Before I begin, let me state clearly that I am opposed to the military actions that are apparently being advocated by the Bush administration, and have a great deal of sympathy with those who oppose such a war. Despite myself, however, I've found myself recoiling from some of the clumsier or less tenable points made by K5 contributors. In fact, I've become concerned that these arguments are actually becoming counterproductive, forcing people- through a lethal a combination of inflexibility and poor logic- into supporting the very action the posters are looking to prevent.
So rather than go into my own arguments against military action in Iraq, I've decided to post a simple five-point critique detailing some of the most critical flaws I've observed. Some will point out that this is a lot easier than posting my own opinions, and those people aren't being entirely unfair. However, at the moment, I feel that this is the most useful contribution I can make to the discussion.
(It's worth noting here that some people may feel that the issue is moot, with the news of Iraq's apparent willingness to accept weapons inspectors back into the country. It's my opinion that this will at best provide a slight delay in the Administration's plans, so I'm simply going to ignore it until we have more information one way or the other.)
So from my observations, here are the five best ways to lose an argument on the subject of Iraq:
1. Shoot yourself in the foot by insisting that there's never any justification for invading a sovereign nation.
This is the argument that most troubles me, especially when it comes from relatively liberal people like myself. Over the past century, we've heard this sort of thing from isolationist conservatives, people who're just as happy to let the rest of the world fall apart because it's "not their business" (the chic, euphemistic way of saying this is by reverently invoking the abstract principle of "national sovereignty".)
The fact is, "national sovereignty" is an abstract concept that has no more inherent moral value than the notion of the divine right of kings. It is, at best, a convenient way to draw lines between groups of people; lines that sometimes represent important underlying differences, and sometimes represent nothing more than a confluence of power and circumstance. It's a combination of the bizarre reverence for this principle and the "somebody else's problem" attitude that people are inclined toward, that helps us to abdicate responsibility for the horrible deaths and enslavement of millions of our fellow human beings.
Now mind you, there's nothing wrong with balancing the costs of an intervention against the potential benefits. Soldiers and civilians should never be placed at risk if it's not likely that a clearly defined, achievable goal can be obtained without great loss of life. Sometimes intervention can actually cause more trouble than we could ever hope to repair-- as will be the case, I believe, in Iraq. These are all perfectly legitimate concerns about the war on Iraq, and are in fact some of the major unaddressed concerns that inform my own opposition. But any argument that begins with a blanket assumption that foreign intervention is somehow naturally immoral, ends there.
2. Quote Scott Ritter as a definitive source of accurate information.
I've read a number of wishful editorials vaguely referencing "weapons inspectors" who argue that Iraq does not and could not actually possess the weapons of mass destruction that the administration claims they do. Aside from the fact that not a single UN weapon inspector has had an opportunity to conduct serious investigations in the past 5 years, this sort statement is misleading because it fails to properly attribute these claims to the single high-profile inspector from whom most editorialists are drawing them: Scott Ritter.
From after the Gulf War to 1998, Ritter was the chief inspector of the United Nations Special Commission to disarm Iraq (UNSCOM). During his tenure in that position, Ritter worked tirelessly to discover Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, a mission that led to the Iraqi government accusing him of spying, and eventually to the more serious confrontation that resulted in the end of UN weapons inspections in Iraq. Even after he left the organization, Ritter campaigned intensely for reform of the weapons inspections, charging that they weren't doing enough to actually find Saddam's deadly weapons. In 1998, he warned Senate committees that "Iraq will be able to reconstitute the entirety of its former nuclear, chemical and ballistic missile delivery system capabilities within a period of six months." And that same year, he was quoted by the New Republic, as saying, "Even today, Iraq is not nearly disarmed."
Because of these strong statements, his 1999 publication of "Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem -- Once and for All" left a lot of people scratching their heads. In that book, he surprised Washington by arguing that Iraq was no longer a military threat, and should, in fact, be the focus of a major rebuilding plan. The next year, Ritter was invited back to Iraq by his former adversary, Saddam Hussein, an extremely unusual situation given the trouble Ritter had previously caused for the dictator. Ritter, in interviews, charges that the inspection system itself was not about searching for weapons, but actually about probing Saddam's defenses. Although this charge may have merit, it does little to explain the obvious conflict between the statements he made to the Senate in 1998, and what he says in his book. Unfortunately, the best verdict we can offer on Ritter's testimony is that it's questionable.
There are those who will point out that it should fall to the Administration to offer proof of Saddam's capabilities, rather than placing that burden on Iraq's defenders. And those people are quite right. Not because Saddam, a man who has already violated the conditions of his surrender by throwing inspectors out of the country, has some inherent right to due process. They're right because the American people deserve due process and accurate information before undertaking a serious, deadly and expensive war such as the one that the Bush administration proposes. And to insist on this is, I believe, is a far more effective way to make the case than to trustingly hitch the credibility of your argument to the dubious testimony of Scott Ritter.
