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Wednesday, September 18, 2002

 
--- Field Guide to Bellicose Casuistry ---

"Of course you know, this means WAR!" (Groucho Marx, Duck Soup) By long-standing tradition, the call to arms calls for some grievous injury, irresistible opportunity or absolute exigency -- a casus belli.

In neighborhood disputes or small claims court, a certain suspicion attaches to bills of grievance that are inconstant, overly long, overly diversified or fundamentally unsatisfiable. Similar doubt attaches when old, cold grievances are abruptly reheated. It's possible to wage war for longstanding or compound reasons (strategic calculations are always compound) ... and hostile gestures do tend to generate opposing stockpiles of auxiliary grievances ... but (unless we have already taken sides) we naturally suspect either a vicious cycle of retaliation, or some baser animus dressed up for public consumption. Inquiring minds want to know: What's the real beef?

The stated case for Plan Iraq keeps budding and branching and mutating, yet the prescription remains: Forcible regime change, by any means necessary. Here's a ramble through the thicket of publicly-endorsed justifications. Some are pulp fiction, some are mere decorative embellishments on the rolling war-wagon, some are plausible and serious.
"Saddam is a Tin-Pot Dictator" Mere name-calling. We've sponsored scads of tin-pot dictators -- including Saddam -- when it served our purposes. "Saddam is Defiant" Ah, that's something else entirely. We've pulled the throne out from under scads of tin-pot dictators when they became "defiant" ... but it's hardly a respectable premise.

"Saddam is the Next Hitler" Yeah, and so's yer old man. Googling "Saddam" and "Hitler" yields 48,000 hits, many asserting "Saddam = Hitler". But Saddam has competition from Osama (39,600 hits), Castro (30,100), Milosevic (29,000), Putin (17,400), Pol Pot (13,700), Ho Chi Minh (7,540), Allende (7,250), Khomeini (6,780), Musharraf (3,950), Noriega (5280), Ferdinand Marcos (2,750), Kim Il Sung (1,670) and his boy Kim Jong Il (1,020). Omar Qaddafi (1080) is underrated due to numerous alternate spellings. Pat Buchanan (13,900) is overrated due to his recent thesis that US should have stayed out of WW II in Europe. Clinton and Bush also rack up impressive numbers. Let's be more specific. What has Saddam done to earn the coveted Next Hitler mantle?

"Saddam Gassed His Own People" Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. Until shortly before Desert Storm, US intelligence insisted he didn't -- rather that the atrocities at Halabja were inflicted by Iran, in an active theater of the Iran-Iraq War. What really happened? Both sides probably used CW, and (deepening the after-action fog of war) used each other's captured CW. Kurds fought on both sides, and fought each other factionally. Halabja had been occupied and abandoned by Iraqi and Irani forces in close succession; Kurdish civilians were slaughtered, but probably not as intended targets. And we did not actively protest CW usage when US and Iraq were partners in the game.

"Saddam is an Aggressor" The direct evidence here is limited to Iraq's border war with Iran (where we favored Saddam), and Iraq's thrust into Kuwait (where we got our signals crossed, and inadvertently gave him the go-ahead). The whole region is a patchwork of unnatural boundaries imposed by 19th century empires, post-WWI and post-WWII decrees. Iraq claimed Kuwait as the "lost province" ... they had as good a case as not. The more urgent issue was Kuwaiti and Iraqi oil rigs tapping the same formation, with Kuwait slant-drilling, pumping faster and selling cheaper (literally undercutting Iraq). The indirect evidence is more equivocal. Saddam likes military assets, but his forces are severely downsized from the era when US and USSR vied for his affections. He conceives himself in grandiose terms -- as a secular socialist modernist role model and Arab power broker -- but at age 65 the evidence for "Saddam the Conqueror" is pitiful. (Alexander conquered the known world by 30; Hitler had it in flames by 50; Genghis Khan ruled most of it by 55.)

