Tuesday, October 08, 2002

An open letter to Sens. Kennedy and Byrd:

I am writing to support your asking hard questions about the administration's precipitate rush toward military action in Iraq, a country which has not attacked us directly (despite all the administration's strained attempts to establish a connection between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11th attacks), and shows no immediate prospect of doing so.

Yesterday evening, President Bush reached into history for comparisons, calling Saddam Hussein a "student of Stalin". But the threat from Stalin's USSR --- incomparably greater than that posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq --- not only could be, but actually was, defeated without any direct military confrontation. In that case, peaceful methods worked, while military action would have been a disaster.

With that in mind, it is disturbing to see how much stress the administration puts on potential risks of nonmilitary action, and how little, if at all, it addresses the risks of war. Even if American forces do succeed in quickly and effectively displacing the current Iraqi regime, what replaces it? The Iraqi population is riven with sectarian divisions, including sectarian groups which might well attract military support from others in the region --- not to mention the ethnic Kurdish region in the north with ambitions to independent statehood. It is unlikely that, after the displacement of Saddam Hussein by American action, these groups will decide to resolve their differences by the unprecedented procedure of holding a fair election and abiding by the results. It is more likely that the result would be some level of armed conflict on the ground, with the potential to spill over the border.

And while Saddam Hussein has been reckless at times, his recklessness has its limits. As chronicled in Samantha Power's book, "A Problem from Hell", all of Saddam's uses of chemical weapons, both against Iran and against his own Kurdish citizens, were with the knowledge and tacit approval of the American administrations of the day. Faced instead with the prospect of retaliation during the Gulf War, even in a direct shooting war with the United States, he held back. We can't be sure that all sides in an Iraqi civil war will show the same restraint.

There are also effects on the wider region to consider. A military attack would hand the allies and heirs of Osama bin Laden a massive propaganda victory, gift-wrapped for their convenience. Their argument is that American "crusaders" are, in effect, already at war with the greater Muslim polity, which has no choice but to fight back with whatever means it has to hand. By attacking an Arab country without any direct provocation, we will be proving their case, and potentially doing much to destabilize the region.

Also, the stress on Iraq to the exclusion of all other threats is peculiar, to say the least. Why is Iraq more of a threat than, say, North Korea, which is a state run by madmen, which sells missile technology to all comers, and may already possess nuclear weapons? The administration does not address the question. Yet it is engaged in diplomacy with the North Koreans --- as treacherous a regime as exists on the planet --- even as it proclaims the impossibility of similar dealing with Saddam Hussein.

Lastly, there is a disturbing pattern in the administration's arguments, of the use of evidence of, to put it kindly, debatable quality. The American people deserve better.

Four decades ago, a president came to Congress with a story about an attack on American forces, and demanded authorization for a military response. He got it. We now know that there was no attack, and the authorization he got looks from a distance like very poor judgment. I hope we have learned from our history and experience.

This letter is posted as part of the Open Letters Blogburst, one of many postings expressing their concern at the present situation. For a list of other posts, see the blogburst index.


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