The author is professor of philosophy, law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
Even as a war led by the United States of America against Iraq seems almost inevitable, there are few clear indications of both what this war and opposition to it are really about. A good case against this war can be made, but opponents of the war are focussing too much on peripheral arguments that render them politically ineffective. It is a curious case where both supporters and opponents of the war seem guilty of a certain kind of bad faith: both employ arguments that do not carry much conviction.
Take the opponents of the war. There are many reasons to be opposed to the war. But the two most prominent arguments given are this. Either the US is undertaking the war with the basest of motives in mind, or under some delusion of grandeur. At first view, the war is prompted by an American concern for oil or by George W. Bushís concern for his own ratings in the face of a slackening American economy, not to mention his proclivity to finish Daddyís unfinished business.
While plausible, these arguments donít go very far. At this juncture, Americans have enough of a presence in west Asia and enough military might that they could secure their oil whenever they wanted to; there is no particular need for an expensive preemptive war. The effects of the war on the American economy are uncertain and could boomerang. As for George W. ís ratings, he ought to remember that his father lost an election after the victory in the last Gulf war. I suspect this is the reason why the idea that this war is simply about base motives is not flying as much as opponents of the war would like to believe.
So the second attack on the war takes the opposite course. This war really is about American grandeur. It reflects Americaís arrogance and overweening ambition, a way of compensating for its post-9/11 vulnerability by periodically reasserting the myth of its invincibility. America has an insatiable need to remind the world of its power, and it will do this mindless of the colossal human and political costs the application of its power imposes on innocent people around the world. Opposition to the war is opposition to a power that is often tempted to treat the entire world as its own playground. There is something to this argument; power in the international system is maintained only by its periodic exercise and it is inevitable that great powers will exercise their might somewhere just because they possess it.
But this argument by itself does not possess as much moral force as opponents of the war suppose. For one thing, the moral credibility of almost all the other significant actors is pretty low. Most of the Arab states have dismally failed, not only in reforming their own internal structures, but in giving west Asia a credible political shape. Even the Palestinian cause has often been undermined by other Arab states who are more keen on using the Palestinians than in getting them a credible settlement. Most Arab regim- es would prefer a sullen status quo that is becoming increasingly untenable.
Europe is beginning to talk the language of moral probity in international affairs. But in the case of the French it is difficult not to believe that their opposition to the war is something of a bargaining counter for which the right price will be extracted. And Europe is in the comfortable position of having the Americans do their work for them, of having the Americans compensate for their own complete foreign policy paralysis, without sharing any of the moral burdens of engagement. China and Russia, when they can, are too much believers in the exercise of power themselves, to be a really credible moral voice of opposition.
Indeed, most governments around the world probably oppose the war less than their overt opposition suggests; opposition is cheap talk, it allows them to feel good while letting the Americans do what most of them would wish to do anyway. Donít be surprised if the Americans do get United Nations authorization.
Then there is the argument of double standards: why is the US selective in its targets' This argument is a fine debating point, but carries less conviction than its proponents think. Most people are apt to buy the thought that the realities of international politics are messy enough so that all kinds of compromises and sins of omission are inevitable; and besides, there is something odd when this argument comes from those very people who do not want the US to police the world in the first instance. It is as if the US would be all right to take out Saddam if it took out regimes in Pakistan and North Korea as well.
The more plausible version of this argument is that the US itself has so many times backed the wrong horse, unleashed and supported the most awful powers, including Saddam himself, and is complicit in enough suffering that it cannot be trusted to be a reliable judge of whom to target and whom to spare.
This argument is true enough but it again misses its target. The fact that the Americans have done a lot of bad around the world is often not seen as much of an argument that in this particular instance they might actually do something whose long-term consequences are more defensible: install political institutions in west Asia that are much more liberal than anything that currently exists, and put on notice regimes such as Saudi Arabia. This is what centrally this war is going to be about, and opponents of the war would do themselves much greater service if they focussed on this central issue. If the Americans can carry out this project with some degree of success, arguments about their arrogance, double standards, past mistakes, will be of much less importance. Focussing on the prospects of success on this issue will also give the opponents of war greater credibility. It will save them from appearing to be motivated simply by an unthinking anti-Americanism or a resentment of power or lazy defenders of an unsustainable status quo in west Asia.
And it is here that they will also find the strongest political argument in their favour. There are good reasons to suppose that the Americans, notwithstanding possible success in Iraq, will not be able to reconstruct west Asia along the lines they supposedly want to. First, the USís own deep complicity in sustaining awful regimes in west Asia, its lack of credibility as a neutral broker, make it more likely that its intervention will generate more long-term resentment, and it is illusory to think that the Americans will be in a position to control the politics this generates.
Second, there is very little evidence that the Americans will sustain the costs of a long-term engagement; the mess they leave behind might even be worse than what exists. And finally, the honest answer is that no one, not even George W., is sure of what the geo-political consequences of this intervention are likely to be. It is not clear that the world will be a safer or a better place as a result.
To undertake a war that may potentially inflict untold suffering on large numbers of civilians, for an objective whose prospects of success remain uncertain, is surely not morally defensible. Both the defenders and opponents of the war have to consider the validity of the proposition that, on the balance of consequences, taking into account the intrinsic horrors of war, west Asia and the world at large will be better off as a result of American intervention. The US has not demonstrably made the case, and opponents of the war have not done enough to refute it.