Let us assume that the current state of affairs remains unchanged and that no massive, extremely well-hidden cache of weapons of genocide is found in Iraq. Let us also ignore the confirmed evidence of the existence of an infrastructure of chemical and biological weapons production under the Ba’athist regime, which was in any case more threatening to international peace and security than a mere stockpile of weapons. And why not, as well, postpone worrying ourselves with the fairly open pronouncement of an alliance between remaining Ba’athist and al-Qaeda forces? It is on the basis of this highly-selective interpretation of the events of the last few months that many in the anti-war camp have asserted a moral victory over those of us who favored intervention.
What, we are evidently forced to ask, is the nature of this moral victory, and how does it relate to the urgent need to rebuild a civil society in Iraq? What is that victory besides having proved George W. Bush and his administration wrong about an empirical question? The anti-war left would contend that it is much, much more, and I think I can guess at what their contention would look like: the failure to find WMDs shows that the administration willfully lied to the public, resulting in American diplomatic isolation, unnecessary loss of both military and civilian lives, an exacerbation of the terrorist threat and deliberate engagement in an aggressive war for the economic gain of the oil industry. But perhaps this is more than a guess. Democratic frontrunners like Governor Dean and General Clark have made criticisms along weaker but very similar lines to these, sans the last one.
The troubling thing about these claims is not just that they are wholly unproven. They miss entirely the real developments in Iraq over the last months. At what point in its critique does the anti-war left mention anything more than a perfunctory clause that the people of Iraq are free of a genocidal Stalinist dictator? Have they not noticed? Their noblest cause, the extension of freedom, human rights and civil dignity to the oppressed, has been advanced. The torture chambers have been emptied. The dungeons for dissidents have been opened. And the mass graves have been exposed to the light of international justice.
If there has been any celebration among the anti-war forces, it has been a quiet one. The venerable The Nation magazine, for example, features on its cover this week a photo of an American soldier with the caption: “Stretched thin, lied to & mistreated.” In The Nation’s cover article from its Sept. 15 issue, “Ignited Iraq,” we find in the first paragraph: “The military-industrial complex that recently destroyed so much of Iraq will now be hired to repair the damage.” This is the standard, ingratiating told-you-so discourse now emanating from the anti-war side. If there is anything underneath it besides inchoate anger and prejudice — perhaps, say, genuine concern for the Iraqis — it has yet to manifest itself. As long as the reconstruction effort is led by George W. Bush, the target of such undistilled hatred, all the anti-war left can do is gush resentment on a grand scale.
Where is there any acknowledgment of the larger picture — the important one, the frame of reference in which Iraqis have been given a chance to build a civil society after decades of immiseration?
Mention it, and you will prompt a sermon about the apparent instability and chaos in Iraq, the reintroduction of terrorist cells, the intransigence of Ba’ath party stalwarts, etc. It is precisely the reference to this chaos that utterly undermines the anti-war left’s argument. Just consider the present state of affairs in Iraq. Unless a leftist critic of the administration broaches the subject out of pure Schadenfreude, all the difficulties in establishing order in Iraq cannot argue for anything other than stronger military presence and greater economic aid. The purpose of overthrowing Saddam was not to replace him with a nationalist or Islamist demagogue who wins some worthless ad-hoc plebiscite.
Although the phrase “turning point in history” is something worse than cliche, it’s nevertheless true that at this precise moment in world history, the United States and its people will decide whether or not unchallenged hegemonic power can be turned towards humanitarian ends. Iraq happens to be the very first theater in which such a proposition will be tested. Those who protested entry into Iraq in the first place presumably did so out of concern for their fellow man. If the Bush administration is now willing to extend $20 billion in aid to Iraq, will the former anti-war side take the proposal seriously; will they, perhaps, ask whether more might need be appropriated? There has never been a better time for a sustained leftist critique of the government’s foreign policy. No political faction but the Democratic left, at least during the high points of its history, could have been relied on to argue with unflagging determination for a humanitarian policy in Iraq aimed at building a secular, democratic foundation for future governments. Who but the left should acutely register the need for such policy? But the anti-war left has decided not even to enter the debate. It would rather occupy its time protesting in favor of dictators and their sovereign rights. And it is this outcome that ensures defeat in the left’s battle to be taken seriously.
Daniel Koffler is a sophomore in Calhoun College.