"Saddam Threatens Israel" This is a serious concern. If he could strike a telling blow, Saddam would gain great -- albeit short-lived -- stature among Arab states (or their chaotic successor regimes). Scavenger states might move in to finish the job ... probably blowing up the world in the bargain. US can take measures Israel cannot, this rationale does not extend to other supporting actors. A more difficult question is whether Israel is safer, or less safe, in a region of high-temperature chain-reaction regime change and (potentially) increased military opportunism. "Saddam Threatens Saudi Arabia" The oil fields, conceivably, if we let him ... which we wouldn't ... unless we wanted to let him. The Desert Storm "threat" to Saudi borders now looks like a US propaganda bluff. He'd be no more welcome in the holy sites than we are. "Saddam Threatens the Region" Why not? Everybody else in the region threatens the region. Where does he start? Under close scrutiny, he's not much of a threat. "Saddam Seeks Muslim Hegemony" Let him seek. He has all he can handle just nailing down Iraq itself, he's made no progress in greater Arab circles, and has essentially no following elsewhere in the Muslim world.

"Saddam Supports Terrorism" In a penny-ante fashion, yes, but less so than most of those neighbors we're afraid he'll threaten. If there were no blips onthe radar, no coincidental intersections, we'd have to assume the radar was broken ... but there's no empirical case. "Iraq Was Behind 9/11" Reasonable grist for speculation in the days immediately following 9/11, this currently ranks right up there with "CIA did it" conspiracy theories. Saddam and Osama would both have strong pragmatic reason not to cooperate on any such operation, even assuming they liked each other (they don't), and assuming they agreed on a plan. The administration has given up actively defending this proposition, though it still gets lip service from people who should know better, and it polls consistently in the 70's. "Iraq Harbors al Qaeda" Yeah, yeah, Iraq and 60 other nations. No evidence they are a significant, cooperative or even voluntary harborer ... most of the alleged harboree's are out of Saddam's reach, in coalition-protected rebel territory. The recent assassination of Abu Nidal in Baghdad could be taken as a gesture of Iraqi cooperation against terrorism (though it can be taken several other ways, too).

"Bring Democracy to Iraq" Why Iraq? Why now? When it comes to "bringing democracy", we have a pretty shabby track record. Why not warm up our act with some easier Middle Eastern state? Why not Kuwait? "Saddam Mistreats Minorities" What else is new? Some of our best friends mistreat minorities. We mistreat minorities, though not as badly as we used to. (Colin Powell, on CBS Sunday Morning last, says this point is "more important than terrorism". That should indicate how far "Iraqi terrorism" stock has been discounted.) "Saddam Violates Human Rights" Children are tortured in front of their parents, and so on. Part true, part propaganda, none of it a major departure from regional norms. We have always had separate sets of human rights standards ... one for people we like, one for people we don't, plus special rules for people we don't like who have things we want.

"Saddam Expelled Arms Inspectors" Technically, no, we withdrew them. Less technically, no again -- it seems we undermined our own inspections regime (which was gaining effectiveness despite Saddam's shell games) ... but why? Gambling and losing on an intelligence overreach? Deliberate sabotage? Were we afraid they'd achieve compliance, and we'd have to discontinue economic sanctions? Wouldn't economic normalization give us better covert intelligence opportunities? [This leads to chains of speculative topics, including the Ritter riddle.]

"Saddam Wants Nukes" No secret there, like a score of nations on faster tracks to nuclear capability. "Saddam Will Have Nukes Soon" Sort of. He (and others) can acquire and replicate tested designs. He can shop for black market fissile material, or roll his own. On either track, it's a stretch for him to assemble more than one low-yield device per year. While we focus on Saddam, the most prominent threats are elsewhere.

"Saddam Will Use Nukes Against US" If he plays that card, it's his last. We recover from grievous local damage, his regime is obliterated. With one or two devices, he'd be better off using them for leverage (extortion) for some plausibly achievable local objective. And for leverage, a make-believe device is almost as good as a real one. [Personal view: someone will nuke us sometime; it probably won't be Saddam; chasing Saddam increases our net exposure.]

"Saddam Will Furnish Nukes to Terrorists" Far-fetched. Saddam is a control freak; terrorists are loose cannons (and loose lips); Iraq is equally capable of smuggling containerized devices into US ports; and the more players in the chain, the greater the chance of detection, defection or double-cross. The supposed payoff is that Iraq could attack US without being identified as responsible. Slim chance, high-risk, low payoff, and it further deprives Saddam of extortion opportunities and bragging rights.

