See no evil

Progressives have lots of arguments against the war on Iraq -- some of them compelling. But why aren't they burning to free Saddam's oppressed masses?

Published March 19, 2003 8:28PM (EST)

Amina Lawal is a Nigerian divorcee, illiterate and unemployed, and when she gave birth to a baby girl out of wedlock in 2001, neighbors in the Muslim village where she lives reported her to local authorities. She was arrested, charged with adultery and, after a trial in one of the new Islamic courts, sentenced to death. Her case has attracted international attention, and there is hope that the sentence will be blocked. But human rights monitors say her life remains at risk: If the sentence is carried out, she will be buried up to her waist in the ground and then stoned until she is dead.

Amina Lawal's case is undoubtedly complicated. Yet the more I consider it, the more I feel the urge for a simple, primitive response. I know there is intensifying conflict between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria; I know that in the interests of bringing calm to a volatile situation, the United Nations or the government of the United States, joined by allied countries and interest groups, should exercise every possible diplomatic channel to prevent her execution. But if that were to fail, the urge says, let's send in a small, skilled military squad to rescue her and her loved ones. Even at the risk of casualties, let's use military force to achieve humanitarian ends, and in saving the life of a 31-year-old Muslim peasant, let's send a message to the poor and dispossessed of the world, and to the religious zealots and tyrants who repress them. Let's just do it.

I can imagine many leftists would share the same urge, and yet, the more deeply I consider it, the more complicated the problem becomes. First of all, why Amina? Why not any of a million other victims of tyranny, including many in our own country who are threatened with cruel and unusual punishment? If you start with Amina, where does it stop? We can't solve all the problems of the world. And perhaps intervening to save Amina will only incite the furies of the Nigerian Muslims who rose so violently in the days before the Miss Universe pageant. We have to let the Nigerians solve their own problems. Violence, in the long term, will only beget more violence.

The problem is so difficult that I'm nearly paralyzed by the awareness of things that could go fatally wrong. Until, inevitably, this complex set of calculations leads back to the root equation: In the worst-case scenario, if we do not seek a military solution, then we must let Amina Lawal die. To some degree, then, I would be responsible for her death.

I find myself thinking a lot about Amina Lawal these days because the moral dilemma she poses so closely parallels the dilemma that has confronted the left as the United States and a few allies move toward an unpopular war to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Though there is indisputable evidence that Saddam Hussein has sought to become a nuclear power, though it seems clear that he is hiding chemical and biological weapons, and though he is guilty of human rights abuses on a harrowing scale, many on the left are deeply conflicted because it is so difficult -- in fact, it is impossible -- to know whether the human costs of taking him out would be greater than the costs of attempting to undermine him through more gradual means.

On balance, though, the left in America and Europe has come down strongly against the war. And in protest marches, antiwar advertising and local arts events, the evidence leaves one to wonder whether this highly visible bloc of the left has weighed these issues -- weighed life by life the repression of the 24 million Iraqis who live in a ruthless police state, not to mention the thousands or tens of thousands who have been imprisoned without trial, tortured, exiled or killed. Instead, it sometimes seems that the left is so averse to war, especially war waged by America, that it is prepared to turn a blind eye to even the most ghastly realities. Perhaps it is because the left no longer sees these realities that its antiwar arguments tend to justify continuation of the status quo.

That, too, is a form of paralysis. But it is emblematic of an evolution in leftist values that has occurred so gradually over a period of decades that the profound nature of the shift is often not noticed. Today, the political counterculture and the antiwar movement in the West often seem to be one and the same. Instead of fighting fascists or other genocidal tyrants as it might have during the Spanish Civil War or World War II or even during the Central American conflicts of the 1980s, the modern left fights war; because the United States is the world's most significant military agent, and because it has so often used military power to support anti-democratic governments, the left understandably fights the United States. Such opposition to war is reflexive, and too often outweighs its outrage on behalf of the oppressed. Its capacity for the kind of muscular empathy that leads to action has atrophied, leaving only the possibility of reaction, of opposition. The antiwar left does not mount massive protests against China, Pakistan or Egypt. Millions do not pour into the streets on behalf of the student-led democracy movement in Iran. And Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are not angrily compared to Hitler -- that treatment is more often reserved for George W. Bush.

