Material Breach: Against an Absurd War

The idea of a war against Iraq is an absurdity, a blatant and even slightly comical repudiation of the very idea of the “just war”. It is stark insanity to wage such a costly war against a heavily weakened opponent — an opponent who will undoubtedly respond, not with conventional Clausewitz military tactics, but with some truly dirty face-to-face terrorism. Moreover, a preemptive attack on Iraq violates the convention of casus belli — the centuries-old idea that the cause of an armed conflict presumes a well-defined act of belligerence or aggression. I am tempted to call this “war for war’s sake”, but I do see some motive beyond revenge-for-daddy, blood-for-oil, and spook-the-terrorists. America now wants hegemony, and it will pursue it at all costs, even at the risk of trivializing the United Nations and destroying the norms of rational and peaceful conflict resolution.

For the first time in American history, the federal government is cutting taxes at the same time as it prepares to wage an expensive war. Not only is Bush doing something unprecedented in storming ahead with “preemptive warfare”, but he’s casting fiscal sanity to the winds at the same time. He prefers the idea of extending America’s dubious hegemony in the Middle East to the ethos of making America a strong and principled nation. Popular protests in hundreds of cities throughout the world have been screaming constantly in Bush’s ear that this war is a dangerous lunacy with grave consequences. And these aren’t just gentle beer-bong peaceniks placing daisies in gun barrels: the protesters include blue-collar workers, investors, grandmothers, Gulf War veterans, farmers, priests, peasants, and politicians. President Bush is not eyeball-to-eyeball with Saddam Hussein. He is eyeball-to-eyeball with the rest of the world, and I fear that his administration’s arrogance will reap some tragic and embarrassing results.

As for the threat Iraq poses to the world, we have seen the supposed “evidence” of both Colin Powell (lexical shell-game) and Tony Blair (plagiarism) get shot through with doubts and inconsistencies. We have witnessed America’s dirty Soviet-style surveillance tactics in trying to secure U.N. Security Council votes for a war (see this Observer article for more information on that little-reported story). We have witnessed absolutely no proof of connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda (or other international terrorist organizations, for that matter). And we have seen Iraq make some concerted efforts to disarm itself in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441. Yet a war seems inevitable despite the absence of aggression on Iraq’s part, and despite the wide variety of strict and thorough means by which we could avoid a war, for example by more vigorous, long-term inspections. I hear a future echoing with hollow pity and laughing historians, and there’s no doubt in my mind that George W. Bush is the worst President my country has ever seen. Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, and Richard Nixon were peaceful, wise, and pragmatic sages in comparison.

I think the key moment that illustrates the farcical nature of this conflict was when Saddam Hussein challenged George W. Bush to a debate on international television. The Mother of All Debates, and the world would have dropped everything to watch it. Bush and Hussein are not the brightest bulbs ever to light up the diplomatic landscape (though some accounts have it that Hussein is quite intelligent despite the blood on his apron), and both are completely insulated and advised by yes-men who reinforce their peculiar worldviews. Imagine the surreal overtones of such a debate: both opponents secure in their own visionary status, spouting rhetoric and dripping mutual contempt. The semi-coherent transcript would have pulsated like a blinding headache, and I shudder to think who would be the debate’s unlikely “winner”. But think about it: Saddam Hussein wants to talk, not fight. Hussein — the slightly berserk thug who stopped at nothing to pummel Iran and invade Kuwait during the 80s and 90s — he doesn’t want a war! How can we claim that he’s a threat after hearing his pitiful offer of a debate?

I agree that Saddam Hussein is a nasty, two-bit gangster who should never have been allowed to murder his way to the status of modern leader. And I agree that his own ambitions in the Middle East over the past 24 years — a secular Islamic Nebuchadnezzar with Israel crushed under his heel — have been frightfully grandiose and irrational. But I find the idea of raining bombs on Iraqi citizens in order to effect a “regime change” (and the new “regime” will be the American military, according to the sunbeam predictions in USA Today) to be much more repulsive than the alternative: a neutered Saddam barely ruling a steadily disarmed and heavily monitored country. So maybe this is all about realpolitik, not upholding principles or uprooting evil. Maybe America is doing what all the lefties are accusing it of doing: imposing a Pax Americana on the Middle East, creating a nice quiet political-economic atmosphere born in fire.

The idea of realpolitik has always been a bit irrational and strange in its results. Take, for example, America’s support for Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge coalition government-in-exile after a semi-heroic Vietnamese-backed safe’n’sane regime fought its way into Phnom Penh in December 1978. You remember Pol Pot, right? Evil man, genocidal, ruthless, etc. etc. Well, America backed this bloodthirsty Communist at the height of the Cold War, and there’s realpolitik for you. At the same time we were also backing crazies like Suharto and Ferdinand Marcos, and we continue to back crazies like Ariel Sharon (whose attitude toward his own population is often rather more hostile and brutal than that of Saddam Hussein, based on recent evidence). So the absurdities and inconsistencies of our supposedly principled and pragmatic position multiply and refract, and who knows what sort of sputtering cauldron will start glowing red as Saddam slouches grey-jowled in exile and American soldiers arrogantly assume the levers of power in Baghdad and a bomb-wrecked historic Mesopotamian landscape falls silent and countless formerly peaceful Arabs (and Kurds) start wincing and glaring angrily across the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s a dire scenario. But no matter what the American media blows your way, don’t believe this war with Iraq is inevitable. Hell, even the American Gulf War Veterans Association has come out against the war. Sure, General Norman Schwarzkopf and Secretary James Baker have withdrawn their initial opposition to an unprovoked war (I sense a bit of arm-twisting and spinelessness in this odd flip-flop — the initial decision seemed brave and principled, but their new views just ape that of the administration.) But Douglas Hurd (Britain’s foreign secretary during the Gulf War) remains vehemently opposed, saying such a war will turn the Middle East into “a sullen humiliation, a fertile and almost inexhaustible ground for recruiting further terrorists.” And to top it all off, even Dubya’s dad, former President George Bush has come out against a unilateral war. We need to demand more vigorous and thorough arms inspections, and we need to keep this war from happening. Write your political representative. Take to the streets. Sign a petition. Visit for some practical ideas on how to oppose the war.

I believe the only place in the world now where wars are waged without casus belli is in the highlands of New Guinea, where such conflicts are a cultural necessity and almost a form of recreation. Ritualized motiveless warmaking might be acceptable — even benign — in the primeval world of the south Pacific, but it will be a boundless horror in the Middle East. Let’s not let it happen.