The Democratic party is about to commit political jujitsu against itself. In their manic efforts to discredit the war in Iraq, liberals are accusing the Bush administration of having deliberately and deceitfully exaggerated the threat Iraq posed to the United States. They point out that no stockpiles of biological or chemical weapons have so far been located in Iraq, and have lately seized on the administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein was seeking to purchase uranium from Niger as a blatant deception. Their larger point seems to be that absent a clear military threat to America a war to oust Saddam Hussein from power would not have been justified. But this goes against everything the Left has argued for the last decade about the rights and wrongs of war making.
The war in Iraq was fought for several very specific reasons. Indeed, it is rare in American history that an administration has been so careful to spell out the causes for going to war. First, said the Bush administration, only a war fought now will prevent a sworn enemy from threatening us later with weapons of mass destruction. Hussein’s use of chemical and biological weapons against his neighbors as well as his own people combined with his efforts to develop a nuclear device conjured up the very real possibility of an attack on the United States that would have made September 11 look like child’s play. In the next place, argued the administration, regime change in Iraq was necessary to disrupt the possibility of an emerging Iraq-al-Qaeda alliance — an alliance that would put the vast resources of an oil-producing rogue state at the disposal of fanatical terrorists who had already demonstrated their intent and ability to target American cities.
And, finally: The Bush administration argued in favor of going to war on humanitarian grounds — in order to liberate the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator, one who regularly employed poison gas, torture, ethnic cleansing, and mass rape as his preferred methods of “statecraft.” Taken together, our goals were to defend ourselves and to bring a more decent and democratic rule to the Iraqi people.
But now after the successful prosecution of the war the Democrats have cried foul. They are doing their level best to discredit the war by putting the first two pillars of the administration’s case for war in doubt.
Well, let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the Democrats were able to make their case. What if it did indeed turn out that Iraq posed no more threat to the United States than, well, Niger?
The upshot would be that the Iraq invasion was not in our “national interest,” at least narrowly conceived, and that we thus fought the war exclusively for humanitarian reasons. This was Bush’s third rationale for the war, and it has proven impregnable. The Left has had no success in casting doubt on the monstrousness of Hussein’s rule. Every day our soldiers uncover new evidence of mass graves, and journalists find new victims of Hussein’s torture chambers, who, now free, are willing to tell their horrific stories of limbs amputated and wives raped. On a scale of ghastly horror Hussein’s regime ranked high, and the humanitarian imperative was clear.
So, one can’t help but wonder why the Democrats are complaining. Why do they not say, as Prime Minister Blair recently did, that “if we are wrong [about Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction], we will have destroyed a threat that at its least is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive”?
But the Democrats’ campaign to undermine the justifications for the Iraq war is stranger yet. In the 1990s, liberal Democrats joined the international Left in support of the idea of “humanitarian war.” Having watched international organizations and the liberal democracies stand idly by as genocide was wrought in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, liberals rallied behind the notion of using the armed forces of nation-states not to further the national interests of particular states — the classical understanding of the uses of state power — but for humanitarian, altruistic ends.
The paradigmatic case to emerge in the 1990s was Kosovo. The Left rallied behind Clinton’s use of force to turn back Milosevic on the grounds that our motives were pure; that our military intervention was not tainted by “narrow” reasons of state. Said the New York Times approvingly at the time: “This was the first military conflict since the end of the cold war fought primarily for humanitarian purposes. . . . The immediate hazard in Kosovo was a demonic assault on the principles of a civilized society.”
Now, one might argue over whether the fate of Kosovo truly had no bearing on our national interest. But there can be little doubt that that’s how the Left saw the matter. As far as they were concerned what made the war legitimate — even something to be celebrated — was its pure humanitarianism. Indeed, that’s why many Democrats who today raise questions about the Iraq war are in favor of sending American troops to Liberia. No obvious national interest there.
What, then, makes the case of Iraq different from Kosovo? Or from Liberia? Clearly, the former was waged not for humanitarian reasons alone but also in defense of the United States. The Iraq war was understood to be both a strategic necessity and a humanitarian endeavor. But Democrats today complain that the strategic element was overblown. Well, where does that line of reasoning take us? One would have to conclude that we accomplished no more, and no less, in Iraq than we did in Kosovo — the humanitarian rescue of broken bodies and broken lives from a sadistic dictator.
Whether that is sufficient justification for waging war is debatable, today as it was in the 1990s, but certainly it was not Bush’s sole reason for launching the Iraq war. Thus it is really the Democrats who have considerable explaining to do: Why have they turned their backs on their doctrine of “humanitarian war” — if that’s indeed all our intervention in Iraq turns out to have been about? By their own political principles, the less threat Iraq posed to the United States, the more reason there was to wage humanitarian war. So, just who is deceiving whom?
— Adam Wolfson is editor of The Public Interest.