Make no mistake: I consider Bush and his closest advisors dangerous. In policy and in manner, their anti-democratic tendencies are clear. In the overlapping wars on terrorism and Iraq, their hubris, their dishonesty and their incompetence have alienated potential allies at home and around the globe. Bush's claims that Iraq is an immediate threat to the security of the United States, and that Saddam is allied with al-Qaida, have been unpersuasive. Even if the White House hawks had the highest and most idealistic motives, they have created such deep mistrust that nobody believes them. Where Saddam's depredation should be the issue, in the eyes of the world, they themselves are the issue. In this way, Bush has discredited the very cause he claims to support.

And yet, I wonder: Is it possible that some of the most vocal and visible elements of the left are vulnerable to a similar charge? Whether George Bush or his father or Al Gore or Bill Clinton is president -- in one basic sense, that is immaterial. Conditions in Iraq are what they are. With war now upon us, the deeper issue is about the relationship of American and European leftists to the people of Iraq, about our obligations to aid them in enormously difficult circumstances, and about the best means for doing so.

In the months leading up to war, the old paradigms of alliance and opposition have shifted strangely, or fallen apart. Though it is rarely visible in news accounts, the left is deeply divided. A huge and outspoken block of antiwar leftists finds itself allied with old soldiers of the Gulf War era, like retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft. Others once identified with the radical left, like the writer Christopher Hitchens, find themselves allied with George W. Bush, one of the most conservative presidents in the post WWII era. But the pro-war leftists, perhaps because they lack the numbers and a dramatic venue, are almost completely overshadowed by the antiwar leftists who can turn out millions for demonstrations around the globe.

In most every argument against the war, whether it is posed between friends over drinks or by the presence of 100,000 people at a wintry demonstration, there comes a crucial moment: "I'm not defending Saddam," the argument goes. "I know Saddam is a ruthless tyrant. I know he has committed terrible human rights abuses. But ..." What follows "but" is often a withering critique of Bush or the United States, Tony Blair, Jose Maria Aznar, or Silvio Berlusconi. Hidden in this argument is a curious dynamic: The words "ruthless dictator" and "human rights abuses" have been uttered so many times that they are like a dead key on a piano. They have lost their emotion and their power to convey anything close to the reality of ruthless dictatorship and human rights abuses.

Amnesty International has documented and cataloged Saddam's abuses for 20 years. Reading this dossier brings to life the methodical daily acts of repression in Iraq; the means by which Saddam's regime secures its hold over 24 million people is not at all abstract.

Consider this passage from a press statement last October:

"Amnesty International has over the years documented gross human rights violations committed on a massive scale in Iraq affecting all sectors of society. These violations, which have been committed by Iraqi military, intelligence and security personnel, have included 'disappearances' of thousands of people, the extensive use of the death penalty, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary arrests, long-term detention without charge or trial, grossly unfair and secret trials, systematic torture of suspected political opponents, judicial punishments constituting torture or cruel, inhuman punishments, prisoners of conscience, and forcible expulsions."

Here is a passage from an August 2001 report:

"Torture victims in Iraq have been blindfolded, stripped of their clothes and suspended from their wrists for long hours. Electric shocks have been used on various parts of their bodies, including the genitals, ears, the tongue and fingers. Victims have described to Amnesty International how they have been beaten with canes, whips, hosepipe or metal rods and how they have been suspended for hours from either a rotating fan in the ceiling or from a horizontal pole often in contorted positions as electric shocks were applied repeatedly on their bodies. Some victims had been forced to watch others, including their own relatives or family members, being tortured in front of them.

"The scale and severity of torture in Iraq can only result from the acceptance of its use at the highest level."

Even such descriptions as these seem too clinical, somehow, too bureaucratic. But in the Amnesty International files are many more personal stories, and some have haunted me since I first read them.

In October 2000, dozens of Iraqi women suspected of prostitution were arrested and beheaded, without trial. One of them was a Baghdad doctor who reportedly had been critical of the Iraqi health services. Another was a mother of three, whose Islamist husband had fled into exile while suspected of working against the state.

