Rabbi’s Essays

The Road to Iraq
Costs, Risks & Responsibilities

The Argument for Intervention

The Bush Administration wants to get rid of Saddam Hussein in the worst way. And they are going about it in the worst way!

One of the really sad aspects of the current worldwide crisis is that there have been cogent and thoughtful arguments made in favor of potential military intervention in Iraq, and they have been mostly put forward by people who are known for a liberal bent. Virtually no one anywhere is defending Hussein. Saddam Hussein is no Hitler, and this is not a replay of a 1930s scenario regarding military engagement with Germany or appeasement. (More on this later.) Hussein, however, is a Stalin. The danger he personally poses within Iraq, the region and beyond cannot and should not be minimized.

There have been some popular but weak arguments to suggest that the US should nonetheless not bother with Hussein and Iraq. Let me touch upon them:

1. Osama bin Ladn and al Qaeda and North Korea, among others, are bigger threats. When one is fundamentally opposed to one course of action, it is common ploy to suggest that there are more important and pressing concerns. Terrorism has been brought home as real and pressing threat since Sept. 11, and there is no good connection between Iraq and al Qaeda (nor should we expect there to be). North Korea is possibly more Stalinist than Iraq, and might well already have nuclear armaments. China, the scourge of AIDS, rising homelessness in New York City, there are always problems. Their existence and the need to deal with them, however, do not negate the issue of Saddam Hussein.

2. Hussein was a U.S. ally and client in the 70s and 80s. This is hardly a secret, but so what? Hindsight is 20/20. The U.S. made different calculations then, or we misunderstood just how venal Hussein was, or Saddam Hussein changed. I think it is a combination of all three. Ba’athist philosophy (the political movement that supported both Saddam in Iraq and Hafez ‘al Assad in Syria) was predicated on pan-Arabism. In due time, the thinking went, there would be a single political unit encompassing all the Arab speaking people from Morocco to Iraq (including the land of Israel). Saddam Hussein clearly imagined that he could one day be the natural leader of this massive state. Through the 1970s, he sought to build up the fortunes of the Iraqi people, instituting universal education, modernizing industry and agriculture and building up the country’s infrastructure, all in the expectation that Iraq would be the vanguard, and Baghdad would once again be the center of the Arab-speaking world.

The 1980 attack on Iran should be understood as not simply some effort at a territorial expansion, but rather as the principled defense of the Arabs against a Persian religious chauvinist, whose aggressive Shi’ism was threat to Arab unity. Imagine his disappointment and anger, when none of the other Arab nations came to his aid. I would surmise that Hussein concluded that the heads of the Arab States were all corrupt and petty, more interested in their own fiefdoms than in the glorious future of Arabdom. (This perception ironically is close to that held by most progressive observers of the Middle East, and by Osama bin Ladn!) With his prosecution of the Iran-Iraq war, his treatment of internal opposition and interest groups, and the invasion of Kuwait, we witnessed a single-minded leader move from preparing a population to be a vanguard to bending his every effort toward fighting all enemies, real or imagined.

Whatever the U.S. policy mistakes of the 80s and earlier, it is not the 80s any longer. The circumstances and threat Hussein poses is quite different.

3. Yes, Saddam Hussein should go, but not by the U.S. Ideally, the Iraqis themselves should throw Hussein out, as should the North Koreans Kim Jong Il, the Burmese their military junta, and the Serbs should have deposed Milosovic. It does not happen that way. The American revolutionaries, even with an oppressive government an ocean away and whose military was stretched by other colonial adventures, required the assistance of the French in order to be successful.

OK, the Iraqis need help, but why must it be the U. S.? If military force is necessary (the ‘if’ is important, but more on that below), the American military is by far the best equipped to do the job with the greatest efficiency and the least collateral damage. The research and development portion of the American defense budget alone is larger than the combined military expenditures of most of Europe. Some other armed force, European or Arab, could probably do the job. It would take a lot longer with a far more casualties. The U.S. military, further, is so much more advanced than any other army, any coalition would be only a fig leaf. As in the Persian Gulf in 1991, and in Kosovo and again in Afghanistan, the principal fighting would be done under American command.