But "Saddam Is Crazy" so he wouldn't mind going out with a bang, right? Only US and Israel put much stock in this proposition, and Israel is probably pulling our strings. This proposition -- even if true -- "pays off" only to the extent that much of Saddam's chain of command is loyal to the point of mass suicide. (This, by the way, is inconsistent with superhawk assertions that -- under credible threat of regime termination -- nobody will show up to fight for Saddam.) Saddam may be a sadist and a megalomaniac, but one with well-honed survival instincts ... a chess-player, a poker-player, not a craps-shooter. [More on the irrationality argument in a separate post later.]

"Saddam Starves his People" Sanctions were designed to make life difficult enough to foment rebellion. Sanctions made life difficult, but rebellion failed. Saddam has made life even more difficult by diverting scarce resources to military and self-aggrandizing projects. This was supposed to be a short-term solution, it turned out to be a long-term humanitarian problem, and most of the neighborhood blames US as much as Saddam (cramping our coalition flexibility elsewhere).

"Saddam Cheats on Sanctions" So he does ... and most all the neighbors are in on the game ... and with US complicity in some cases.

"Iraq Holds POW's" Mostly Kuwaiti's, allegedly, and a smattering of other nationalities ... 600 people unaccounted for (how many should be unaccounted after a conflict on the scale of Desert Storm?) ... and 1 US aviator, very recently upgraded from presumed KIA to MIA, leaning to POW. This last-ditch propaganda ploy recalls the shameful exploitation of US POW's to prolong lost-cause involvement in Vietnam.

"Saddam Breaks Promises" Aye, and artfully so. Nobody trusts Saddam. Nobody trusts us that much either. "Saddam Violates International Norms" Norms, schnorms ... go fish. "Saddam Defies International Law" Okay ... but present-day US is no champion of International Law. "Saddam Violates Desert Storm Truce" Now we're getting somewhere! If a cease-fire agreement is materially breached, the parties might resume firing. From Day One, Saddam has not complied, and we have not demanded strict compliance ... for reasons of our own convenience, and because the winning Coalition was in imperfect agreement on the means and ends of the war, and because Desert Storm's original casus had been satisfied, and because we expected Saddam to die of Gulf War Embarrassment Syndrome. The case for renewed hostilities might still stand on these wobbly old legs ... but we'll have to reattach them first. How?

"Saddam Targets US Aircraft" Getting warmer! A shooting violation is better than a paper-pushing violation. We (US & UK) patrol Iraqi airspace under terms of Iraq's Desert Storm cease-fire agreement. From time to time our aircraft are illuminated by targeting radar, and even fired upon. [No hits, though ... is Saddam sandbagging?] Strikes me as cause enough, if we play it up.

"Iraq Tried to Assassinate Bush41" This has a ring of legitimate casus belli. Under cover of an alcohol-smuggling scheme, an explosive-laden SUV crossed the Iraq border into Kuwait, where Bush was visiting. It's a cold complaint (1993) ... and the connection to Saddam depends on a series of stepping stones, including "evidence" trumped up by agencies known to trump up evidence to suit the prosecution. Still, almost everybody buys it, and I would not hesitate to use it (if I thought occupying Iraq was to our ultimate advantage).

Suppose we confront Saddam with an ultimatum he won't accept, and go to war because "Saddam Defied an Ultimatum"? Lame. Confronting under imminent threat of violence is essentially an act of war anyway. It begs the question: where's the underlying casus belli?

