Swinging left

Ultimately, the best reasons for supporting the war were liberal, humanitarian ones. Will antiwar leftists be able to accept that?

Published April 13, 2003 10:18PM (EDT)

Here's a quote I can't get out of my head. It's from Scott Ritter, the former U.N. arms inspector-turned-antiwar activist. Last fall, he spoke of that now-infamous Saddamite prison that housed, yes, children. It was liberated by U.S. forces last week. Kids came out of the darkness alternately giving thumbs up and holding their wrists together to indicate that they had been handcuffed. Their crimes? Having politically incorrect parents or not joining the Hitler, er, Saddam Youth brigades. Here's what Ritter said in Time about that hellhole:

"The prison in question was inspected by my team in Jan. 1998. It appeared to be a prison for children -- toddlers up to pre-adolescents -- whose only crime was to be the offspring of those who have spoken out politically against the regime of Saddam Hussein. It was a horrific scene. Actually I'm not going to describe what I saw there because what I saw was so horrible that it can be used by those who would want to promote war with Iraq, and right now I'm waging peace."

That last sentence is about as depraved a sentence as I can imagine. Ritter deliberately obscured unspeakable horror in the quest for what he called "peace." At least, I suppose, he was honest about it at the time. In the New York Times on Friday, a CNN honcho named Eason Jordan finally unburdens himself of horrors caused by Saddam that he had kept silent about until now in order to protect lives he felt responsible for. I respect his motives. But I do not respect his reluctance to report the reality of such evil.

It has been a week of some vindication for hawks, but doves are right in denying that their full arguments -- about the dangers of preemptive war, fomenting terrorism, destabilizing world alliances, and so on -- are thereby proven wrong. But there's one thing we do now know: That this regime was vile beyond most words; that it was truly evil; that its victims piled up endlessly, irrationally, brutally, as far as the horizon. There is absolutely no doubt that this war therefore saved lives. Compared to the relentless slaughter of Saddam's own people, let alone the terror they lived under, the allied campaign was a model of restraint and liberation, the most precise invasion in world history.

So deal with this: The antiwar movement wittingly and unwittingly played a central part in extending Saddam's regime. I can see why some conservatives would be able to rationalize this. In a Kissingerian world of realpolitik, the victims of totalitarianism are not as important as Great Power politics, as good ties with Russia and France, as stabilizing regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Syria. In a Tory world, where only national self-interest should motivate foreign intervention, abandoning children to a dungeon is of no major matter. But what of liberals? The delirium in the streets of Baghdad and Mosul and Basra is the flip side of a misery that we in the West cannot even begin to fathom. And yet millions of free men and women marched to keep it in power. Millions. Maybe you did. Even if you still believe it was wrong to wage this war, can you not see this point at least? That in the equation of reason, the lives of so many oppressed people should count for something?

Yes, you can return to the theme of your distrust of this administration. Fair enough, I suppose. But there's a danger in this, don't you think? There's a danger that our petty partisan politics dwarves the more fundamental matters of millions in chains, children in torture chambers, political prisoners doused with poisonous chemicals, the genocidal gassing of civilians, the killing of children by their own parents, the enforcement of Stalinist horror beyond most of our imaginations. Why should your distaste for Rummy trump their freedom? Why should your anger over the Florida recount weigh against their liberation? When Howard Dean can respond to the day of Iraqi liberation with the words, "I suppose it's a good thing," then he has simply lost his moral compass, his sense of perspective, his -- yes -- humanity.

I read with interest the occasional columns by liberals during this war of the "I Can't Believe I'm a Hawk" variety. I should write one this week called "I Can't Believe I'm a Liberal." I've long believed that in an imperfect world, self-interest, power politics and military force are the essential tools and fundamental bases of international relations. Now I'm not so sure. Having witnessed the joy and liberation of this past week in Iraq, I wonder whether it wouldn't have been worth it for humanitarian reasons alone. We will find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I have no doubt about that. I initially supported this war for hard-nosed geopolitical reasons, and I stick with that judgment. But I realize now that I would have supported this war in any case -- for entirely moral reasons. The removal of that evil was a good in itself, worth some damage to our alliances, worth even some destabilization in an already unstable region.

When I asked myself hard questions about my support for war these past few months, especially when my own church came out against it, I found myself coming back to the essential evil of totalitarianism, and the moral justification to defeat it. Even if there were prudential reasons to oppose this war, my heart tells me that I was right to have taken the stand I did. It reminds me of what America is fundamentally about, why I love my adopted country, why I believe in it. If that makes me a dewy-eyed, sentimental liberal, then so be it. But the question for anyone on the left today is simple: Why aren't you one?

By Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own andrewsullivan.com Web site.

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