4. Finally, Why Iraq? Why now? To which the simple answer is: Why not, and if not now, when? The U.S., from the time of its founding, has asserted a promotion and defense of fundamental human rights. (“When in the course of human events.We find these truths to be self-evident.”) Throughout its history, the government has tended to shy away from this proclaimed value, and other times it has liberally mixed it with heavy doses of self- or special-interests. It has nonetheless been a persistent value, and has its place among the considerations for both domestic (civil rights, suffrage, child labor laws, etc.) and foreign policy. Some might object that is imposing Western values on other societies. One does not have to be an absolutist or a chauvinist to recognize that certain values that pertain to the dignity of each person’s body, mind and spirit might be universal.

More to the point, I think, is the issue of what one can do when. Universal human rights might be asserted for everywhere, but they cannot always be implemented everywhere at the same time. Consider North Korea and Iraq. Which has a better chance of being freed from tyranny? North Korea is impoverished with a highly regimented and poorly educated population. Iraq has considerable natural resources, a rather loose societal and economic structure and relatively good education. If the police state were removed (one way or another) from both states, I imagine Iraqis might experience some genuine political freedom, while North Korea would probably move into another form of debilitating autocracy, like Belarus or Liberia.

The call for greater human rights in Iraq has been made in certain circles for nearly twenty years now. The voices were muted and mostly lost in the mixed of issues ranging from the waning Cold War, militant Iran, emerging China, and the Oslo peace process. Two developments have changed the perspectives. First, there was the bombing of Kosovo, a sustained military action on the part of the U.S. and NATO specifically in response to a human rights crisis. The intervention opened the door in American political debate for future similar actions. The second was September 11. The American body politic was prepared for the use of force within the context of self-defense, even if the threat was no longer clear and immediate. The time is right. If Saddam Hussein could have been forced out of power years ago – even before the Gulf War – -it should have been done.

How Not to Go to War

The case for intervention in Iraq is admittedly pragmatic and inconsistent. It has at its core, however, a fundamental concern for human rights, and the recognition that, on the one hand, Saddam Hussein is irretrievably a potential source of a great deal of human suffering, and, on the other hand, that his removal presents a realistic possibility of genuine good. This assessment leaves just one strong argument in opposition: the Bush Administration is in favor of it!

Without a doubt, this administration makes very many people ill-at-ease. Although the White House repeats continuously that it is speaking with moral clarity, it is precisely its morality that is in doubt. At heart, it has been the shifting reasons and rationales for attempting this intervention. Is it to stop terrorism? To make a rogue nation comply with U.N. resolutions? To bring freedom and democracy to a beleaguered people? To protect the American people from an imminent or potential threat? All of these reasons have been proffered. The fundamental problem is not merely that as rationales they are not quite in consonance with each other, nor necessarily supported by the facts on the ground, it is also that they give the unmistakable aura (whether actually true or not) that the real reason is being hidden.

There are at least three unspoken motivations for military action against Iraq: completing the job that Bush senior left unfinished, gaining control of the second largest oil reserve in the world, and allowing Israel to have unfettered dominion over the West Bank and Gaza. The White House and supporters have firmly rejected these notions as aims. Maybe this is the case. Unfortunately, these statements have not been backed up with any clear policy or action that would confirm that the accusations are unfounded.

Completing “Daddy’s” war frames the confrontation with Iraq as basically America’s fight. The Administration’s slowness and diffidence regarding the assembly of a broad international coalition continues to give the impression that the U.S. is prepared to go it alone.

In the last State of the Union address, Bush did make a gesture toward reduction of dependence on oil by announcing a dramatic increase in funding for hydrogen cell research. Not only has the initiative turned out to be much less than it first appeared, it has not been accompanied by any other effort reduce (or even to slow an increase in) oil usage. Such lack of concern about energy consumption is particularly unseemly in an Administration whose two top positions are held by people heavily involved in the oil industry.

