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November 09, 2007

Iraq and the Idea of Humanitarian Intervention
Posted by Shadi Hamid

This article on Iran policy by Ezra Klein is excellent. But there’s one graf – not really related to his major point – that got me thinking:

In some ways, the absence of weapons in Iraq have allowed the Democrats an easy out on the subject. Rather than being forced to face up to the consequences of our invasion and reevaluate whether America should really be overrunning tiny countries whose armories offend us, the various candidates have been able to pin their mistake on information, rather than ideology. As the argument goes, if they knew there had been no weapons, they would have never voted for war. Obama, it should be said, opposed war without regard to the weapons. Edwards, when I questioned him on this subject, refused to answer the hypothetical. And Hillary has been quite straightforward in saying that she regretted the flawed intelligence, but saw no reason to apologize -- and thus, signal retroactive disagreement with -- her vote, given the data she was working with.

Since I never thought the presence or absence of WMDs was particularly relevant in the first place, this wasn’t, and isn’t, the way I think about the Iraq war. Former war-supporters say they would have voted against the war if they knew then what they know now. But that’s the problem – you should have voted against the war even if you didn’t know then what you know now. The implicit suggestion here, that if Iraq had WMDs then war would have been justified, is disconcerting. There is a reason why the vast majority of Middle East specialists opposed the war regardless of the WMD question, a question that always struck me as somewhat tangential to the bigger issues being debated.

In my view, there’s only one way the Iraq war could have been justified, and that would have been on the basis of humanitarian intervention. Even though I ultimately disagreed with them, I have a deep respect for the people such as Tom Friedman and Paul Berman who supported the war on those grounds. Their position on Iraq was consistent with their approach to past conflicts like Kosovo and Bosnia, and it reflected what, to me, has always been a laudable strain on the left – a visceral hatred of authoritarianism, and a moral commitment to taking decisive action when millions of people are without hope and living under the most brutal kind of repression. It is easier to have this position when genocide is taking place; but much harder to take this position to its logical conclusion that gross human right abuses – even if not amounting to genocide – necessitate intervention as well. The lesson of Iraq, of course, is that “intervention” to fight autocracy and repression should nearly always be done through non-military means, except perhaps in very rare instances (not entirely decided on what those instances are).

Idealism aside, reality matters. Even if it seemed war was the only way to end Saddam’s brutality, those acquainted with the history of Western intervention in the Middle East should have been well aware of how such efforts – invariably couched in high-minded but ultimately empty rhetorical flourishes – have consistently failed. We don’t understand the Middle East, its culture, its people, its religious persuasions, its complex, pained history of humiliation. And, as long we have little of the necessary expertise required on the highest levels, then we should refrain from trying to transform the region.

But if, in a perfect world, the Iraq war could have been done correctly, competently, and with the right humanitarian justification – without any reference to weapons of any sort – and marshaling the cooperation and resources of the whole world united in a desire to help the Iraqi people in their longstanding wish to live free lives – then who knows? But such a thing was not possible. If it only it was. This is the tragedy of it. Something here was lost. A belief, an idealism, a hope that humanitarian action could have been used to right wrongs, to marshal together a new international ethic, where the world’s nations came together to support democracy not just in word but, finally, in deed. This was the ideal. But perhaps it simply wasn’t possible. And, perhaps, we were wrong to think it ever could be.   


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Klein:Not so with a nuclear Iran, where the executive really will be allowed to make the decision as to whether we launch air strikes, or whether we seek a policy of deterrence, negotiation, and engagement.

Presidential decision-making for war is unconstitutional and Klein's remarks are unhelpful. Under these conditions American democracy is as dead as a doornail.

Shadi:In my view, there’s only one way the Iraq war could have been justified, and that would have been on the basis of humanitarian intervention.

Shadi, won't you ever learn? Over four million people displaced, a million dead, countless injuries and mass destrustion and suffering, all of which was not only predictable but was in fact predicted?

Shadi:But perhaps it simply wasn’t possible - and, perhaps, we were wrong to think it ever could be.

There's no perhaps about it. You were wrong, along with Michael Signer and the other neo-liberals.