3. Argue that we have nothing to fear from Saddam's weapons
If (and I stress the if) it is true that Saddam's weapons programs are as advanced as the Administration claims they are, there are certainly reasons to be concerned. Although I am inclined to find it doubtful that Saddam will use a nuclear weapon on one of his nearer neighbors, it is at least possible that he will provide nuclear and/or chemical weaponry to terrorists who could then use it against the US or Israel. This scenario is fairly unlikely given the overwhelming risk that such an act would pose to the dictator; however, dictators are human beings and are therefore much less predictable other types of government. Still, this scenario is certainly at the lower end of probability, and that needs to be balanced against the potential risks of going to war against Iraq.
What is more convincing is the notion that Saddam, once armed with nuclear capability, would have a sort of "trump card" to protect himself while he undertakes riskier actions against his own people and his neighbors. Because Saddam has a history of doing very unpleasant things, and because I don't accept the argument that there will never be a compelling reason why we might need to fight Iraq (see #1 above), this is a major concern. Allowing Saddam to get the bomb so significantly increases the potential costs of going to some later, justified war against Saddam, that it might alone be enough to tip the balance in favor of war. I realize that this conclusion is certainly controversial, and that a lot of people have and will disagree with it.
I'm going to depart radically from the stated purpose of this diatribe to mention the unsupportable inverse of argument #3, which is that we need to be scared silly over Saddam's weapons. I mentioned above that I find it hard to imagine Saddam using a nuclear weapon against one of his neighbors, and here's why: In the case of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Saddam has more to gain by using his conventional military strength, as he did a dozen years ago than by destroying those nations. The only thing that currently stands in his way is the US's willingness to protect those countries with its own forces, and it's reasonable to assume that this protection extends to the US's own nuclear umbrella, guaranteeing him a fairly high probability of retaliation-in-kind. It's uncertain whether Saddam would try to use a nuclear weapon against Iran, but given that he has not recently been in active conflict with that nation, it seems like a long shot at best.
Israel poses a slightly different problem, and it's not hard to imagine Saddam considering the use of nuclear weapons on Israel, considering that he has demonstrated a willingness to fire on that country in the past. The problem with this scenario is twofold: 1) he would suffer an even more devastating retaliation from Israel if he ever made such a move, and 2) the nuclear weapons Saddam is likely to develop--if he does develop them--probably won't be small enough to mount on the end of a Scud. This would force him to consider some alternate delivery platform, placing both Saddam and a very precious weapon at an enormous amount of risk.
4. But we didn't object when Pakistan and India got the bomb, and they're more likely to use it than Saddam is. Why don't we change their regimes?
It is certainly true- though speculative- that nations like India and Pakistan (and certainly the US and USSR) have appeared closer to the use of nuclear weapons (or at least, some sort of deadly confrontation) than Iraq has been, or may ever be.
Without comparing all of the differences in threat-levels and military costs, the problem with this argument is that it's an inflexible attempt to paint fundamentally different situations with the same brush, and this immediately sets off many people's bullshit alarms. India and Pakistan (and the US and USSR, for that matter) are very different nations than Iraq. While India and Pakistan have demonstrated a fairly deep-seated mutual distrust that has survived a number of different governments, many of Iraq's recent military actions were not necessarily reflective of the will of the Iraqi people. If the US army, in an act of brazen stupidity, charged into India and Pakistan today, it would likely have a very difficult job forcefully reducing the tensions between those two nations, no matter how many regimes it displaced (although it is possible that those two nations would at least temporarily unite in their mutual antipathy toward the US.)
The fact of the matter is that if regime-change were safe, affordable, and had no long-term consequences, there probably wouldn't be a supportable argument against doing so in Iraq. Most likely it really would lead to a safer, more peaceful region, and prevent the deaths of millions of Iraqis. What potential dissenters need to focus on is that regime-change is virtually guaranteed not to be safe, affordable, or without enormous consequences (both in the short and long-term.)
5. Everything the US does is bad
I'm stating that one with a little bit more force than it's usually delivered with. However, there is a certain faction who believes that the US does immoral, bad things no matter what the actual details of the situation. While there is certainly an argument to be made that the US's military adventurism has done, in many cases, more harm than good, this doesn't necessarily make every single use of US force wrong.
It does mean that we, the American people, should question and debate the justification for every single use of force. Unfortunately, stamping the issue closed on the basis of such a simplistic philosophy doesn't acheive this goal. It simply removes you from the debate.
My intentions in posting this discussion are not to shut anyone up or insult their views. However, I am convinced that a rational, palatable defense is the only way that we can avoid making a very poor decision that will have consequences well beyond this decade.
Salon magazine interview with Scott Ritter, 03/2000