Friday, February 21, 2003
Jane Finch of The Daily Rant has left a couple of interesting comments in response to the previous entry in this blog, and it seems like they would be better answered as full entries on their own, especially since they helped coalesce thoughts that have been nebulously floating around in my head for a while.

In one of the comments, Jane writes (addressing me):

...[S]ince the WOMD argument isn't winning the day quickly enough (and the operative words are "quickly enough"), all sorts of reasons are being touted, including the fact that Saddam is an oppressive dictator (which he is indeed). And I agree with you that the "innocent Iraqis" argument is weak.
Not only do I think this is completely on the money, but it brought up something that kept bothering me through all this time:

The reason for invading Iraq is solid, but the Bush Administration has never actually presented it completely. Instead, we keep hearing little sound-bite-size bits and chunks and pieces of it, but never have I heard the whole thing out of the mouth of Powell, or Rice, or Bush. I've said it enough times myself, the first time waaaay back in January 2002, in a Slate Fray posting, as justification for the first Gulf War. But it still applies today.

First, let's dispense with the poor oppressed Iraqis. They most definitely are oppressed, of course -- not "oppressed" as in "people criticize their viewpoints," but oppressed as in Saddam's Mukhabarat can kill or torture them whenever it pleases, and it pleases often. All of this is entirely true, and those people do deserve better -- but so do the starving North Koreans, the minority tribes of Myanmar, the victims of Robert Mugabe, the Saudis, the Lebanese, the Syrians, the Tibetans -- anyway, there is no shortage of brutalized people on this earth. In no way does this weaken the moral case against Saddam's "anti-war" defenders who march in the streets "on behalf of" the very Iraqi people who will suffer horribly for decades if their self-aggrandizing movement succeeds; however, it is absurd to claim that the U.S. is primarily motivated by the pain of Saddam's Iraqi chattel. It might feel good to describe ourselves as global promoter of freedom (and the claim is far more true than the Lephtoid Noam Chomskys would have you believe), but ultimately, we are not the world's rescue squad, and we are not about to charge every hellhole, losing our young men and women to squash whatever dirtbag-in-chief has taken the throne in The People's Democratic Republic of Absurdia. So why Iraq?

It is not because Saddam is a "brutal dictator." A huge portion of the world is run by brutal dictators, from several of Saddam's neighbors (Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia), to the aforementioned North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar, to Cuba, Haiti, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, etc. ad nauseam. Like it or not, but the world is full of assholes who are in charge of countries, and once again, the U.S. is not about to start sending its soldiers to die to remove them all. So why Iraq?

It's not about oil. Please, spare me the wailing protests -- the very oil lobby that Bush supposedly is conspiring with has been begging and pleading to normalize relations with Iraq and lift the sanctions for years now, so that they could get access to the oil wealth and resell it. If all we wanted was oil, we could have reached an agreement with Hussein years ago; he would have been happy to oblige. Or, we could blackmail him into giving us the oil, or we could have invaded the much weaker Saudis (under the pretext of 9/11) and taken their oil wells. And honestly: Bush, Cheney, et al are already millionaires. They don't need to pull some scam using the nation's armed forces that could land them in jail (or on death row!) a couple years after their terms expire, simply so they can have a few more millions of dollars in their accounts. They sure as hell don't need to be doing it by running into the minefield that is the Middle East: it's hard to enjoy your millions when you have to worry about some deranged latter-day Sirhan Sirhan capping you just as you're about to throw the next stack of C-Notes on the fire. When you're in the White House, there are easier ways to make a million bucks or two, than starting a war in the freaking Middle East, mmm'kaaaay? Quite simply put, if you think the whole conflict is "about oil," you're a raging moron. For your own sake, stay the hell away from sharp objects, and try to get a grip: you aren't living in some nighmare combination plotline of On Deadly Ground, The X-Files and Captain Planet. ...So why Iraq?

It's not about terrorism. I have no doubt that Hussein's Iraq has cooperated with Islamist terrorists when their interests converged. The fact that bin Laden & Co. hate Hussein is unimportant; this game is all about alliances of convenience. Putting it mildly, the Russians never had any love for Arabs or Muslims, but they were happy to arm them and use them in their proxy war against the United States. The U.S., in turn, did not have a whole lot in common with the Wahabi "princes" of Saudi Arabia, but we wanted their oil, and they wanted our protection, and thus we worked together. (For what it's worth, the U.S. didn't have much liking for socialist Israel either; only after the Israelis defeated the Soviet-sponsored Arabs in the Six-Day War did the U.S. bring them in as our Cold War proxies.) The Russians trained the PLO and let them loose in Israel and Western Europe; we trained and armed the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. Both us and the Russians helped Iraq against Iran after the Islamic Revolution, because we both (correctly) considered the spread of militant Islamism a threat, and Iran was the most likely backer. To suddenly dismiss any possibility of an al-Qaeda/Iraq connection simply because they don't like each other, flies in the face of history. That said, there are plenty of other countries with much closer ties to terrorism, including the Iranians, the Syrians, the Lebanese, and our friend and ally Saudi Arabia. So why Iraq?

