finally, that points to the funny timing of this whole movement for attacking Iraq: it comes when Iraq is militarily at its lowest point since Saddam Hussein came to power. Ironically, when Hussein was at his most barbaric and war-mongering, he was an ally and recipient of American dollars and, yes, chemical weapons. Maybe his weakness is why certain American officials want him out. The key for many of them is regional stability, and a de-legitimized leader sitting on one of the greatest oil reserves in the world is not something they want to leave to chance.

Oil. There is another word we are not hearing enough of in this so-called debate.

Will Youmans can be reached at: wyoumans@umich.edu

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