The author is a political scientist and has recently published the book, Communalism Contested: Religion, Modernity and Secularization
Have pity on the liberals — whether American, Indian or otherwise — who would defend the impending American attack on Iraq. They cannot avoid making moral contortions of various kinds. They resort to two basic justifications. First, the Saddam Hussein regime is repressive and undemocratic, and must be overthrown in the name of a larger, regional and global, good. Second, Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and the United States of America is entitled to rid itself of this danger which, therefore, has not only regional but also global reach. Washington has used both lines of argument. It seeks justification through the United Nations and wants the cover provided by international law and norms which, incidentally, outlaw “regime change” through external military intervention, merely on the grounds of a regime being internally undemocratic. Therefore, Washington gives as its official justification the claim that Iraq is not disarming in compliance with imperatives mediated by the UN.
If an American attack is justifiable because of the “wider common good”, regardless of the UN, then the question of whether Iraq is disarming sufficiently or not is irrelevant. Even if it were disarming, the US would still be justified in forcibly carrying out a regime change. In which case, the US government is being thoroughly hypocritical in trying to pretend otherwise. It is wrong to want a UN cover, and liberals supportive of the US behaviour on these grounds should openly say so, and at the very least, criticize the US for its dishonest and unnecessary dissimulation vis-à-vis the UN and the general public, American or otherwise.
Even if the Saddam Hussein regime were fully disarmed of WMD and there were no serious evidence to link Baghdad to al Qaida, the US is fully justified in attacking the Iraqi regime. How many liberals have had the honesty to say this bluntly' Even if there is no threat to the US, it is apparently justified in the “wider common good” to overthrow an undemocratic and repressive regime!
Is not the adoption of such a position an extraordinary moral contortion' Is not the fact that forcible US intervention against a country will only be done selectively, that is, against some regimes, and justified selectively, hypocritical' One only needs to point out that Israel has WMD and that it is in illegal occupation (for 36 years) of Palestinian territory and maintains that control through brutal violence. Covering up this reality requires other moral contortions to be undertaken. The liberal has to be silent over Israel’s WMD, or claim that it is justified for Israel to have them, or that forcibly ending Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1991 was justified, but that the same principle must not be applied to Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
The political contortions do not stop here. To claim that the primary purpose of US intervention in Iraq is the pursuit of the “greater democratic good” requires denying that the primary purpose of the US assault can be anything else — such as other wider and deeper geo-political aims including the politics of oil. Since liberals supporting the US often double up as realpolitikers; this temporary suspension or downgrading of practical thinking on their part is revealing, to say the least. This is not all. If one justifies a US war on the grounds of humanitarian concern, then what about the UN sanctions since 1991 that have caused incredible suffering for the ordinary people of Iraq'
Here the political posture adopted by our liberal takes two standard forms — either silence on this whole issue of the inhumanness of these sanctions (and the role of the US in instigating and maintaining them), or recourse to the argument that the Saddam Hussein regime is to blame for this suffering by not properly complying with the UN resolutions concerning disarmament. This is to claim that it is justified to cause, by external means, immense additional suffering to innocent civilians already suffering from internal repression, that it is morally permissible and legitimate to deliberately and dramatically increase human suffering as a pressure tactic that might politically weaken a repressive regime.
Of course, the whole business of justifying such UN sanctions against some countries accused of having WMD but not others is itself highly hypocritical, but that is a separate issue. However, since the US attack on Iraq is to be justified outside the framework of the UN, liberal supporters should not be making references to the issue of Iraqi disarmament or to matters like sanctions connected to it.
What about the liberal who takes the other line of justification, who claims that the threat of Baghdad’s WMD is the main reason why a USarmed assault is necessary' Here, the moral contortions take other directions. First, there is, again, an obvious hypocrisy in that no UN action, let alone military assault, is advocated for so many other countries (including the US itself) that have WMD, whose possession and maintenance are justified in the name of their national sovereign right to protect themselves.
So our liberal (note the language used by the likes not only of George W. Bush but of his supporters like Tony Blair, Jack Straw and many others) has to claim that the Saddam Hussein regime is distinctively evil and therefore distinctively dangerous. To bring out this supposedly distinctive evil, clear criteria for judging its evilness must itself be identified. But any effort to do so, such as Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in wartime (the US did the same in Vietnam) or his illegal invasion of Kuwait (Israel in the occupied territories) would reveal the absence of any such distinctiveness. The “unique” evil of the current Iraqi regime is simply asserted and it should be unquestioningly accepted.
So we come back to the issue of disarming Iraq of its WMD. Here, the problem for the US and its liberal cheer-leaders is that the most comprehensive and systematic programme of inspection, monitoring and destruction of WMD stocks and capabilities is being undertaken by the UN, not by the US. In such a situation, to defend nevertheless a US war on Iraq on disarmament grounds requires our liberal to claim that the US knows better than the UN the current state of affairs in Iraq although Washington’s attempts at showing this purportedly superior knowledge have been farcical.
Moreover, when the UN today says that fulfilling its programme of ending all stocks and capabilities of Iraq in regard to WMD will only take some months (not years), to still justify a US assault on Iraq means rejecting this course simply and solely on the grounds that the US knows better than the UN; that is, trust the former not the latter despite the absence of any serious objective criteria for doing so. The search for a morally objective basis for evaluation should be traded in for an unquestioning trust in the US.
If only liberals would simply declare that the US government should do whatever it felt necessary to secure its “national interest”, overriding all considerations of legality and morality, or that other governments should give their support to the US on similar “national interest” grounds, then justice no longer comes into the picture and it would be pointless to criticize them for their moral failures in this regard. But in wanting to portray their stand as also just and moral they only end up exposing their deceits and contortions.