A waste of democracy

Thursday, October 14th, 2004

Saddam Hussein’s weapons program may have been nothing but empty warehouses and rat droppings, but he “retained his notions of the use of force.”

That’s it, America. We went to war, we broke a country, to kill a notion.

The thousand-page report released last week by Charles Duelfer, the government’s chief weapons inspector, undermines every justification the Bush administration pulled out of its hat except that one, and the war’s defenders cling doggedly to it now — the tyrant’s alleged dream of future mayhem — as though it were the mythical WMD cache itself, unearthed in the desert and justifying every life and every dollar we’ve spent destroying Iraq.

The all-purpose mantra is that, false pretexts notwithstanding, “The world is safer with Saddam behind bars.”

No it’s not.

It’s certainly not if you happen to live in Iraq, where as many as 15,000 civilians have died in the invasion and ensuing chaos, where economic desperation is the interim government’s prime army recruiting tool and where the future could hardly be less certain. Scott Ritter, writing recently in Britain’s The Independent, noted with Sisyphean irony that, if the deposed tyrant were released from prison today, there’s a good chance he’d win the January election.

In a world as heavily armed and aggrieved as this one, the last thing we need is the resident superpower lowering the threshold justification for war and role-modeling military swagger over alliance and diplomacy.

“If there ever was a case to be made for a unified standard of law governing the interaction of nations, it is in how we as a global community prosecute the war on terror,” writes Ritter. “Those who embrace unilateral preemptive strikes in the name of democracy and freedom have produced results that pervert the concept of democracy while bringing about the horrific tyranny of fear and oppression at the hands of those who posture as liberators.”

What a waste of a democracy — ours — that we cannot engage in a more complex dialogue about national and global security, that we’re stuck, at least through the election season and God knows how long after that, “debating” whether we should have done what we did without debate at the time we did it.

Duelfer’s report fuels this sterile, go-nowhere tussle over the recent past, seeming to pass judgment that, rationale-wise, the war was a mistake, but throwing enough of a lifeline to the hawks so they can insist they were justified. Aha! The WMD were a gleam in Saddam’s eye! That means, as Dick Cheney explained the day after the report’s release, “delay, defer wasn’t an option.”

What the veep didn’t tell his Miami audience was that fear of Saddam was nothing more than the public cover for the war. You couldn’t mobilize a country around our “crucial need” to seize control over an oil-rich, strategically significant region of the Middle East, or even to shore up the security of Israel. (These are what Jim McGovern, an ex-CIA analyst and member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, surmises to be the war’s actual objectives.) No, it had to be visceral. Fear, revenge. That’s how you whip up war fever.

We also may have invaded Iraq simply because we could. In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration needed a big demonstration of American power. We may have decided to topple Saddam, in short, precisely because he was not a threat. After Gulf War I, when he really did possess WMD, we didn’t go after him.

“The regime, and Saddam, believed that the possession of WMD deterred the United States from going to Baghdad in 1991,” Duelfer said. That might explain the gleam that wouldn’t go away.

In all this sad mess, a detail that haunts me almost more than any other is that when the U.S. media report, even with hand-wringing criticism, on the terrible toll this war has taken, the toll begins and ends with the deaths of U.S. and coalition soldiers. Even though the official pose remains that we are bringing democracy to the Iraqis, we don’t care enough about them to count their bodies.