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The Gathering Storm

BY MICHAEL MANVILLE
01.23.2003 | POLITICS

The discovery of empty chemical weapons casings by United Nations arms inspectors seemed, for a while, to be the proof America needs to wage the war it desperately wants. The Administration has stopped short of calling it a smoking gun (it has chosen the more restrained "smoldering gun" instead) but has also made clear that this will be part of the "persuasive case" it plans to make against Iraq. Certainly the discovery emboldened President Bush in his recent scolding of the United Nations membership, which seems truculently inclined to ignore the US and press for a peaceful solution.

From one perspective, the presence of the empty warheads may indeed be the evidence that justifies an invasion. These are, after all, weapons of mass destruction--or parts thereof--and Iraq is not allowed to have weapons of mass destruction. Case closed. On the other hand, finding a bristling cache of locked-and-loaded weapons is different than stumbling across a dusty pile of empty, if accusatory, casings. For one, the fact that the weapons were found bolsters the idea that inspections can work, and war, as even our Administration says, should only be an option if the inspections fail. The discovery and neutralization of weapons has to be considered a sign of the inspections' efficacy, not their failure. Second, and more importantly, the weapons were nowhere near being deployed, and this undermines any assertion that Hussein "has and is preparing to use" his weapons of mass destruction. If there is ever a reasonable time to use weapons of mass destruction, one would think it might be when the world's most powerful military is amassing on your borders. Yet with American troops swarming through Kuwait, these arms were empty and collecting dust. Lastly, the weapons, were they functioning, have a range of 12 miles. This might make them useful on a battlefield, but not in any sort of preemptive attack on America. I suppose if we invaded Iraq and Hussein launched chemical missiles at our troops it would prove our point, but only partly so because he would then be acting self-defense, and this seems a high price to pay for being correct. And in any event the warheads were, well, empty. How do we reconcile this with the need for war?

The short answer is that we do not. The Bush Administration has never let itself be troubled by its own internal contradictions, nor by its pathological absences of logic and consistency. This is why, in the aftermath of a devastating bomb attack carried out by 20 stateless Islamic terrorists with box cutters, our foreign policy is obsessed with the sophisticated weapons of a secular sovereign nation that had nothing to do with it. It is why we lumped that nation in with North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" even though they have virtually no connection to one another (it is generally accepted that North Korea was tossed into the Axis as a politically correct afterthought, to show that the US was not exclusively focused on Arab nations). And it why, faced with North Korea's belligerence, we now argue that, far from being in an evil alliance, the two nations are unrelated and demand drastically different treatment. Not that the differing treatments make much sense: the nation where we cannot find deployed weapons of mass destruction, and that has let inspectors in to search for them, should be invaded; while the nation that has proclaimed its nuclear program, withdrawn from a nonproliferation treaty, and barred inspectors needs diplomacy.

This is not to say that there is no case for war with Iraq, and I think in any discussion of this issue we can dispense with those who say otherwise. There is indeed a case to unseat Saddam Hussein, and it is a compelling one. It is the case made by Christopher Hitchens, by Kenneth Pollack, and by some of the Iraqi expatriates who have seen their homeland brutalized by Hussein's rein. But this case, in my opinion, is not compelling enough, and in any event it is not the case being made by the Bush Administration. Nor can it be, for it is, in Hitchens' words, the "radical case for war"--the one that tabulates the grave debt the United States owes the people of Iraq. This is the debt for arming and encouraging Hussein in two vainglorious and destructive wars; the debt for twice arming the Kurds and then abandoning them; the debt for rewarding Hussein while he committed genocide by poison gas; the debt for persisting with sanctions long after it was clear that they harmed no one but the innocent, and indeed buttressed Hussein's strength as a propagandist. From the Administration's view, to make this case is to make no case at all, for it undermines the idea of our own exceptionalism, and exceptionalism is the moral basis upon which we will go to war. It is the doctrine that says we alone are the civilized, we alone can be trusted with power, and that our development is not based even in part on the underdevelopment of others.

