IN HIS SEPTEMBER 2 Guardian editorial, “Why I had no choice but to spurn Tony Blair,” Desmond Tutu reproduces the canonical indictments with which opponents of the Iraq war, as well as supporters, are familiar. In doing so he commits familiar errors, and it is to these I shall advert your attention, dear reader, in the hope of furthering a clear-sighted assessment.
Tutu’s indictment rests upon a moral foundation, and anticipates a moral response. He does not defer to the war’s uncertain legality or to the many technical issues which spilled into the gap between the first and second Gulf wars. As a supporter of the war, both then and now, I find myself wishing this were otherwise. The Bush administration argued regime change on the weakest of all available grounds, confident that fear and indignation would deliver public support to the administration’s ambitions. The Iraq war resolution of October 16, 2002, passed by the US Congress, itemized the crimes of Saddam Hussein. Yet when it came time to argue for the war, cynical insinuations took the place of facts. Americans were encouraged to believe that Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks, and that further WMD assaults were likely on the way.
By the late 1990s there was, in my assessment, a sound and compelling case for regime change. Long before the 2003 war, there were many calling for the establishment of an ad-hoc tribunal specifically constituted to bring the Iraqi dictator to an overdue and necessary reckoning. The formal charges against him included war crimes (for the use of chemical weapons against Iran), genocide of the Kurds, the attempted annexation of a neighbouring state, non compliance with UN resolutions, and violations of international law — all amply substantiated and a matter of public record. By the time of the war Iraq no longer was able to produce weapons of mass destruction, but as the man in charge of Iraq’s nuclear program, Mahdi Obeidi, has written (in his book The Bomb in My Garden)
There was no active nuclear weapons program before the invasion of Iraq.
However, Saddam certainly had the capabilities and, it must be presumed, the intention to restart it someday when the world was no longer watching him so closely.
The moral character of the war is to be distinguished from its legal character. On the moral side, the brutality of the invasion and the enormous suffering thereby inflicted does not constitute the final, unchallengeable case against regime change. All war is violent and offensive and a reprehensible instance of human failure. One must add to this the observations that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was not peaceful, and that two decades of systemic terror against civil society made civil war likely in a post-Saddam Iraq. The ever-present tone of moral smugness adopted by the war’s critics derives from the unassailable security of knowing we shall never witness the endgame of non-intervention, and that whatever happens in Iraq henceforth can and will be blamed on the invasion.
On the legal side, it is a matter of topmost importance how a government advocates war. We now know that fear mongering and shoddy intelligence were offered not only for public consumption, but for the consumption also of government officials tasked with voting on the requisite legislation. One can support the stated war goals and yet hold in contempt the means deployed, as in this case I do.
Thus far I’ve tried to suggest that the legal case against the war is far stronger than the moral, and that Tutu puts himself on relatively weak grounds when he argues that “the immorality of the United States and Great Britain’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, has destabilized and polarized the world to a greater extent than any other conflict in history.” How could one even go about assessing such a broad and imprecise claim in a court of law?
Tutu freely departs from the rails of logic when he laments the coming apart of the “global family,” again an outcome of failed American and British leadership. Turning from the body count, Tutu levels his core indictment:
But even greater costs have been exacted beyond the killing fields, in the hardened hearts and minds of members of the human family across the world. Has the potential for terrorist attacks decreased? To what extent have we succeeded in bringing the so-called Muslim and Judeo-Christian worlds closer together, in sowing the seeds of understanding and hope?
Here we arrive at the most familiar and empty of the familiar errors. Somehow in the moral calculations of the war’s opponents, the offence always lands in the Western column of the ledger. Iraq’s sufferings have nothing to do with the Ba’athist crime syndicate, whose sadism provided the occasion for war in the first place. Tutu blames not the Revolutionary Guards or Assad’s Alawite thugs for the current state of Syria and Iran: these too are the fault of Bush and Blair. As the world’s conflagrations threaten to swallow God’s family, Tutu conveniently fails to notice that it’s the respective parties of god pouring on the gasoline.
This omission of the real source of our family’s sectarian violence undermines the moral credibility of Tutu’s position and makes his greasy pontification especially hard to stomach. “You are a member of our family, God’s family. You are made for goodness, for honesty, for morality, for love; so are our brothers and sisters in Iraq, in the US, in Syria, in Israel and Iran,” he oozes to an absent Blair. But what on earth is this to mean if military action against the world’s theocratic fascists and dictators earns one condemnation while at the same time the crimes of these same theocrats and dictators are cleansed from the public record? The chief moral failure of the anti-war movement is its evident belief that whatever the crimes of the Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, the crimes of Tony Blair are worse and the only ones worth mentioning.
This kind of accounting can never yield an honest and credible summation of the Iraq war’s legitimacy, moral rightness and legacy. Whether or not our brothers and sisters were “made for goodness,” some of them are committed to the destruction of apostate and infidel. Saddam Hussein seems to have been made, like the Communist Russian dictator he both admired and emulated, for engendering terror among his rivals. As long as our world produces people such as these, leaders must from time to time have recourse to the necessary evil of war. In the work of analyzing this particular one, Desmond Tutu has set a poor example. Nonetheless the work remains an important moral obligation.