Then there is the case of a former army general who fled Iraq in 1995 and who, in exile, joined an opposition group. In June 2000, he received a videotape in the mail. He watched: Iraqi agents were raping a woman from his family. Soon after, the general got a phone call from Iraq, apparently from an intelligence agent. The caller asked whether he had enjoyed the "gift." And by the way, the caller said, we still have her in custody.

Or consider the story of a former intelligence officer who was arrested in the mid-1990s. He apparently was suspected of having contacts with opposition groups. For two years he was held in solitary confinement at the General Intelligence headquarters in Baghdad. The cell was painted entirely red; even the light was red. The intelligence officer was subjected to regular and varied torture: He was hogtied and suspended from a metal bar. He was beaten and shocked. He was raped with a wooden stick. He was released at the end of 1997, but then, in 1999 he was arrested once more. The nightmare started all over again.

Strangely, it is not the physical torture that lingers with me. Rather, the red room haunts my imagination -- and not just the color of it, but the intention of it. It is not enough to take him out of political circulation. It is not enough to wreck his body and humiliate him. They wanted to destroy his sanity. And then they sent him back to his family and friends so that his broken body and broken mind would convey an unmistakable warning.

I read these stories of intimidation, humiliation, murder and systematic subjugation, and I come away puzzled. Many of us on the left are preoccupied with cataloging the mendacity of the White House, or lamenting the ineffectuality of the Democrats; we spend hours researching how Republican officials or their cronies did deals with Saddam or how the impending war is a cynical ploy for taking Iraq's rich oil fields. Of course it is essential to document these failures and misdeeds and to work relentlessly to hold these people accountable. Still, none of that addresses the issues raised by the red cell. None of these address the fact that Saddam, by some counts, is blamed for a million deaths.

What are we doing to make sure that not another woman is raped or beheaded as a form of political terror? What are we doing to make sure that not another man is humiliated and rendered mute and powerless as the ex-general was? What are we doing to shut down the headquarters of General Intelligence? In the community of human rights monitors, work toward these goals is heroic and often dangerous. These would seem also to be urgent goals for all who consider themselves progressive. But for the most part, in all the angry debate over the war, the left rarely discusses these issues. We acknowledge Saddam as a ruthless dictator and lament his human rights abuses, but we focus our rage on Bush.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell was preparing to go before the United Nations Security Council last month, there was a minor controversy over the decision to cover the U.N.'s tapestry of Picasso's painting "Guernica," a masterpiece depicting the suffering brought by war. But a crucial nuance was overlooked both by U.N. staffers who wanted the picture covered and antiwar critics who saw hypocrisy in the move.

The bombing of the Basque town of Guernica was carried out by Hitler's Luftwaffe in 1936, as part of his effort to help fascist General Francisco Franco to overthrow the democratically elected leftist government of Spain. In a few hours of relentless bombing, 1,600 people were killed or wounded. Picasso was a Spanish pacifist and a leftist; he was a partisan of the elected government and an anti-fascist. His painting was perhaps a testament to the horrors of war, but in the context of the time, it would inevitably be seen as a testament to the specific horrors of fascism. Indeed, in the aftermath of Franco's victory, Picasso would not let his painting be shown in his home country until "public liberties and democratic institutions" had been established.

The Spanish Civil War was the last war in modern times that galvanized the American and European left to take up arms. Famous poets and writers went to war against Franco -- anarchists, socialists and communists -- and when they died in the trenches, they became leftist heroes. George Orwell had not yet written his masterpiece "1984," and he was among the wave of leftist artists and intellectuals who took up arms to aid the Spanish Republicans. In "Homage to Catalonia," an account of his months on the front lines in northeastern Spain, we see just how the mind-set of a Western leftist in 1937 differs from the mind-set that prevails today.

Before Orwell was almost killed by a bullet in the neck, there were long weeks of waiting. "I was sick of the inaction on the Aragon front and chiefly conscious that I had not done my fair share of the fighting," he wrote of those days. "I used to think of the recruiting poster in Barcelona which demanded accusingly of passers-by: 'What have you done for democracy?' and feel that I could only answer: 'I have drawn my rations.' When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist -- after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct -- and I had killed nobody yet."

You see the fundamental leftist impulse of that era: Anti-fascist, even if it means taking up arms.

