The decision to go to war is always a momentous one, not to be undertaken lightly. The importance of the question makes it that much more lamentable that so much of the discussion about Iraq consists of speculation as to Bush’s “true” motives.
As innumerable columnists in these pages and in national newspapers have alleged, Bush is insincere when he says that he wants to attack Iraq out of a commitment to human rights or the desire to uproot an oppressive regime.
One version of this argument states that since the United States has failed to promote democracy in the past, Bush cannot possibly mean it when he advocates doing so in the present.
“The truth is that, in the realm of foreign affairs, ‘American ideals’ are twisted, exaggerated, or completely neglected according to the specific nature of this superpower’s national interest,” Ishaan Tharoor ’06 wrote last week (“Columnist misunderstands legacy of American ideals,” 10/17).
“Simply ask the ghosts of populist leaders Salvador Allende and Patrice Lumumba how the American principles of democracy and liberty applied to the downfall of their legitimate regimes and their replacement by brutal, American-supported dictators.”
Such arguments recall the scene in “L.A. Confidential” when a crooked cop expresses his desire to go straight. A cynical friend responds “Don’t start trying to do the right thing, boyo. You haven’t had the practice.”
The quotations share a common fallacy: They say that in light of past sins, trying to improve one’s conduct ought to be avoided for the sake of consistency. Just because we supported dictators in the past does not constitute an argument for failing to confront Saddam’s oppressive regime in the present. Henry Kissinger’s machinations in Chile don’t seem to offer much insight into what this administration will do.
More common and equally illogical is the argument that we ought not to invade Iraq because Bush has concealed presumably nefarious motives for such a war.
“Do we really want to occupy Iraq? For how long, and at what cost, and to what end?” Bob Herbert asked in The New York Times. “Will we simply be eradicating a murderous threat, or also establishing a beachhead in an oil-rich frontier?”
Notice that Herbert does not question that invading Iraq would eliminate a “murderous threat” — he simply wonders whether oil is part of an ulterior motivation on Bush’s part.
Herbert seems comparatively restrained in comparison with the Washington Post’s Mary McGrory who asks if Bush is softer on North Korea than Iraq “because Kim Jong Il never threatened to kill Bush’s father, or because he has no oil, or is not a Muslim?”
Neither columnist disputes Saddam Hussein’s brutality toward his own people and history of violent aggression against his neighbors. Nor do they dispute that Iraq and the world would be better off without him. Rather than discussing the consequences of a war, they opt to psychoanalyze the president to derive their foreign policy.
The recent war in Afghanistan is a prime example of why consequences trump motives in the discussion of global politics. It would be hard to claim that America attacked the Taliban to liberate the Afghan people from their tyranny. The American purpose was, first and foremost, to uproot al-Qaida and its host government. Humanitarian considerations were a distant second.
Yet if the true motive for the war against the Taliban was in fact the American desire for vengeance, it does not change the fact that nearly all Afghans are better off now than they were under the Taliban.
The analysis of Bush’s motivations is only relevant insofar as it attempts to predict Bush’s future actions. That is to say, we care what Bush’s real goals are because it will allow us to figure out how such a war will be conducted.
One might very well ask, “If Bush is insincere in his desire to depose Saddam Hussein, disarm him, and work to build a democratic Iraq, what will a Bush-led war look like? If Bush doesn’t really care about nation-building or human rights, what compromises might he accept?”
If Bush decides to end the war with Saddam still in power, the settlement would almost certainly be conditioned on the destruction of Saddam’s armaments, beyond what Saddam would ever agree to in the absence of war. This does little for the people of Iraq, but would do much to prevent Saddam from threatening his neighbors.
A seemingly more likely outcome, based on the Afghan model, is one in which Bush continues the war until Saddam is deposed but then does little in terms of nation-building. Doing so would do little to promote democracy, but would likely put an end to the induced famine and genocidal violence practiced by Saddam’s regime.
While both of the above scenarios are lamentable half-measures, either would be preferable to the status quo, in which Saddam refuses to allow distribution of humanitarian food aid while building weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, the United States ought to be doing more to stabilize Afghanistan, but the absence of such efforts does not make the elimination of the Taliban any less of a good thing.
We care about that which is in Bush’s mind only insofar as it suggests what choices he will make. This is a discussion of outcomes rather than of motivations.
The question that must be asked is whether this war will prevent more harm than it causes. If such a war were to kill more people than it saves, the decision to go to war would be a bad one even if guided by the most humanitarian of motives. If the answer to this question is yes — that invading Iraq to depose Saddam will end more suffering than it causes — then a war on Iraq is the right choice regardless of Bush’s motivations.
This is not to suggest that the benefits of invading Iraq are beyond dispute. Indeed, there are many reasons to be skeptical of such an undertaking.
Distrust of George W. Bush just isn’t one of them.
Eli Muller is a senior in Silliman College. His column appears regularly on alternate Wednesdays.