against permanent war
With George W Bush at the helm, world politics have become steadily more unstable. In an instant, Al-Qaida’s massacre turned his early disengagement into aggressive intervention. The new permanent war ‘on terrorism’ homed in first on the plausible target of bin Laden’s Taliban allies – although bin Laden himself escaped. But it then turned on Saddam Hussein – an old enemy of the US (and above all of the Bush-Republican clique) but one hardly connected to the perpretators of 911.
Saddam’s regime is is not a run-of-the-mill authoritarian regime, but an exceptionally brutal dictatorship with an adventurist military record. It is a threat mainly to the people of Iraq, both under its control and in free Kurdistan. But in general, it is also a potential threat to other states and peoples in the Middle East – in the past it has launched war against Iran, annexed Kuwait and attacked Israel – so its attempts to obtain nuclear, chemical and biological weapons are indeed a particular concern. However Saddam has been effectively contained by inspections, sanctions and bombing (with dire effects too on the Iraqi people). Even the CIA agrees he is not an immediate military threat to neighbouring states. He probably is still developing weapons of mass destruction, but there is no evidence for a specific intention to use them.
While weapons of mass destruction are the internationally legitimate focus of action against Iraq, it is utterly clear that they are the pretext for the US campaign – whose real aim is the overthrow of Saddam. As Tony Blair says, it is difficult to see how anyone could not want regime change in Iraq. However it is equally difficult to see how anyone could actually want war to achieve it. However blocked are the prospects of internal transformation, and however tightly targeted the American use of force might be, it is a safe bet that any campaign will involve bombing some Iraqi civilians and conscripts into early graves. There will be less risk to American forces than to the Iraqis they are supposed to be helping. Surviving Iraqis may thank Bush for liberating them from a monster – but a substantial number of people will pay, unasked, the ultimate price.
It is absolutely right for the UN to promote democratic values among the world’s states, and to bring to account those who defy its resolutions. Bush has stumbled on real scandals – that the UN tolerates among its members states that oppress their peoples and prepare aggression. But these are hardly issues to be solved by bombing every recalcitrant capital. Will the US now target not only North Korea, but also Islamabad and New Delhi, whose nuclear weapons are probably the most immediately, catastrophically dangerous to world peace? It is enough to ask the question to realise that bombing is not the answer to nuclear weapons programmes – the goal of many middle-ranking states – still less to the widespread authoritarianism that Bush is all too prepared to tolerate in allied regimes.
Changing authoritarian regimes into democracies is a legitimate international goal – one that should be applied more consistently worldwide along with the UN human rights regime. Just as the International Criminal Court should try all rulers who are responsible for war crimes, genocide and other crimes against humanity, so the UN should tighten its rules to restrict the membership rights of states that do not meet minimum democratic and human rights standards. But Bush’s opportunist view of the UN goes along with opposition to this kind of fundamental institutional reform.
A US war against Iraq will be militarily and internationally much riskier than the Afghan campaign. Not only is this the situation in which Saddam is most likely to be provoked into using any nuclear, chemical or biological capacity that he possesses. It also sends a message to all that force remains the prime language of world politics. It is bad enough if this encourages powerful states to attack weaker states and movements. It will be worse if it ends up with powerful states attacking each other. We will be back in the world of horrendous great power rivalries, threatening global catastrophe, that we had just begun to escape from.
None of this is inevitable. But we should never forget that war is a supreme problem of our late modern world, which the UN was formed to overcome. The international use of force should be exceptional, limited and proportional, restricted to cases of real emergency, and grounded in international legitimacy. In the medium term, a more peaceful world depends on a change in Washington to a regime that understands these values. Even more than 911 itself, Bush’s permanent war has placed explosive charges under many of our institutions and ideas. It remains to be seen how great the damage will be.