An American variant could be found in James Jones' still-stunning novel "From Here to Eternity." Jones' hero is Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a rock-hard soldier's soldier, a boxer and ultracool bugle player who is anti-authority to the core of his brooding, blues-playing soul. He rebels against the Army, goes AWOL from his base in Hawaii, and then, in the days after Pearl Harbor, he tries to steal back into the base to rejoin his unit -- only to be shot and killed by a U.S. patrol. But the book is suffused with the sense that, at the onset of World War II, Prewitt was America's greatest weapon against fascism, if only America could harness his nature instead of trying to suppress it.

Today, the explicit anti-totalitarian impulse has been narrowed and diminished in leftist culture. Instead, the fundamental leftist reflex has evolved into something related, and yet quite different: antiwar, anti-America, and anti-American authority. That helps to explain the strange behavior of an alienated idealist like John Walker Lindh, who, in disillusionment with his native country, ends up fighting with the ferociously anti-democratic forces of the Taliban. It explains how some lost souls would go to Iraq to serve as human shields, unaware or unconcerned that they would provide support and aid to a tyrant.

What accounts for the difference between 1937 and 2003? Though the left had a tortured and complex evolution in the aftermath of WWII, from the disillusionment of the Stalin years through the blacklists of the McCarthy era, one thing changed everything: Vietnam. Superficially, the arguments for intervention in Vietnam and Iraq appear the same: that the small country far from home poses a direct threat to our interests, our freedom and our lives. Forty years ago, it was fear of communism -- and the geopolitical illusions spawned by that fear -- that drove the U.S. to intervene. It was so horrible and so unnecessary, mass cruelty and tens of thousands of deaths justified by a systematic lie. And in the crucible of that time, the antiwar movement and the political counterculture and popular culture fused. To oppose war became righteous. It appropriated the moral high ground. It was hip.

By the late 1970s and 1980s, the transformation was evident in leftist reaction to the liberation struggles in Central America. In El Salvador and Guatemala, the U.S. provided arms and money to military regimes that relied on death squads and torture chambers to suppress popular uprisings; in Nicaragua, the U.S.-backed remnants of the Somoza dictatorship and others who were trying to overthrow the deeply flawed but popular Sandinista government. American and European leftists played a significant role in illuminating the U.S. complicity, and they combated it by domestic political action, by spiriting torture victims to safety in the United States and, in some cases, by risking their lives to provide support to communities in those embattled countries.

But the Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish Civil War had no counterpart in those years. Much of the resistance to U.S. policy was organized or supported by churches and pacifist groups. And though some were murdered as they worked for justice in those countries, there was no leftist call to enlist and fight in defense of freedom and democracy, no valor in killing or risking death alongside armed opponents of the death squad governments.

A decade later, many leftists opposed military intervention to take down Slobodan Milosevic, who is now on trial for war crimes at The Hague. I remember talking with a friend at the height of that conflict, a committed and connected human rights advocate, who had left his job with a high-profile rights group out of frustration with its political caution. The left at the time was riven by such uncertainties and disagreements. I asked my friend: What do you think we should do about Bosnia?

I was surprised when he uttered words that seemed forbidden: "We should've bombed the shit out of Milosevic a long time ago."

Perhaps the roots of today's divisions go back to Bosnia. A few years later, during the debate over the Kosovo intervention, the left was suffering from a profound internal conflict. Many found that intervention justified, just as my friend would justify the need for military action against Milosevic. But for many others on the left -- including stalwarts like Noam Chomsky and Ramsey Clark -- even horrific accounts of a ruthless despot engaged in ethnic cleansing could not move them to accept the use of U.S. military force.

The expected U.S. intervention in Iraq today is more difficult and more ambiguous, and the potential for casualties greater by far. In this climate, the antiwar left has galvanized and thrived and, with considerable success, has reached out to others who are apprehensive about the possible costs of war. But when leftists drift from their most essential values -- to stand for the liberation of repressed people, and to oppose those who repress them -- their righteous passion only partly offsets the strains in their reasoning. In extreme cases, they seem to have lost their compass. There is a good argument against an invasion of Iraq, but arguments commonly employed by many on the left seem to contradict bedrock leftist values.