Finally, the focus on Iraq has represented a clear shift away from Israel-Palestine, which seemed to occupy most of the world up through the first half of 2002. Administration efforts to move toward resolution or even reduction of the violence and tension in that region has always been fitful, and has essentially disappeared. In the dissolution of the Oslo process, Israel has reasserted real and potential authority over the West Bank and Gaza, and the U.S. has shown mostly indifference.

For many, the argument in support of intervention has had to be promoted in spite of the White House, rather than in line with it.

Sideline: Saddam and Hitler

The pivotal point of the debate over Iraq has been over Saddam Hussein’s intentions. Hussein did use chemical weapons on Kurds in the latter years of the Iran-Iraq war. He did invade Kuwait. He has maintained a cruel and oppressive police state. He has sought nuclear armaments, and had a stockpile of chemical arms. What we know he had was mostly destroyed by the mid-90s, along with much of the weapon-making capability that Iraq had in the 80s. It is however quite naïve to suggest that Iraq is currently defenseless and no longer dangerous. There are weapons and a capability that has not been accounted for since inspectors left the country five years ago. The critical question that has animated much of the argument over intervention has been just how dangerous is Hussein and Iraq now, and how dangerous will, or can, they become.

Those who suggest that the danger Iraq currently and potentially poses is overblown, are countered with charges of appeasement. More than once, a commentator or defender of pre-emptive action has drawn a parallel with England (Chamberlain) and Germany (Hitler) in the 1930s. Without casting judgment on the advisability of intervention, the connection with Hitler is specious.

First, Hussein is no Hitler, either in deeds or attitude. As I noted before, he is probably closer to Stalin, which many people might conclude is bad enough. More to the point, Iraq is not 1930s Germany. In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went to Berlin and met with the relatively new (five years) Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. He negotiated away the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia-Sudetenland-and declared as a result that ‘peace in our time’ had been achieved. A leader of the Conservative opposition in England, Winston Chuchill, strenuously objected to the negotiation. A little over a year later, Europe was plunged into war.

Conventional thinking has sided with Churchill, particularly in his heroic resistance to the German air assault in 1940. Chamberlain is treated as the naïve, foolish gentleman who frittered away the excellent opportunity to stop Hitler much earlier. One cannot disagree that the Prime Minister was excessively optimistic in his assessment of peace, but he might not have been so naïve or foolish.

Germany might have been defeated and impoverished following the First World War, but it was nonetheless the most sophisticated and powerful industrial society in Europe. It had excellent natural resources and superb technical expertise. In the five years that Hitler assumed power, he had begun to bend those talents and material toward rebuilding a war machine. By 1938, Germany was considerably more formidable than any other single European country. Chamberlain undoubtedly knew this. Even in a coalition with France and other European countries, military confrontation would have been risky. In essence, he was negotiating from weakness. Only some concession would undercut the pretext for war that Hitler was probably looking for, and buy the time necessary for Great Britain to begin a rearmament campaign of its own. Yes, Chamberlain underestimated Hitler’s malevolence and megalomania. Churchill, however, was the recipient of the wherewithal that his disgraced predecessor had begun to assemble, that allowed him to check the German onslaught in the first place.

Saddam Hussein is no Hitler, and Iraq is not 1930s Germany. The U.S., not to mention most of the rest of Europe, are not negotiating out of weakness. Hussein’s leadership would be obliterated in a manner similar to the Taliban of Afghanistan if his country were actually materially connected to a terror attack anywhere in the Western world. Opposition to war in Iraq may or may not be the best course, but it certainly is not a form of 1930s appeasement.

The Irresponsibility of Responsibility

To summarize up to now, a good (both in the sense of being sound, and representing an ethical standpoint) argument can be made for action in Iraq. The argument, however, has been more hindered than promoted by the policies and pronouncements of the Bush administration. What is going on here?

