Joe Conason's Journal

Why are we going to war in Iraq? Plus: What Tony Blair told the Germans about Iraq. Behold, the Wayback Machine!


Salon Staff
September 20, 2002 7:18PM (UTC)

The question that tore America apart long after Congress passed the seemingly innocuous Tonkin Gulf resolution - What is the purpose of this bloody conflict? - must be answered now about the Bush administration's rapid drive toward war in Iraq. At the risk of alienating those on both sides of the debate, I have to say that so far, only a single convincing rationale for the president's policy has been argued.

It isn't to secure oil, although Baghdad does control the second-richest proven petroleum reserves in the world. Saddam Hussein has been perfectly willing to sell his country's oil, and permit development of those reserves, for decades. And until he misunderstood that strange message from the first President Bush's ambassador in 1990, and decided to invade Kuwait, American policymakers and industrial leaders like Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger were perfectly willing to do business with him. (Which also suggests, despite all the recent manufactured angst in Washington, that his gassing of the Kurds and Iranians during the 1980s is also not the reason for our elites' hostility toward his regime.)

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It isn't to stop aggression, because Saddam has remained inside his box for a decade, since the end of the Gulf War. (Back then I supported Desert Storm as an unavoidable international response to Saddam's violation of a United Nations member state's sovereignty. Many aspects of that war and the propaganda surrounding it were, however, repugnant.) Baghdad's neighbors fear the consequences of an American invasion far more than they fear Saddam, his weakened army or his depleted arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.

It isn't because he's really Hitler. As tensions grow, far-fetched historical analogies are being tossed around. That German minister's remarks comparing Bush to the Nazi dictator were vile and stupid -- but for all his brutal criminality and national-socialistic ideology, Saddam isn't quite Hitler either. He lacks the Nazi dictator's methods and ambitions, not to mention his means. Postwar Iraq hardly resembles prewar Germany. By the time the United States entered the war against the Axis, Hitler's war machine had been conquering Europe for five years.

It isn't to boost war profiteering. Under Bush the Pentagon budget is to be set on maximum bloat anyway, with "missile defense" slated to enrich Republican contributors and impoverish the rest of us. Military "reform" plus "homeland security" offer plenty of opportunities for conservative-style waste, fraud and abuse. The Carlyle Group, Halliburton and the rest of the Bush-Cheney industrial complex will do fine without blowing $200 million in another desert war

It certainly isn't to prevent proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. As the Washington Post reported yesterday, current U.S. policy is actually designed to thwart completion of a new international regime against biological weapons. The Bush hawks aren't too keen on multilateral action to prevent proliferation of chemical weapons, and they've been slow to deal with the truly mind-boggling problem of unsecured and stray fissile material in the former Soviet states. If these issues were keeping Dick Cheney and Richard Perle awake at night, American policy would be quite different.

The recent International Institute for Strategic Studies report often quoted to justify immediate intervention is a fairly measured assessment of the situation. Among its findings are that "Iraq has probably retained a small force of about a dozen 650km range al-Husseinmissiles. These could strike Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Kuwait [and could] be armed with [chemical or biological] warheads ... Iraq does not possess facilities to produce long range missiles and it would require several years and extensive foreign assistance to construct such facilities." Are we going to war to take out 12 medium-range missiles?

It isn't even to keep Saddam from going nuclear. The IISS report found that "Iraq does not possess facilities to produce fissile material in sufficient amounts for nuclear weapons. It would require several years and extensive foreign assistance to build such fissile material production facilities." Only if Iraq managed to obtain a sufficient amount of black-market weapons-grade uranium could a bomb conceivably be constructed. Saddam has been trying to do exactly that for 12 years without success.

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According to the best estimates, Iran's nuclear program is more threatening, and North Korea's missile program is much more advanced -- yet there seems to be no immediate imperative for "regime change" in those countries.

Nobody believes Iraq can build an atomic bomb, or construct a long-range ballistic missile, between now and Election Day. That leaves us with the last, most plausible reason for the Bush team's sudden decision to press for war: because it is the best way to mobilize public opinion behind the president and his domestic political objectives, notably preserving his party's strength on Capitol Hill.

The Democrats may lack the courage to say this, but they know that it's true. The world may someday have ample reason to overthrow Saddam violently, and that day may come soon. But for now, the partisan stampede toward war ought to be resisted in favor of a strong new inspection regime backed by force. [1:52 p.m. PDT, Sept. 20, 2002]

What Blair really said
The response to my request for German translators was stunning, both in volume and the care taken by every writer. I'm grateful, and glad to know that the Daily Telegraph account of Tony Blair's interview with Tagesspiel about Gerhard Schrvder was quite accurate, although incomplete. (Impressed as I am with all the German-speakers who wrote in, I also appreciated the note from someone who referred me to Babelfish for automated translations.)

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This is a matter of more than academic interest, because the politics of war in Europe and here are more complex than even our quality papers seem competent to explain. Thursday's Washington Post depicted Schrvder as not only "alone" among European leaders but completely isolated from Chirac and Blair, "who has given strong support to President Bush on Iraq."

The Post, despite its deterioration in recent years, still offers better foreign coverage than most American media outlets, but Blair's spirited defense of his Berlin colleague has been universally ignored in the American media. (Incidentally, the Post's roundup of foreign press coverage of Bush's U.N. speech as "glowing" in the lead paragraph disintegrates upon reading the actual quotes.)

What was omitted by the Telegraph was just as compelling as what the Tory paper reported, according to several readers. And the more literal version provided by them offers some useful elaboration of the prime minister's views, at least as he wishes to be understood on the continent. "Regarding Iraq, there are questions coming from Germany that are sensible to ask," said Blair, according to most of the translations I received.

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He continues with some boilerplate about his expectations that Britain and Germany will work together in the future and that differences shouldn't be exaggerated. But what he says next is more interesting: "There is also a big debate within the U.S. over this theme [of war with Iraq]. Often in Europe there is an overwhelming impression that in the U.S. there is only one opinion, which is not true."

Moreover, the P.M. went considerably further in defending the campaigning chancellor than the Telegraph indicated (or than our own Blair-friendly neo-cons would care to acknowledge), as roughly translated here: "Gerhard Schrvder and I have had a very close and trustful working relationship, from Kosovo to Macedonia to Afghanistan. He made a number of extraordinarily brave decisions on these issues. Germany has taken leadership and shown responsibility in these cases, which was very difficult -- never before have they done something comparable. Domestically, Schrvder could have made it much easier on himself by letting Germany continue to stay passive. The improved situation in the Balkans is due in no small part thanks to the German involvement. It should be clearly said: nobody but nobody doubts Gerhard Schrvder."

The Cato file
Another reader kindly introduced me to the fantastic "Wayback Machine" -- through which anyone can access the old Cato Institute "Project on Social Security Privatization," since renamed in utter conformity with the Republican Party line. Wasn't Cato - not the Institute but the ancient Roman whose name they use - renowned for his honesty?
[9:45 a.m. PDT, Sept. 20, 2002]

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