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Answering Moral Blackmail

by John Buell Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2003 at 6:42 PM

Are millions of Canadian, American and In the midst of worldwide protest against an impending war with Iraq, the Bush Administration and its allies have trotted out their trump card...

In the midst of worldwide protest against an impending war with Iraq, the Bush Administration and its allies have trotted out their trump card: Both Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair suggest that the blood of Iraqi citizens will be on the hands of those who oppose attack on a tyrant. Strong language, but the moral calculus that underlies these condemnations is flawed.

“First do no harm” is as imperative for national leaders as for physicians. An invasion of Iraq to free its people faces two powerful counterarguments. The principal war strategy involves massive bombardment of Iraqi cities. Conservative estimates suggest that 100,000 civilians will die either directly from the bombing or from the starvation that results.

The Administration cannot honestly argue that it does not target civilians when both prior experience and careful contemporary analysis foretell massive losses. If humanitarian considerations guide policy, liberation of Iraq would be planned primarily through ground combat-- even if US casualties were higher.

Iraqis aren’t clamoring for a US air attack. Though most Iraqis detest Saddam, hostility doesn’t imply eagerness to face an aerial invasion. Guardian columnist Seamus Milne comments: “Even the main US-sponsored organizations such as the Iraqi National Congress and Iraqi National Accord, which are being groomed to be part of a puppet administration, find it impossible directly to voice support for a US invasion, suggesting little enthusiasm among their potential constituency.”

Just as the Administration disregards most Iraqi voices, so too it is tone deaf to the peace movement. That movement does contain a small minority unwilling to condemn Hussein, just as the anti-Vietnam War movement included a few who flew Vietcong flags and became apologists for Vietcong atrocities. Nonetheless, the great majority of today’s protestors regard Hussein as a butcher whose rule must be contested. Indeed, Rice forgets that while the US national security establishment armed Hussein in the eighties and even helped him cover up gas attacks on the Kurds, it was only elements of the Left who opposed his rule.

If Dr. Rice left the cloistered grounds of the White House, she would learn that the anti-war movement is a virtual forum on ways to depose Saddam’s without incapacitating his subjects. (I have an e file on such alternatives I would be happy to share with interested readers. ) University of San Francisco professor Steven Zunes points out that “ In the vast majority of cases, dictatorships were toppled through massive nonviolent action, "people power" movements that faced down the tanks and guns and swept these regimes aside. Some succeeded in a dramatic contestation of public space that toppled dictators in a matter of days or weeks, such as those that brought down the Communist regimes in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, overthrew Southeast Asian strongmen like Marcos and Suharto.”

Zunes points out that, unfortunately, current Iraqi sanctions only weaken the middle class, the source of many earlier rebellions against tyrannical states. Smarter sanctions could limit weapons development while enabling poor and middle class elements to rebound.

The UN disarmament process should be allowed to continue. Imperfect as that process is, it clearly limits Iraq’s military capabilities. The world community could also recognize an Iraqi government in exile based on that entity’s openness to diverse ideological and ethnic factions. That government could be granted access to growing portions of the oil for peace revenues and administrative control over areas of northern Iraq already essentially outside of Saddam’s orbit. War crimes indictments against Saddam and his closest allies could be sought even as amnesty is granted to others further down the chain of command. Such strategies would both encourage splits within the regime and help constitute alternatives to that leadership.

The most immediate task in curbing terror lies in an evenhanded resolution of the Israel/Palestinian conflict. The resolution of that conflict is unlikely without an international police presence to enforce secure borders and sanction terrorism. Such a peace process can model broader standards regarding border conflicts, human rights, and terrorism.

At some point, removal of tyrants like Hussein by military means might be appropriate or necessary. But where such actions are taken on the basis of regularly debated standards enforced by international authority, the risks occasioned by resistance to an occupying power or by inciting new generations of ethnically and religiously based terror are lessened.

No one should imagine that this agenda is easy, sure to spare all innocent life, or without continuing controversy. But the heart of this moral vision is its willingness to acknowledge its own limits. It stands in stark contrast to Bush’s. Like Rome at the height of its imperial power, the US under Bush would reduce the world to one monochromatic desert and call it peace. But genuine peace requires the collaborative development and periodic revision of standards of international law and practice. These cannot be ordained and imposed by one leader or nation. They will work and survive only as they are the product or a more democratic politics both within and among nations.

John Buell ( is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News

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Mr. Dane Hoover Thursday, Feb. 20, 2003 at 3:05 PM
OneEyedMan KPC Thursday, Feb. 20, 2003 at 3:34 PM
Mr. Hoover is either dumb or disengenuous truth teller Thursday, Feb. 20, 2003 at 11:39 PM

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