A few days before the fall of Constantinople to the armies of Ottoman jihad, some six centuries ago, a strange debate was taking place inside the imperial city. Constantinople then had a very loud senate, stubborn theologians, and merciless philosophers. It was the heir to Greco-Roman civilization, but also host to hot debates — so hot that they effectively isolated the city’s elites from the realities of then-world politics. The political establishment of the Eastern Rome was consumed in complex rhetoric — what historians would later call “Byzantine debate.” Just days before the city fell to the Islamic armies that were surrounding its walls, a rabid debate was splitting the lawmakers and their respective intellectuals. Was it about how to defend the state, or how to protect the people? Neither. The sultan and his men were perplexed as to what was on their enemies’ agenda. He had to send spies for intelligence. Upon their return from the mission, they delivered the secret. The political establishment of the Byzantines was sharply split over a major question which superseded everything else, including the marching jihad. And that summa matter was: What is the sex of the angels? Are they males or females?
Thousands of mujahedeen was closing in from all directions, yet in the minds of the most advanced elites of the Mediterranean, determining the gender of the angels was more important. The sultan understood that Constantinople was ripe for the taking. Indeed, it fell like an old apple into his hands — and with it, the last great city of Christendom in the East.
Six hundred years later, another debate is now underway in the new Rome. Senators, intellectuals, and the theologians of politics are busy with the new “American debate.” The goal within the Beltway today is not to analyze the root causes of the new jihad, but to debate the technical grounds upon which Washington removed Saddam Hussein from power. The raging question of today is about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The question is not about the regime’s past possession of these weapons, nor it is about the past use of these deadly agents on tens of thousands of civilians — two grounds which alone should have warranted an intervention, no question asked. But the so-called “American debate” is not concerned with the lives of Iraqis so much as it seeks to safeguard political careers in Washington. The serious questions are not even about the potential use of these mass-arms had we intervened in other ways, or not been successful.
So, what is the debate about?
The Byzantines of the Americas are more sophisticated than the Greeks of Constantinople. They want to determine whether the information about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction warranted the intervention at all. Read it in reverse. Had Saddam not had weapons of mass destruction at the time of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, Washington would be at fault, according to our Byzantine investigators. So, too, even if the Baghdad Baath had possessed these doom devices in the past. And although Chemical Ali has suffocated thousands of Kurds in Halabja and although bio-agents were used on Iranians — that alone is not grounds for an intervention, in the minds of hopeful politicians. Unlike for Bosnia and Kosovo, where no chemicals were used, the sophisticated elites are looking to gain the moral ground when it comes to Iraq. In fact, they have lost it.
While, in the Balkans, it sufficed to see thousands of civilians fleeing Serbian tanks to send the F16 over Belgrade, in Iraq, seeing the tens of thousands of bodies excavated from mass graves was not yet a legitimate ground to legitimize the Marines deployment. In Yugoslavia, survivors of war convinced U.S. legislators to send their men and women to the rescue, but in Iraq, mass death is still only statistics. Isn’t it strange to see some of our legislators and their intellectual backers — impatient to “see” the weapons, but totally ignoring the corpses? It is so Kafkaesque to observe those critics rabidly raging in American politics on the technical matter of where the weapons are, even as their hearts and minds have disregarded the mass victims of the Baath’s greater killing machine.
Where were our politicians when the mass graves in Iraq were found? Digging trenches for upcoming elections. They have totally missed the meaning of the changes taking place in Iraq, in the region, and worldwide. They have not even understood the parameters of post-September 11. In their minds, the War against Terrorism amounts merely to collecting information about al Qaeda and finding the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. It’s simple, it’s square. Indeed, it is not so different from the O. J. Simpson, Chandra Levy, and Peterson cases. Where is the smoking gun? Where is the knife? That’s the best analogy we can use in international politics. The Byzantines didn’t do any better back in the 15th century. That jihad armies were surrounding the city, remained to be proved. One Byzantine legislator accused the then-emperor of lying to the people. “He told us those weapons outside will be used against us,” the hopeful legislator screamed. “He has no proofs, how can he mobilize the army?” That member of the Byzantine Senate was furious at Caesar — because he had no proofs that the forces below the towers were indeed a direct threat to Constantinople! Besides, Eastern Rome had more important issues to deal with: the sex of the angels, for example. That matter was not yet resolved. How can we send our armies to meet jihad when we still haven’t figured out the weight of God’s angels?
That was centuries ago. And today, America is repeating the play. If we still cannot see why we went to Iraq, even after we’ve gotten there, even if we don’t see yet the biochemical elements we are looking for still — then we are blind. The weapons of mass destruction exist. Are they missiles that were not used because we were there to prevent them from being used, or rifles and knives that slaughtered half a million men and women? There is one answer: Mass destruction occurred, and that matters. If for that reason alone, our intervention was more than warranted — it was obligatory, and unfortunately to many, it was late. We may find some remnant of the illegal arms, we may find more, or may just miss them. But the graves are there, in front of our eyes. In Washington, however, we must not be so trivial to unleash our own weapons of mass distraction. We need to look harder at whom and what is happening outside the Walls.
— Walid Phares is a professor of comparative politics at Florida Atlantic University and an MSNBC analyst.