It is unfortunate that the Administration will not pursue the radical case for war, because doing so would also open up a sorely-needed debate on the nature of American force. One of the liabilities of some prominent members of the peace movement is their steadfast refusal to embrace any use of American military power. I find this principled, admirable, and not terribly useful. The world is not so simple, and a military is not inherently evil. The smallest of military interventions could have prevented the monstrosity of Rwanda, just as fighters in the air over Sarajevo brought some relief to that besieged city. There is an unjustified hopelessness in the belief that power must always corrupt, and that force can never be wielded for good. To be so forlorn is to resign oneself to defeat, and to cast oneself always as a member of the opposition, ever the critic of policy and never its architect. I would like that this attitude be squelched, particularly on the Left, and had the Iraq debate given us that opportunity, it could not be said that nothing good came of it.

But this is unlikely to happen. The Bush Administration has decided to invade Iraq based not on debts of honor, but on Iraq's being a clear threat to the United States. To make this case, the Administration has resorted to two tactics. The first is to allude repeatedly to information that it cannot release, and the second is to force Iraq to prove a negative. In other words, it is not enough for UN inspections teams to climb all over Iraq and not find weapons of mass destruction; rather Iraq must prove it does not have the weapons the United States can't find. This is an impossible task, completely circular in its reasoning, and under its logic the question of whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction becomes irrelevant, because the United States clearly does not care whether it does or not. If the weapons are found, Iraq is unlawfully armed; if the weapons are not found, Iraq is hiding its unlawful arms. This is an unattainable threshold of innocence, so the verdict is guilt regardless of the evidence. We hunt now for war rather than truth.

We do so, as I said earlier, under the shield of our own exceptionalism, which is currently built into our doctrine of "anticipatory self-defense." This depressingly Orwellian mantra, also known as the Bush Doctrine, allows the United States to preemptively attack any country that it believes may attack it. This only works, of course, so long as it is not universally applied, and as such it is a rule premised on a loophole--hence the name "exceptionalism." Put simply, it assumes our own exemption from the rules by which we expect other nations to abide.

Consider the alternatives. If anticipatory self-defense were not an exceptionalist doctrine, Iraq would be justified in attacking the United States at any time. Indeed, Iraq would be more justified in a unilateral assault on the United States than the United States would be in an assault on Iraq, for Iraq has far more reason to believe that the United States will attack it than vice-versa. It is not Iraq, after all, that has been speaking belligerently about invading the United States; nor agitating for regime change there; nor sending emissaries to countless countries to enlist them in a war against the United States; nor amassing troops on the US border. All this has been American action, and all of it more than fulfills the attack threshold of the doctrine of anticipatory self-defense. Were Iraq to use a weapon of mass destruction against the American mainland in the coming days, it could offer the Bush Doctrine as justification for doing so.

This of course will not happen, and Hussein does himself no favors in this legal argument by being a despicable figure who has never shown much concern for due process himself. But it is not my intent offer an apologia for Iraq, not only because that is impossible but also because this is not simply a United States/Iraq issue. If the Bush Doctrine were available to all nations, India could attack Pakistan tomorrow (and vice-versa) and the two Koreas would probably already be fighting. So it is held together not by law or the codes of consistency that normally govern justice, but by our own faith in our ability to be better, and to act as the arbiter of international law.

Which naturally raises the question: are we better? There are two answers to that, and the first is that if we are (and there is some evidence to suggest as much), we erode rather than protect that status through any reckless rush to violence. Not long ago I got involved in an email exchange about the possibility of a war in Iraq. Over the course of a few emails I outlined my problems with the Bush Administration's rhetoric, and my correspondent replied with his case for an invasion. Somewhere along the way I mentioned that the lack of real evidence about Saddam's capabilities and intentions troubled me, and that I saw little justification for the deaths of American soldiers or Iraqi civilians in the service of speculation. I was suspicious, as Tim O'Brien once said about Vietnam, of certain blood for uncertain reasons.

