President George W. Bush has often urged Americans to embrace a “culture of life.” In the future, this heartfelt call may well be viewed as the hallmark of the Bush presidency–even though George W. Bush has also led this country during a time of war. Many Americans may not fully appreciate how central the president’s culture-of-life values are to his policies in the war on terror, both in Afghanistan and Iraq–but I have no doubt.
Today, like most Americans, I take for granted living in a democratic society where the individual is valued, and no one–including the government–is above the law. But I also know how unique and precious such societies are. I grew up in the Soviet Union, where the individual’s interests were always subordinated to the whims of the state, and where the government was the law. Even so, my parents and grandparents endured much worse. They lived in Stalin’s Russia, and they knew real fear–not just occasionally, but every day–fear of the state and its agents. Indeed, many people during that era did not sleep well at night, waiting for the knock at the door, announcing that the security police had come to pick them up and cart them off to the Gulag, or be shot.
Before America and its allies toppled Saddam Hussein, this was also the world in which all of Iraq lived. Only one life mattered in that tortured country, and that was the life of Saddam Hussein–a man who modeled his regime on Stalin’s. The entire apparatus of Iraqi government was organized and operated to ensure Saddam’s continued rule. His opponents, real and imagined, were killed or driven into exile. The Iraqi army was trained and deployed to defend Saddam Hussein, not the Iraqi people. Indeed, he used that army, and its chemical weapons, against them. The chemical-, biological-, and nuclear-weapons programs, which brought international sanctions and ultimately war on Iraq, were Saddam’s programs, designed to serve his purpose of self-aggrandizement.
In finally deciding to depose Saddam Hussein by force, President Bush did not “rush to war,” as Senator Kerry claims. Rather, he made a reasoned and cautious assessment of the situation in Iraq where, after more than ten years of sanctions, Saddam Hussein continued to rule more absolutely than any of the Caesars. He also made a reasoned assessment of the danger this man posed to the United States. That danger was real. While Senator Kerry has tried to spin a recent–and subsequently discredited–New York Times story about a few tons of high explosives that U.S. troops allegedly failed to secure, he does not seem to be troubled by the fact that Saddam’s regime had stockpiled hundreds of thousands of tons of munitions and ordnance, which he could freely share with numerous terrorist organizations. (Saddam’s Iraq also had a long history of supporting various terrorist groups.) Since the preferred mode of operations by such terrorist organizations is to attack innocent civilians, allowing Saddam to remain in power posed a grave and continuing threat to the United States and our friends and allies.
At the most fundamental level, Saddam hated America because America stood between him and his dreams of dominating the Middle East as a new Saladin–the medieval leader who had briefly united the Arab world against the Crusaders. As he had proven over and again, anyone who got in Saddam’s way–man, woman, or child–was a legitimate target. Indeed, Saddam’s regime was the first government in history to institutionalize rape as an instrument of political control. President Bush decided not to wait for the blow–and someday a peaceful, free, and democratic Iraq will thank us for it.
Much the same can be said of Afghanistan. Although Saddam Hussein’s regime is often described as “secular” and the Taliban’s as “theocratic,” their respective attitudes towards human life were nearly identical. Under the Taliban’s brand of despotism, neither political nor religious dissent was tolerated, and the state’s agents swept through city and countryside seeking out, and quickly punishing, anyone who failed to abide by the group’s malignant interpretation of the Koran. Individual men counted for little under the Taliban, and individual women counted for even less; educating girls was considered a waste of resources. Indeed, the Taliban practiced the most odious form of gender apartheid in human history: Women could not seek employment, use medical care, or even walk down the street without the approval of their male guardians.
Because of President Bush’s leadership and resolve, all of this has changed. Afghanistan has just held its first free elections in generations, and its people are rebuilding their shattered society. Women and girls again walk the streets without fear, and have returned to the country’s schools and universities. The Taliban movement, which had treated Osama bin Laden as an “honored guest” even after the September 11 attacks, now hides in caves. Much remains to be done, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but the seeds of the most fundamental of American values, respect for the individual human life, have been well and truly planted.
–David B. Rivkin Jr. is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Baker & Hostetler LLP. He has served at the Justice Department and White House during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.