It is not about weapons of mass destruction. Yes, it's scary when regimes that we wouldn't exactly consider first-class have bombs capable of wiping out entire cities. Still, we're not threatening to invade North Korea, or Pakistan. Iraq has had (and used) weapons of mass destruction before; the Kurds would hardly be safer from him if he "only" sticks to chemical weapons. It's next to impossible that Iraq is developing nukes in order to hand them to terrorists like bin Laden; there is nothing to gain from that, the risk of retaliation is enormous, and simply put, it's not cost effective. Putting together a successful nuclear weapons program costs billions -- many, many billions -- under the best of circumstances; selling bombs to terrorists at a few million a pop ain't gonna pay for it. Even North Korea is not likely to do this -- they are an impoverished nation, yes, but they are still a nation, and in their budgets, even multi-million terrorist payoffs for bombs would count as rounding error. Iraq has commodities that are far easier to monetize and sell; they aren't going to create a nuclear weapons program to make money, or to give to terrorists. Nor is Iraq developing nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel -- not to put too fine a point on it, but Israel simply isn't worth Hussein's time, and it certainly isn't worth being a pariah. For all the screaming about it, Israel is not a credible threat to Arab nations, and it is extremely useful for deflecting the anger of their populations from their own governments. Nuking Kuwait? Iran? What's the use in that? Nuke New York? For what -- so Hussein can spend the rest of his life in an underground bunker, recalling the glorious days of raping teenagers in his (now cratered) palaces? Hardly. So what's the big deal? Why Iraq? Why now? What's it all about?

The answer is that it's about all of those things together. What makes Iraq unique is not that it's a brutal dictatorship, that it has terrorist ties, that it sits on gobs of oil, that it's invaded its neighbors, or that it's used weapons of mass destruction to wipe out people whenever it saw fit -- no, what makes it unique is that all these things apply. One of the main planks of the Ba'ath Party platform is that the Arabs must be brought together as one nation. Saddam Hussein sees himself as the man to make this happen; essentially, he intends to create an empire in the Middle East, with himself at its head. This is why he tried to take over Iran in the early 1980s -- the Iranians would be a threat to him continuously, and in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, he thought that Iran was weak and ripe for the taking. (He was wrong, but many Iranians and Iraqis paid with their lives for his mistake -- something to keep in mind when making pronouncements such as "Hussein is not stupid, and he won't do this.") It is also why he tried to obtain nuclear weapons during this war: going nuclear would have allowed him to conquer Iran much more quickly. (The Israelis weren't about to tolerate this, and destroyed the reactor, but it's unlikely they were the primary target.) The takeover of Kuwait likewise fits into the pattern: unable to expand northeast (for the moment), Hussein tried to go south. There certainly wasn't anything strategically invaluable about Kuwait itself. It's likely that Saudi Arabia would have been next, except the U.S. intervened, gravely damaged Hussein's armed forces (designed to fight and conquer his neighbors, not the American military), and set his plans back several years. In essense, with an equally matched Iran to his northeast, NATO member Turkey (and U.S. forces) to his north, U.S. forces to his south, strategically worthless ally Syria and Jordan to his west, Hussein was boxed in; a stalemate.

Nuclear weapons would allow him to break this stalemate. First, Iran will be easily conquered. ("Hey, Mullah Khamenei, this is Saddam. Sorry about wiping out Kermanshah, there, big fella. Just fyi, I'm sending a few divisions over your way; they are prepared to accept your surrender. What? You don't want to surrender? Come on, dude, don't be like that. I mean, I'd hate to have to wipe out Ahvaz just to prove my point, ya know? Or Shiraz. Or Esfahan. Hey, I could end the traffic congestion in Tehran permanently, if ya catch my drift. I don't usually joke about these things, just ask those irritating Kurds... Hm? Call the Americans? Go ahead -- I doubt they'll do anything. I've already made it pretty clear to them that if they stay out of this, it'll be all good, but if not, well, I might just take Istanbul off the map. Or Tel-Aviv. Hell, I got a couple of birds that could reach Paris -- think Chirac is making any phone calls to Washington right now? Just how far do you think they'll go to protect you after all that 'Great Satan' stuff you've been broadcasting these last few years? ...That's a good lad. I knew you'd see it my way eventually.")

Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE would be next -- same thing, and let's please not fantasize that Americans will risk nuclear war to keep Hussein out of Riyadh. Risking nuclear annihilation over Berlin is one thing, but nobody is going to demand that the U.S. stand and fight to protect the Saudi royals or Kuwaiti sheiks. I mean, we can't even agree to go to war to rescue some genuinely downtrodden people from a puny two-bit tyrant. As soon as Saddam can credibly threaten nuclear destruction, the Middle East is his (minus Israel, which he doesn't need anyway).

With control of Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, Hussein would have nearly two-thirds of the world's oil supply under his control, and nuclear weapons to keep out anyone who might challenge him for it. Which is to say, he will have the world by the short-and-curlies. I don't care how many miles to the gallon your Prius gets; the world will continue to use oil, and lots of it, for the foreseeable future. Countries of Western Europe will be entirely at Hussein's mercy, to say nothing of the developing economies of Asia, who need oil like a sprinter needs oxygen. He'll be taking their money by the bushel (you think OPEC sucks?), and they will be voting with him at every UNGA and UNSC meeting. Think our diplomatic position is weak now? Well, if you do, you're wrong, but do consider where we'll stand once we can't even protect our allies from oil starvation or a nuclear attack.

What I am describing is the Arab version of the Soviet Union, only with far greater leverage, and a psychotic leader worthy of Stalin. The money his oil will be bringing in will be used to equip and outfit a huge army with decent weapons, and (more importantly) a large nuclear arsenal to keep counterbalance the Americans and Russians. It could be that Hussein will be happy to sit there and make money off his united Arab nation; but it's unlikely: conquerers rarely just stop. Where could he expand? Who knows. What kind of damage could he do? Who knows -- but just as the Russians used to train terrorists to do their "unofficial" fighting, so would Hussein. Think al-Qaeda is bad? They are morons who got lucky a couple of times. Hussein's thugs would be well-equipped, well-trained, and selected from the best; no shoe bombers here. Hussein could make them as angry or as loyal as he wanted; nothing like the knowledge that your entire village will be wiped out if you so much as talk back, to concentrate the mind. Whom would they target? Who knows -- it doesn't even matter, necessarily, simply sowing panic and demoralizing whoever dares to stand against him might be enough. And that's a comparatiely sunny scenario; what happens when Hussein dies? Will one of his even more lunatic sons take the "presidency," or will there be a military or Islamist coup? Do we really want to find out what a large, nuclear, Arab dictatorship is capable of? A hundred Osamas couldn't match a nuclear Hussein.

In the end, his empire might fall apart (thus dropping nukes into the hands of God-knows-who), or we might have to take on him after he threatens some interest that we can't just negotiate over. And then, people will be dying by the millions. And assuming anyone survives, they'll be looking back on the time when Saddam was just a small-time nutball, and wonder which idiot it was that thought appeasing him would bring us peace in our time.

And that, folks, is what we have to keep from happening. Bringing freedom to Iraqis, that's just a good side effect. Getting at the oil, that's a minor side effect. Using Iraq as a platform to destroy Islamism in the Middle East -- that could work, and it certainly couldn't hurt to try. But the more immediate goal is to keep Saddam from getting nuclear weapons (which he is clearly trying to do, or else he would have just shown the inspectors everything and ended the whole shouting match). Oil, dictatorship, oppression, WMD -- it's all part of the problem, but ultimately, we need to make sure that Hussein never gets to break out of his box in the Middle East. We can't keep him contained indefinitely, and anyways, there is no way to contain him on all sides, or if he goes nuclear. Nope, the only thing to do is to remove him, and remove him right now. The British and French fucked this up in the 1930s by refusing to invade a weak Germany and force it to disarm per the Versailles treaty; millions of good people died as a result. I won't have this happen again, not when the clues are so damned obvious, and the solution still so easy. Not for the Germans. Not for the French. Not for the worthless League of United Nations.

...The problem is, so far I haven't heard this argument from the Bush Administration. All we hear is the individual problems -- WMD, terrorism -- that I talked about at the beginning, and none of those stand up on their own. If it is to have any hope of global support (which isn't required, but why not try?), the Administration will have to tie all those things together in one package, to show Hussein to be a genuine global threat, not just a minor local nuisance. It won't convince the Z Mag readers, but it might just clue in some people in Europe and elsewhere. And if not, at least we'll have told the full story.

Update: An editorial from Kenneth Pollak gives some more details about Hussein's undeterrability, given his constant nearly-delusional optimism. (New York Times requires free registration.)

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