My correspondent wrote back and said that to his mind the evidence was sufficient, and that in any event he did not care about Iraqi lives, which were worthless to him. The same, he said, applied to Afghani lives, Iranian lives, or anyone not fortunate enough to reside within the United States. It was better, he said, to be safe than sorry. He admitted that this might sound cold, but he found it a necessary attitude, for such were the things that had to be done in order to "save civilization from the barbarians."

I bring this up not to cast aspersions on my correspondent, who I am told is an altogether friendly and courteous person, but to illustrate once more the circular reasoning of exceptionalism. What we have here is a man saying that he has no qualms about the brutal deaths of innocent people if the United States must kill them in order to remain civilized. Thus we protect ourselves from the monster by becoming monstrous, and wonder later why monsters rise anew to challenge our "civilized" ways. Or to put it a more formal way: "civilization," as we in the West know it, is based on Enlightenment principles, and at the root of the Enlightenment is a deep-seated capacity for empathy--the ability to identify with one's fellow man, the idea that no one human is better than another, that every life is equally valuable, and that the wanton destruction of life is antithetical to the practices of a civil society. Enlightenment principles do not permit the dehumanization of civilization's enemies, even in the service of defeating them. Civilization cannot destroy itself in order to destroy its enemies; what we lose in such victories is not easy to reclaim.

So we are faced with the question of whether we will enforce our principles or live by them, and faced still with the question of whether we are better than the rest of the planet. This brings us to the second answer for that question, which is, bluntly, no. Throughout our history, and in the Middle East specifically, we have acted with little honor toward other nations, and our foreign policy is thus built on a presumption of American benignity that we have not earned. Were we to plumb the depths of our past behavior in the Persian Gulf, the Bush Doctrine would surely evaporate. There has been too much intrigue and deceit, too much casual dealing in other people's blood, for us to wear any mantle of moral superiority.

Exceptionalism does not permit such plumbing of the past, of course: part and parcel of the doctrine is the subjugation of history to power, and the engineering of myths that we come to regard as our common past. Thus we do not get the stories that show us to be what we are, which is neither good nor bad but an empire, and like most empires one that teeters regularly between idealistic benevolence and pragmatic malignancy. What we get is symbolism: a soaring eagle, high above the rest of the world, graceful and proud. But even here we only see part of it--our attention is drawn to the sky, and rarely do we see the long shadow the bird casts on those beneath it, nor its predatory dives to the ground, the vicious attacks that give it the fuel it needs to stay aloft. We are asked to notice the broad wings and regal bearing, and not the blood of others it wears on its talons.

Most Americans, I think, have not considered such details, and while part of this stems from the deliberate obfuscation of their leaders, I believe a demographic factor is at work as well. The war we can soon expect is not one that will be fought by a majority of Americans, nor will it, in many ways, be of benefit to them. But it will be fought, and some number of those who fight it will die. Many of those who fight understand this risk, and accept it in service of their country. This a humbling commitment, and I am not qualified to stand in judgment of it or the men and women who make it; I only wonder if it is being misappropriated by an Administration that underestimates its meaning. Having an army that is willing to fight and die is quite different from having a valid reason to use it, and the President has yet to put forward a valid reason for this war, at this time, with Iraq.

So what now can be done? The storm gathers, but like all storms it comes with clouds, so clarity and vision diminish even as the event draws near. In the drumbeat to war we become most blind when we most need to see, and our leaders today suffer from the peculiar sickness of involution--the gradual reduction of options, a path dependency that slowly eliminates all choices but the one desired, so that in the end, regardless of the catastrophe, we can claim that our hands were tied, that all those died did so only after the heaviest of consultation, and that anyway they understood and accepted the risk. We can take solace in that, and solace as well in our own exceptionalism, and enjoy the ticker tape parade for those who return home. But the danger of parades lies in their fixed route, and it does not hurt, in these times, to have a few lonely people marching the other way.

About the Author
Michael Manville's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
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