1. Conflict can be solved without war.

This is a noble faith, and I wish it were true. But history is rich in examples of people who were able to throw off repression only with force, and sometimes only with the help of foreign allies. More than 50 million people dead in World War II prove the point. Moreover, the argument suggests that the Salvadoran rebels weren't right to take up arms against the death-squad government there, that Nicaraguans weren't right to take up arms against the Somoza dictatorship, that the African National Congress wasn't justified in employing arms against apartheid when apartheid would not yield to reason alone. Even the American revolution, perhaps the most durable democratic revolution in world history, was powered by the barrel of a gun.

2. We can't solve all of the world's problems. The popular variant: Why Iraq? Why now? Why not North Korea?

I am tempted to answer: Yes, let's liberate North Korea too. There are 22 million people there living under a despotic, almost cultlike mind-control government that starves its population and pours its meager resources into soldiers and guns. But that is not the real intention of those who make this argument. They cite North Korea to block a move against Iraq, apparently untroubled that such a calculus leaves two despots in power rather than one. Such demands for moral consistency ignore the fact that there is no consistency in the nature of the conflicts and that each, therefore, requires a different approach. Because North Korea has a much bigger and more lethal military, it would be more difficult to unseat, and so the human cost of a military action against North Korea could be far higher. Further, it has seemed clear that Kim Jong Il wants negotiation, and because the U.S. has resisted, he is escalating the threat of violence. Saddam's game is much different, and by most accounts, he is much less likely to change through negotiation.

3. We have to let the Iraqis solve their own problems.

This argument, very similar to arguments made on behalf of the Viet Cong in the 1960s, seems an homage to democratic self-determination. In fact, it is almost cruelly naive. Saddam's effectiveness over 20 years has been in crushing dissent before it has a chance to form. He arrests, imprisons, tortures and kills based on suspicion alone, and sometimes even in absence of suspicion. If you have a dissident thought, you not only risk your own life, but the lives of your family and friends. Coup attempts have repeatedly been cruelly crushed in advance. Saddam's willingness to back up the threat with violence, systematically, every day, millions of times, has assured that the Iraqis cannot solve this on their own.

4. Invading Iraq will give rise to a new legion of terrorists.

The U.S. invasion of Kosovo helped protect a Muslim minority; the invasion of Afghanistan helped to free a Muslim population, though the follow-through has been insufficient. This argument assumes that other Muslims in the region are not smart enough to get that message. In fact, though, Saddam's support in the Muslim world is, at best, limited; despite the prevailing propaganda, Iraqi exiles in the region have had some influence in tempering the inclination to make Saddam an Arabic martyr. Yes, it's true that an invasion might drive some into the terrorist camp. But if we are paralyzed by that fear, or if we fail to act because we fear a terrorist counterattack, then the intolerance of the terrorists and the repression of the dictators win out over liberation.

5. We have to let the U.N. weapons inspectors finish their job.

This is a credible argument, but it raises worrisome questions. According to a detailed written report prepared and delivered last week by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, the inspections teams has been unable to account for 550 shells and 450 bombs filled with mustard gas; 6,526 bombs containing about 1,000 tons of chemical warfare compounds; 10,000 liters of anthrax; and up to 19,000 liters of botulinum toxin. British foreign secretary Jack Straw -- once described by the Sunday Times of London as "the decent man of politics" -- last week further expanded the list of missing items: 1.5 tons of VX nerve agent; 6,500 chemical bombs and 30,000 weapons for delivering biological and chemical weapons. The question is: What if Saddam doesn't account for them, and the inspectors can't find them? Is an invasion justified then? Confronted with this contradiction, some antiwar activists have recently argued there is no evidence to prove that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. That argument is nearly untenable, except on a basis of wishful thinking.

6. This is a war for oil. The general variant: Bush does not have the right motive for war.

The evidence suggests this is not a war for oil, or not purely so. Though Bush's motives have been as changeable as the political weather, and therefore largely unconvincing, the record suggests that some of his closest advisors believe that by moving the Taliban out of Afghanistan, turning Saddam out of Iraq and, perhaps, fomenting democratic revolution in Iran, the U.S. will have partially neutralized the cancerous anti-American sentiment that thrives in the region. Is that plausible? Perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn't. Clearly, the women of Afghanistan are better off today than they were under the Taliban. Clearly, Saudi Arabia has signaled that it will move toward some modest democratic reforms. Many in the Iranian democracy movement believe that a U.S. intervention against Saddam will help their cause. But still, let's suppose the war-for-oil charge is true. Suppose further that, in the process of seizing control of the oil fields, Saddam's system of repression is broken and the political prisoners are freed. The result is unintended, but it is positive nonetheless. Or would it be better, as some seem to suggest, that Saddam and his system of terror be left in place if only so that Chevron didn't get control of the oil?

