Tuesday, February 14

What Matters About Iraq

I had the good fortune to attend a luncheon this afternoon with Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. Bremer was named Presidential Envoy to Iraq in May 2003 following the American invasion and served as the Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority for the next fourteen months. He was in Boston promoting his new book, My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope.

Bremer took part in an informal Q&A during the luncheon. During that time someone asked him about the possibility of an Iranian-style theocracy being democratically elected in Iraq, and his response was that few Iraqis want that and that most of them understand that it would lead to the breakup of their country, as the Kurds in the North would not remain in a theocratic Iraq. I followed up with a question about the likelihood of Iraq remaining a unified political entity irrespective of a theocratic regime ever coming to power. It seems to me that overwhelming evidence suggests that the only thing holding Iraq together at present is the United States military. His response was the administration’s stock response that progress is being made and that Iraq is not in danger of disintegrating into civil war. I’m not sure I agree.

The formal part of the presentation consisted of a lecture with Bremer reading a few passages from his book followed by an additional Q&A. I think it is very significant that he began by recounting the manifold atrocities committed by Saddam’s brutal and tyrannical regime and by comparing Saddam and his methods to Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. This bit of histrionics did not sit very well with me and, frankly, I consider it an insult to the audience’s intelligence. At the same time, I do not believe that a single member of the audience would contest the fact that Saddam’s regime was a brutal one.

However, I myself (and many, many others) felt the weighty presence of the white elephant in the room; namely how we got to Iraq in the first place. So I asked the ambassador the following:

Notwithstanding the brutality of the Saddam regime and the good that has so far resulted from our occupation of Iraq, if it can be shown that the American people, through their elected representatives, were prevented from making an informed decision about whether or not to go to war because a false case was made based upon manipulated intelligence pointing to a non-existent threat to our national security,

is that, in his opinion, democracy?
and doesn’t it matter?

Bremer pleaded ignorance to the whole question of false or, worse yet, deliberately manipulated intelligence. At one point he suggested that there may still be undiscovered weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He hinted at pre-war intelligence indicating that the WMD were smuggled out of Iraq. At no point did he concede that the intelligence was wrong, which at this late juncture seems utterly remarkable to me, but I suppose I should not be surprised.

What was interesting and deeply troubling to me is that he did not even attempt to answer my question about whether or not the process that lead us to war in Iraq was undemocratic. His failure to engage in a meaningful discussion about this issue is significant. By constantly emphasizing how much good we’ve accomplished in Iraq, what Bremer was really saying is that ultimately it doesn’t matter how we got there. I could not disagree more. This is a very dangerous proposition. I do not deny that Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein, but how we got there does matter.

My own opposition to the war and the American occupation of Iraq does not require either a demonstration that Iraq is somehow worse off or a denial of the good that the American presence there has accomplished. Anyone who thinks that has missed the point of the liberal critique of the war. Contrary to what conservatives might think, liberals like myself are not engaged in a perverse game of schadenfreude when it comes to Iraq. We do not secretly rejoice at every roadside bomb or at the rising number of American casualties. We are not hoping for a bad outcome of the American occupation in order to bolster the argument that the invasion was a mistake. I myself hope that the occupation is the best thing that ever happened to the Iraqi people and that it brings both stability and democracy to the region.

It is, however, absolutely essential that we recognize that whatever good has come (and is yet to come) from the American occupation of Iraq does not eliminate the need for a conversation about what appears to have been the thoroughly undemocratic process that put us there in the first place. If we fail to have this conversation, we have set a very dangerous precedent. If democracy is allowed to be taken out of the equation when a nation goes to war (or at any other time) and its absence is not considered noteworthy, we are in grave trouble.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Sean said...

Dean- a very poignant and passionate point of view that I share (but could never in a million years express as articulately as you did). The precedent of "preemptive striking" wouldn't disturb and frighten me so much if Iraq were anomalous in the grand scheme of things, but it does make you wonder what's to come with a Republican White House and Congress, with North Korea, Iran and the Taiwan sitiuation (with the PRC) simmering on the back burners. Kudos for asking tough (and important and relevant) questions!

6:11 PM  
Blogger Will said...

A larger issue that has concerned me for a very long time is the gradual transformation of the Executive from an equal partner in a tri-partite government into the dominant figure with an essentially subservient congess and often subservient (as in the first Bush election) supreme court. It's not particularly balanced and there seem to be fewer checks than previously, at least fewer that operate well.

I suspect the trend began with the four-term Roosevelt presidency. It has continued and is speeding up under Bush.

3:44 PM  

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