Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Second Thoughts About Iraq:
The Cause is Still Just

Our goals in Iraq are being diluted by the day. There has been naiveté on our part, to be sure, and no small measure of hubris. We haven’t always read Iraq right, but if we abdicate the burden and the responsibility – and the possibilities - that came with this war, our entire effort will come to grief. (Fouad Ajami, Wall Street Journal) 

From the looting of the Iraqi National Museum to Abu Ghraib, this has been a horrible year. The cause is still just, but to keep it moving forward, we have to reinvent the enterprise.
(David Brooks, New York Times)
 

In the past several months, the murderous attacks on coalition forces and private workers who are risking their lives to rebuild  Iraqi’s deteriorated infrastructure have mounted. The assassination of Ezzedine Salim, head of the Iraqi Governing Council, has complicated further the sovereignty transfer on June 30 to a yet-to-be constituted interim government. 

Armed resistance has been contained but not defeated in Fallujah. The mad mullah Moqtada al-Sadr and his armed followers continue to be a serious menace in the Shiite holiest cities. The training of a new Iraqi army and security service is not going as swiftly as planned.The level of frustration among Iraqis and in America itself is growing. 

A Hard Slog

In the midst of a long series of bad news came the revelations of degrading treatment of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers, photographed and broadcast all over the world. Osama bin Laden and his followers could not have been more effective in discrediting the American role in Iraq. Not a few were quick to draw a parallel between Saddam’s monstrous crimes and what occurred under American control. 

They gloated: ”How can the United States set itself up as a force for freedom and decency in light of what their soldiers did to the prisoners at Abu Ghraib?” The worst was the sniping that came from the Western press and even American politicians and pundits. Here was Senator Kennedy sneering on the Senate floor on May 10: “Shamefully we now learn that the Saddam torture chambers reopened under new management, U.S. management.” You can be certain that this shameful attack on the American enterprise is gleefully trumpeted all over the Arab world, further fueling the hatred that is killing American soldiers. 

American administration officials have been scrambling to do damage control. They announced that a thorough investigation is now under way and that court martial proceedings against the perpetrators have started. President Bush and Secretary of Defense Ronald Rumsfeld insisted that the Abu Ghraib abuse was the fault of a number of bad apples, who in no way represented the American military whose soldiers are doing an admirable job under immensely difficult and dangerous conditions. 

The President took the unprecedented step to give an interview to a reporter of an Egyptian television where he apologized for the mistreatment of the Iraqi prisoners. But nothing the administration has said can stop the feeding frenzy of those who are out for blood. 

 It seems that the Bush team is weakening under the hammer blows of setbacks on the ground and the harsh criticism resulting from the Abu Ghraib disaster. They are now ready to hand responsibility over to the United Nations, who has appointed Lakhdar Brahimi to oversee and   decide the make-up of the Iraqi team that will take over from the current Governing Council. But time is short, and by mid-May there was no sign of the new interim government that will be invested with sovereignty on June 30 and serve until a full-scale election in early 2005. 

What is really going on?  Is the Bush team caving in and now trying to get out of the Iraqi mess as soon as possible? Are the critics right that the attempt to help establish a free Iraq is a disastrous failure – a case of hubris and overweening ambition? I believe it’s helpful to understand the various views of the war in Iraq, although this is admittedly a very rough sketch. 

A “Conflict of Visions”

First, there are those, epitomized by the government of Germany and France, who are convinced that the war is wrong and that the only alternative is to settle conflicts by multilateral negotiations or containment measures. (Christian pacifists belong in this camp.)  Many in Europe as well as in North America are motivated by a belief in the use of “soft power” rather than military force.

This viewpoint is vigorously articulated by a powerful media that is politically to the Left, which brings with it an automatic sense of moral superiority over against the U.S. and especially the Bush administration. 

Generally, the reporters and commentators of the media have consistently refused to report on the many positive developments in Iraq. Instead, they have used their skills to place the war against terror in the worst possible light by invariably predicting disaster and endlessly harping on American shortcomings and failures. When there was good news they still turned it into bad news. Now that the news is often bad, they dwell on that alone and conveniently leave out the facts that would weaken their own take on events. 

Second, the numerous setbacks experienced in the past months have caused a growing number of original supporters of the American initiative beginning to have doubts, not so much about the ideal but about the feasibility of the original goal. 

Quite a few have concluded that the original goal of building a democratic Iraq is impossible and they recommend a pullout as soon as possible. Mission not accomplished. This is what made George Jonas, an unabashed supporter of Israel and the U.S. write in his National Post column on May 16: “Missing the boat has turned the Second Gulf War into an object lesson in how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.” 

Third, there are others who, while critical of the American missteps, are convinced that the cause is not hopeless. Agreeing that the situation is serious and the outcome still uncertain, they think that the Americans should stay the course and not turn their backs on all the positive things that have been accomplished. Most important is the elimination of a Stalinist regime that was a threat to its neighbours and a breeding ground for the terrorists that have declared  war on the West. 