7. The U.S. is guilty of gross hypocrisy because it backed Saddam in the war against Iran and helped him rebuild after the Gulf War.

Yes, the U.S. and other Western powers are guilty as charged. At what point, then, does the time come to correct the error and to make reparations for this moral failure?

The arguments of the Bush hawks are no more persuasive. Even when they have argued that invading Iraq is a human rights issue, it's almost impossible to take them seriously because none of their arguments in favor of war have been steady or consistent. And yet, here is the paradox: Bush is insincere and untrustworthy, but at least he's talking about stopping torture and repression.

On the left, none of these arguments frames the war issue as an issue of freedom (or even relative freedom) vs. totalitarianism. With the exception of the argument in favor of weapons inspections, each is designed to block forceful action against a dictator who has the DNA of Hitler and Stalin. None of the arguments above offers a plan for ending torture, ending suppression, and protecting human rights and civil liberties.

In a moment of moral urgency, the arguments against war instead urge preservation of the status quo. They are, in a word, conservative.

The implicit assumption of the post-Vietnam culture is that pacifism always holds the moral high ground. But in the Iraq conundrum, there is no high ground, no moral purity. If you argue for war, on humanitarian grounds, you are saying: We must risk thousands of casualties not only among soldiers, but among children and civilians, so that Saddam's weapons can be destroyed and his murderous system of repression can be dismantled. If you argue that war is to be avoided because of those potential casualties, then you are arguing that Saddam's system of repression -- the political murders, the torture chambers, the slow death of the soul that comes from living under such tyranny -- must be endured.

It is an impossible calculation, especially for those who are leftists precisely because they wish to relieve human suffering. But in the current context, every choice entails suffering and death. And so we are left to weigh the potential casualties, which we can never really know; we weigh the likely reactions to a military intervention in the wider Arab world. We weigh the moral elements, as well, whether the costs we incur balance out in favor of liberation.

Which leads to the best argument against the war: That the costs are likely to be so high -- in civilian casualties, in terrorist counterattacks, in tax dollars, in environmental damage -- that they justify leaving Saddam and his system of repression in place. But while opponents of the war frequently make the first half of that argument, they are understandably uneasy to articulate the second. By definition, leftists oppose tyranny, and it goes profoundly against character to accept it.

The esteemed writer and human rights campaigner Ariel Dorfman is among the few to take on this contradiction directly. Dorfman comes to the debate with a powerful moral pedigree: He served as an advisor to Chilean President Salvador Allende and then, after the 1973 military coup, he managed (unlike many of his friends and colleagues) to escape Chile. He spoke out eloquently against Israel's war in Lebanon. His letter to an unknown Iraqi in the Washington Post last month was chilling in its honesty.

In the letter, Dorfman acknowledges that he has done next to nothing over the years to counter Saddam's tyranny and nothing to help those who suffer from it daily; and he acknowledges that many Iraqis would likely welcome a U.S. invasion. "What right does anyone have to deny you and your fellow Iraqis that liberation from tyranny? " he asks. "What right do we have to oppose the war the United States is preparing to wage on your country, if it could indeed result in the ouster of Saddam Hussein?"

But Dorfman doubts the Saddam has substantial quantities of weapons of mass destruction, doubts that the U.S. is interested in democracy, and fears that the human costs of war would be greater than the benefits of liberation. To the unknown Iraqi he says: You must fight your own battle; no one else can liberate you. And he concludes with a lament: "Heaven help me, I am saying that I care more about the future of this sad world than about the future of your unprotected children."