I want to look at this issue from two sides. The first is a guess about how things have become so bad. The second represents even greater speculation about whether things are not as bad as they seem. Please note that I am placing myself firmly out on a rather flimsy limb. I have no idea what President Bush or his most influential advisers are thinking (if they are thinking at all). So far, however, no shots have been fired. Only when there is a resolution, one way or another, of the current situation, will truly reasonable analysis be possible. So, what I am doing now is more a meditation on possibilities. I think there are useful lessons and insights even in this highly speculative exercise.

Why is the situation so bad, with much of the world (including steadfast ally England) thinking that the U.S. is much more of a danger than Iraq? I start with the NY Times obituary of Walter Rostow a few weeks ago. Rostow was one of the “best and the brightest,” David Halberstam’s expression for the Kennedy-Johnson era foreign policy team that dragged the U.S. into the muck of the Vietnam War. Rostow himself might have been the best and brightest. He has always been identified as one of the most persistent and articulate promoters for increased involvement in Southeast Asia. He was supremely confident and highly optimistic in the probability of success in his policy decisions. The Times obit noted that Rostow chose not to discuss Vietnam very much after he left public service, but he never retracted his position that his advice was not sound, only that it was not properly or sufficiently enthusiastically implemented.

Rostow’s example represents two significant flaws that might currently underpin the Bush approach to Iraq. The first is the combination of optimism and confidence. Such an attitude does not arise out of foolhardiness. I do not doubt for a moment that Rostow was a thoughtful and insightful individual. No, I think the flaw is a deeper one that arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of power and leadership. I will explain through an anecdote:

A number of years ago, I participated in a workshop on leadership. The facilitator presented us with the problem that sought to emphasize the difference between positions and interests. Two people are in a library on a hot day. One opens the window. A few minutes later, the other shuts it. The first opens it again. The second shuts it, and so it goes. Clearly, these are their positions: one wants an open library window, the other shut. Their interests are however, that one is hot and wants ventilation. The other has papers spread on a table that are disturbed by the draft caused from an open window.

The facilitator then asked for a solution. Someone suggested that they open another window. “Very good,” the facilitator said. “Now, come up with other solutions.” At that point, I asked why. If we have come up with a perfectly good solution that satisfies both sides’ interests, why should we look further. The facilitator answered, that one should never be limited to just one good solution. Perhaps, no other window in the library will open.

The Administration seems to have hit upon what they consider to be a perfectly adequate solution to the perceived problem, and all other avenues – some potentially better, others not as good – have been bracketed out. [As one pundit put it: When you have a hammer in your hand, everything starts to look like a nail.] This attitude, exemplified by Walter Rostow, leads to the second flaw, a cramped understanding of responsibility.

Responsibility has two connotations. One is the standard of achievement (or failure) for a current situation. Who’s responsibility is the current crisis in Iraq; meaning, who takes the credit or blame. The second is in connection to “response,” specifically the obligation to respond to a need or request. Inherent in the second connotation – and masked in the first – is an awareness of another entity making the request to which you respond. At its heart, responsibility must always start with response.

If responsibility begins with response, then we should ask: respond to what? Respond to whom? When everyone exercises responsibility, they are responding to something. The failure that was exemplified by Walt Rostow, and seems to be repeated by the current Administration, is an unwillingness to respond enough. The beginning of responsibility is in responding to everything. There are the urgings of supporters and the demurrals of opponents; there is history, tradition, and broadly accepted standards of conduct; and there is the prompting of your own heart. All must be listened to; all must be taken into account and evaluated. And even as a course of action is determined, responsibility demands that one continue to respond, to hear all the voices. Throughout the whole process, from the initial demand to act through its final resolution, responsibility never ends.

Most of us tend to limit our responsibility. We choose a course of action, sometimes barely aware of what combination of demands, exigencies and prejudices led to the choice, and then bracket out any arguments or developments that might halt or alter our action. And if it fails, so sure are we of the initial rightness of the course, we can only blame others or circumstances beyond our control. Hence, Walter Rostow remained unapologetic.