The liberated Iraqis now enjoy freedom of religion, of speech, of association, and of the press, giving birth to dozens of newspapers and magazines, radio and television stations. The supply of essential services such as water and electricity has much improved. Other accomplishments are: the restoration of oil production, school attendance 80 per cent higher than before the war, elections in all major cities, fully functioning hospitals, the immunization of 400,000 children, a restored currency, the beginning of new enterprises, and the training and deployment of an Iraqi security and defence force. 

Nonetheless, the continuing deadly resistance and lack of security within Iraq and the other much publicized setbacks have brought about what David Brooks has called a “crisis of confidence.” 

In his New York Times op-ed column of May 8, Brooks cautions against a spirit of defeatism and self-doubt among the “realists” of right and left. But he also insists that serious soul-searching is now called for. He says that America is shellshocked, and is now much less confident of its power though it is facing a world of threats. Brooks believes that America needs to redefine its role in the world, because no president in the near future will send American troops  into any global hot spot. This experience has been too searing.” He continues: 

“Unfortunately, states will still fail, and world-threatening chaos will still ensue. Tyrants will still aid terrorists. Genocide will still occur. What are we going to do then? Who is going to tackle the future Milosevics, the future Talibans? If you were one of those people who thought the world was dangerous with an overreaching hyperpower, wait until you get a load of the age of the global power vacuum…. 

“We’ve got to acknowledge first that the old debates are obsolete. I wish the U.S. could still go off, after Iraq, at the head of “coalitions of the willing” to spread democracy around the world. But the brutal fact is that the events of the past year have discredited that approach. Nor is the U.N. a viable alternative. A body dominated by dictatorships is never going to promote democratic values.  For decades, the U.N. has failed as an effective world power. 

“We’ve got to reboot. We’ve got to come up with a global alliance of democracies to embody democratic ideals, harness U.S. military power and house a permanent nation-building apparatus, filled with people who actually possess the expertise on how to do this job.” 

Some of my friends are astonished to learn that I still, despite all the bad news, think the Americans were right in taking the initiative in freeing Afghanistan and Iraq. They ask how I can  hold to that position: “Don’t you know that Bush is a liar, a religious fanatic, a patsy for the oil companies, a tool of the “neocons,”  that the soldiers sent to Iraq are dupes, that terrorism cannot be defeated by military force, that the Iraqis are not ready for democracy, and things are falling apart, which should teach the Americans a lesson?” And so on. 

Do not Abandon Friends in Trouble

So let me summarize why I think that the American-led effort to free Afghanistan and Iraq from their tyrannical regimes was and is a just, honourable, and a necessary cause. I also think we   should not walk away from friends who get into trouble, as the Spaniards did. 

It is not true that the failure (so far) to find weapons of mass destruction proves that there was no basis for the war against  the Saddam regime.  In fact, everyone involved in the discussion, including the Germans and the French, were convinced that Iraq possessed a supply of biological and chemical agents suitable for use in weapons. 

The first report by David Kay last October provided plenty of evidence that Saddam was hard at work to manufacture WMDs and, that given time, he would have succeeded. The media ignored that information and only reported that no weapons of mass destruction had been found. And then they concluded that Bush had lied about the real reason for going to war – a charge that is now popularized all over the world. 

Instead of arguing that not finding WMD disproves the need for the war, we should be thankful that the coalition destroyed Saddam’s regime before he managed to obtain such catastrophic weapons. Would the critics have been happier if the coalition forces would have been confronted with such weapons? Are they prepared to think through the horrendous consequences of the use of such weapons? 

There have been reports of the presence of small amounts of poison gasses, a thwarted attempt to use them in Jordan, and evidence of cooperation between the Saddam regime and al-Qaeda, which have been consistently ignored by the anti-American media. (Cf. William Safire,  Sarin? What Sarin?” NYT, May 19,04; Frank J. Gaffney Jr,  “Saddam Hussein is Guilty as Charged,” National Post, May 20, 04.) 

The critics of the American-led military action in Iraq seem not to understand the true nature of those who have declared war on the West, driven by a fanatical commitment to a militant form of Islamism that brooks no tolerance of other faiths. None of those who denounce the use of American military force have said how they would counter the obscene orders of Osama bin Laden to kill Americans and their friends. What will they do when there is another 9/11 attack – or, may the Lord protect us, one even far more deadly than that? 

This question should haunt all of us: How do you negotiate with people who, while shouting the praise of Allah, beheaded Nick Berg, murdered and then mutilated the bodies of four American civilians who were helping to rebuild Iraq? Why do the critics ignore this question? 

The attempt to replace a tyrannical with a beneficent government in Iraq may not succeed. The fallout of that will be awful for the Iraqis. They will have been betrayed for the second time, but the implications for us will also be horrendous. I am mystified by the fact that some in the free nations appear to welcome American defeat in Iraq. 

The Americans should quit apologizing, punish those guilty of mistreating Iraqi prisoners, hold their heads high, learn from their mistakes, and continue reminding us of the Stalinist cruelties committed by Saddam that terrorized the entire population and cut short the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis. They should also do a better job of publicizing the many good things that, thanks to their military leadership, have been accomplished at tremendous risk and cost, including the death of nearly 800 American soldiers.