"Saddam Disses the UN" BINGO! Use preexisting agreements to lay the UN's tarnished honor on the line, putting multilateralism and International Law on the defensive. To defend the viability of cooperation itself, the cooperators have to fall in line behind our warwagon. Those who feared US unilateralism are relieved, those who opposed it receive a psychic reward. Covertly-supportive partners can hide behind UN obligations. In the fast shuffle, the Regime Change card is off the table ... but still up GWB's sleeve. So is Preemption -- we draw a line, Saddam crosses it, and then we thump him. Preemption? I didn't see any preemption, did you see any preemption? Hard-core neo-uni-con's sense a trifecta prospect -- the opportunity to take out Saddam, the Security Council, and Colin Powell in one stroke.
But what's the REAL casus belli? The roster above is mostly an inventory of pretexts. In alleging (as I do) a public case built on mirrorboxes and flashpowder, it's fair to ask "OK, wise guy, what's the hidden motive?". Speculation abounds, with some superhawks candidly hyping the imperial imperative.
"Sanctions Must End" The sanctions regime is a real quagmire. It fails the intended purpose, real people are suffering and dying, blame rubs off on us, and we can't conveniently just call it off. Regime change effectively knocks over the chessboard, and in the next game there are no sanctions ... but we haven't "backed off" either.

"Plunder!", or more specifically, "Liberate the Oil" But (except for war jitters) the oil markets are behaving nicely of late, and taking the oil without paying for it would not only look bad ... it would destabilize numerous oil states, incite terrorism, and make US an outlaw regime.

Another "Because We Can" casus is the "Basing Options" angle. With Iraq as an occupied US protectorate, we'd have an uncontested air/land/sea base of operations in a key region ... a sort of West-Germany-on-the-Gulf.

The combination of basing rights and oil reserves would give us pivotal "Leverage Against Saudi Arabia" (who some identify as the real enemy), with downstream prospects of "Saudi Regime Change", the consequent "Decline of Wahhabiism", and -- proceeding to run table after table without a scratch -- the Holy Grail: victory in the "Clash of Civilizations" clearing the way to a "New American Century".

Another transformational fantasy is the "Proof of Concept" scheme. US demonstrates the ability to crush recalcitrant regimes at relatively low cost, and nobody dares stand against us. Worth noting, this was the underlying notion in Vietnam. US technology and organizational ju-jitsu would flip the regime and alter the course of history at nominal cost, and non-superpowers would thereafter get out of the way when they saw us coming ... compensating for the embarrassment of previous stumbles and stalemates, prevailing in the clash of civilizations, and clearing the way to a new American century, etc., etc... Not worth it then (even assuming the revisionist "could have won if we tried"), not worth it now.

"Politics, Pure and Simple" Regime change in Iraq has been a cornerstone of Bush43's agenda since before Campaign 2000. In this sense it transcends political calculus ... he'd find a way to do it even at great cost in political capital. But after winning the 9/11 trifecta, GWB is awash in political capital, and he's always had a use-it-or-lose-it philosophy. Politics is secondary but important -- the Commander in Chief role plays well in Peoria, his domestic record sucks, and the permanent campaign team is eagerly wallowing in political opportunism. Politics dictates the timing ... it doesn't account for the basic impulse.

"Finishing the Job" Desert Storm stopped short of Baghdad. Several current administration figures actively concurred at the time. Some now feel this was a mistake; some think it was correct strategy but with embarrassing side-effects. Others -- outsiders and fringe players in Round One -- were irate when we "wimped out". Both groups are eager to tidy up the historical record, wherein Bush41 supposedly frittered away a golden geopolitical opportunity and a king's ransom in political capital. Other astute Bush-watchers (Safire, for instance) intuit a "Freudian Flip" ... subconscious forces drive the reckless, rebellious son to one-up the Old Man by converting Pop's old reliable pickup into Junior's dunebuggy. Yet another theory invokes the familiar motif: "Find Out What Clinton Did, and Do the Opposite".

Out on the fringe, "Saddam Owes Us One" (Hitchens) We made Saddam what he is today, he's ours to break if we want to, just like we did so many other former partners.
Summing up, what have we got? For the administration's true reasons it's not clear ... my "serious" list includes the potential threat to Israel, the sanctions quagmire exit strategy, the assassination attempt, the plunder and transformation arguments, and the Freudian angle. For (informed) US public consumption: Israel, broken promises and UN credibility (especially targeting coalition aircraft), and assassination. For the international market: UN credibility. [Brilliant stroke! Bush outmaneuvered everybody ... maybe even himself!] For the timing and urgency: politics, pure and simple, down and dirty.