There is one other dynamic in this ir-responsibility: as one has more power and authority, the personal sense of responsibility – which actually should become greater, as more people are potentially affected by the decisions made – tends to reduce. The “response” of responsibility often becomes more limited, more circumscribed to a smaller circle of voices. In its place is a sense that the decision made and the action taken is the responsibility itself. Hence, the Bush Administration strenuously claims that it is exhibiting the responsibility of its great power, all the while it is less and less willing to respond.

On the Other Hand

The great sage Hillel used to say: Do not judge another person until you have stood in his place [Avot 2:4]. Much of this essay has comprised a judgment of the Bush Administration as it seems to rush toward military intervention in Iraq. From my observation post, I tend to see an arrogant, irresponsible and muddled exercise of power. This assertion is reinforced by the impression of an intellectually lazy, authoritarian President, whose advisors are firmly embedded in the military-industrial complex. Must we conclude that there is no considered thoughtfulness operating within the White House; that the Administration would actually commit to a war for which the risks that would arise from anything but the absolute best-case scenario are so enormous and far-reaching? Are they all that venal and/or stupid?

I could be wrong, but I really wish to believe this is not the case. Let me, therefore, attempt to lay out a scenario that suggests some modicum of insight, wisdom and prudence within White House policy. I do so for the reasons I have already laid out. We must consider alternatives, and we must take seriously all the voices speaking to us, even – especially – those we might find objectionable, if we are going to be responsible.

To begin, what do we really want? It is not the disarmament of Iraq. Any reasonable examination of the facts at hand suggest that Iraq is not currently particularly dangerous. It had its arms cache and manufacturing capabilities rather thoroughly dismantled as part of the earlier inspection and disarmament protocol following the Gulf War. We can assume that Hussein has indeed been trying to hide some chemical or biological weapons, but they are almost certainly only a portion of the capacity he had in the 1980s, and they are old and degraded. Disarmament would be only a marginal reduction of the threat that Iraq poses today.

What is really wanted is the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. Like Milosovic in Yugoslavia, Mobuto in Zaire, Marcos of the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, Hussein is an irredeemable scourge to his own people. Further, the misery that resides within Iraq has in the past spilled out beyond its borders. As long as Saddam Hussein resides in control there can only be further misery and danger. Sooner or later, Hussein must go. Why, for the sake of people’s lives should it be later?

For the sake of people’s lives, however, how can it be earlier if the only means of accomplishing that is war? Although it both prolongs misery in the country and creates some heightened risk outside it, the current containment (that is, the later removal of Hussein by age, illness or palace coup) of Iraq in which it is maintained as a relatively impoverished and weak power, is certainly preferable to the ravages of war. The alternative is a high-probability campaign of pressuring Hussein to leave on his own.

The key to a campaign is dependent first on the belief that Hussein is not suicidal. This surmise tends to fit into his history of him doing whatever he can do in order to remain alive. Thus, an effort must be mounted to create a truly credible threat to his life; not assassination, of course (a terrible precedent), but rather invasion with the aim being the elimination of Iraq’s regime. This threat requires two elements: a recognizably powerful nation making nothing but hawkish noises, and an initial and “principled” opposition so that military action is not set off prematurely. Then, the pressure must be steadily raised. The threatening power must be loud, shrill, virtually obsessive in its wish to flatten its enemy. The opposition must appear to be restraining the power by the skin of its teeth, yet also permitting a process that moves forward that continues to put pressure on Iraq.

Regime change cannot be publicly called for in the international arena, but a thorough disarmament can. Of course, the method by which this disarmament is going to take place is designed to be flawed in and of itself, so that the inspection group can never actually certify that the goal has been achieved. Remember, disarmament is not the goal; regime change is. The “principled” opposition will one-by-one sadly and reluctantly conclude that Iraq’s defiance of U.N. resolutions is irremediable, and agree that military intervention is necessary. Hussein will be pushed to the end of its rope, with only the choices of certain death and destruction, or an honorable retirement in some willing host country left.

If this is the plan, then the Administration’s role is precisely to seem impetuous and irresponsible. Nations such as Germany, Russia and maybe even France (I personally think that Russia is the linchpin) take the principled opposition role, preparing to turn at the proper moment. Saddam Hussein goes into exile, and the international community both pats itself on the back and praises the U.S. for its restraint.