Dorfman is anguished by the choice, plainly. There has not been a more difficult moral challenge confronted by the left since Stalin. And so I can understand when people who have weighed these issues honestly conclude, with evident agony, that the costs of invading Iraq are likely to be higher than the costs of preserving the status quo. But just as I'm haunted by the videotape of the Iraqi woman being raped, or by the red torture chamber at the General Intelligence headquarters in Baghdad, the words of exiled Iraqi opposition leader Kanan Makiya have resonated for weeks in my imagination. Salon reporter Michelle Goldberg interviewed the Iraqi leftist in December, and she asked him: What would you say to liberals who oppose the war?

"Think this question through from the point of view of what people in Iraq have been through," Makiya replied, "not from the point of view of your agendas at home. You do not want to be where you're putting yourself today. In your deepest heart of hearts, you don't want to be there. If you are there, it's because you're ignorant of what's going on inside Iraq. But the very people who stand to suffer the most are asking you to do this, and you of all people should be behind it."

Makiya's calculation is implicit: The costs of war will be justified by the benefits of liberation -- the people of Iraq believe so themselves.

I agree with Makiya. Perhaps it is a leap of faith on my part, perhaps a fatal form of optimism, but I believe that leftists must stand for the liberation of Iraq. It is a debt owed to the Iraqis, and to every democratic movement in the Middle East, whether in Iran, in the occupied territories, in Turkey or Egypt, and all the more because the U.S. has so often been the co-author of their repression. As a leftist, I cannot rule out the value of force in achieving the ends of freedom and tolerance -- the threat of force and, if there is no other alternative, the use of force.

We are now days away from invasion, perhaps only hours. It is too late to wish that it could've happened at another time, in another climate, too late to argue that Bush should have waited -- too late to argue that, even at a cost of billions of dollars, Bush should've waited even into the fall so that he could build trust with other nations and with the people of the Arab world. Perhaps keeping a gun at Saddam's head would have worked, though after so many years of his stubborn deception, I doubt it.

For those leftists who have supported the war, and for those who have loudly opposed it, now is the time for a shift in strategy. Bush and his inner circle have repeatedly gone on the record describing the war on Iraq as a war of liberation. Even if we do not believe them, we must work relentlessly to hold them accountable. We must insist that the U.S. and its allies implement, as quickly as possible, a constructive post-war plan. They must protect the Kurds from Saddam and from Turkey. Aided by the U.N., they must provide for the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people, no matter the cost. If they truly want to detoxify the Middle East, Bush and his inner circle must commit to seeking a practical solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. They must be reminded constantly, and forcefully, that it is urgent to repair trust, and to stop the corrosion that comes with chronic hypocrisy. By insisting on these values, by returning to the street in a tide of millions, the left might hijack the meaning of this tragedy and salvage from it something constructive. In doing so, we would stand for something that would resonate well into the political center; in doing so, we might create energy that could be channeled into the 2004 presidential campaign.

In the chaos of the moment, we must remember that we are living in the crucible of our era. The Cold War is over. The Vietnam paradigm no longer holds. History is tipping on a fulcrum. For fear of military intervention, the world failed to stop the Rwandan genocide of 1994, but since then, the U.S. and the U.N. have engaged in three invasions with significant humanitarian impact: Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Whatever the intentions of the Bush administration, Iraq is a similar test, and though it is far more extreme in its requirements, and far more uncertain in its justification, it is part of a growing momentum in which world leaders can join to use military force to resolve humanitarian emergencies.

Pacifism is the highest ideal, but it has practical limits. The use of force is the gravest undertaking, and yet, sometimes it is necessary. It is a sad fact that a credible threat of military force, or the earlier use of it, could have prevented well over a million deaths in Rwanda, in Bosnia and Iraq. And it is a sad fact of human nature that we will be confronted with this question again. There will be another rogue state that kills its own people, and that radiates menace and instability beyond its borders. We would do well to remember that by accepting military force as option, we do not undermine leftist ideals, but instead we simply prepare to apply them, soberly, in a world of hard choices and moral ambiguity.

There is no way to avoid this responsibility without paying high costs. Let us hope that if an uneducated Nigerian divorcee named Amina Lawal is standing alone in her remote village, facing execution by stoning for making love with a man, that we on the left are ready to do whatever is needed to save her life, or to accept the consequences of our compromise.

By Edward W. Lempinen

Edward W. Lempinen is a senior news editor at Salon.

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