Is this scenario fantasy? Perhaps, but it also saves me from having a blinkered opinion of the Bush Administration, which is so satisfying on other grounds. Further, for all its noise about going into Iraq alone, and for all its build-up and preparations for war, the Administration continues to allow the diplomatic process to move ahead. The hot dusty weather in Iraq is fast approaching and no shot has yet been fired.

What Now?

In many ways I believe that thoughtful Jews have been backed into a corner. What do you do when a right intention is backed for all the wrong reasons? Any initiative involving the Middle East must be of close interest to Jews. There are always implications for Israel.

Official Israel, whether Labor or Likud, has expressed support for the American position. What else can they do? The U.S. has been a consistent supporter and patron of Israel’s interests. Whatever private reservations any Israeli in a public position might have, it would not be wise to voice them. I have no doubt, however, that there are concerns.

A neutralized Iraq can only be a good thing. Iraq, particularly its Ba’athist ideology, has been one of the most consistent and strident opponents of Israel’s existence. The removal of Saddam Hussein would definitely relieve Israelis of a constant source of anxiety. It might relieve them of having to deal with the Palestinians as well. President Bush has said that he will concentrate on a Palestinian State once Iraq is disposed of. Even the most optimistic outcome in an Iraq war would leave the U.S. to be heavily occupied with clean up and nation building for a number of years to come. From the start, the Bush Administration has been reluctant to do anything with this issue, except in the most superficial way. The loss of a good patron and important supporter in Saddam Hussein will leave the Palestinians severely crippled. Their aspirations would be dependent more than ever on the good will of the Israelis themselves. I think this situation might engender one of the most significant internal crises since the 1982 incursion into Lebanon.

This circumstance is based on a very good outcome in the ouster of Hussein. Anything less than good – military setbacks, severe terrorist reactions, volatility or chaos among the liberated Iraqis, a severe American backlash to the cost and violence of being in Iraq – and the situation becomes more parlous for Israel. Palestinian militants will certainly take heart. Europe, much more important to Israel’s political and economic fortunes than normally recognized, might wish to be more distanced from the U.S. and its dependent Jewish State. The worst-case would be a White House so beleaguered by events not quite turning out as they optimistically predicted, attempting to find political cover by intimating that their actions were being driven by Israel and its American supporters (read Jews) all along. We, Americans and Jews, have been pulled into a very high risk game.

The natural thing to do is to cast blame: it is the fault of September 11, the need to distract for a faltering economy, military adventurers in the White House, or France and Germany, Arab despots and Muslim fanatics. There are plenty of places to pin guilt. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel so famously put it: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.

We must remember that Bush did not invite the attacks of September 11, and Saddam Hussein did not order them. Yet, the spectacle and tragedy of that day, combined with a massive complex of other events, has thrown the two into direct confrontation, and also has drawn most of the rest of the world into the crisis. Just because the current predicament can be laid to the irresponsible belligerence of the White House and the irresponsible cruelty and defiance of the Iraqi leadership, our own responsibility is not relieved.

We must discern and declare our own interests. I do not mean our position, pro or against the White House, but our interests. How do we balance our wishes for security and well-being, with the traditional rights and safeguards of our country? How do we envision a peaceful and secure Israel in the midst of the Muslim Middle East? How are cruel and dangerous tyrannies to be opposed and suppressed? It is our responsibility to speak our opposition to the Administration’s bullying preparation for war, while acknowledging the validity of its (and America’s) concerns about a potential source of anxiety and insecurity. It is our responsibility to evaluate the risks and costs of armed intervention in Iraq, with the risks and costs of the current program of containment, and to recognize that the choice is neither obvious nor simple. Finally, it is our responsibility to dream dreams-of a secure Israel in the midst of a stable and democratic Middle East, and of a prosperous and just United States-without either giving up on our dreams because they are fantasies, or assuming because we can dream them they must become real.

There are plenty of dreams out there, and we all must wake up.