Fareed Zakaria, one of the best commentators on international affairs, has
now written a very peculiar column
in favour of a war in Iraq. He runs through all the reasons why it could be
a disaster (Saddam torching oilfields, provocation of a terrorist attack with
Iraqi weapons of mass destruction) and then says "The risks are real. But
so are the potential benefits."
After listing a few of these benefits, Zakaria concludes that "There are
always risks involved when things change. But for the past 40 years the fear
of these risks has paralyzed Western policy toward the Middle East. And what
has come of this caution? Repression, radical Islam and terror. I’ll take
my chances with change."
There are two major problems with this line of argument. The first is that
Zakaria’s list of "potential benefits" is incredibly overoptimistic.
Consider this one:
The cause of radical, violent anti-Westernism—the one ideological trait
that is shared by both Saddam and the Islamic fundamentalists—would
be dealt a severe blow. Osama bin Laden once said that when people see a weak
horse and a strong horse, they naturally want to side with the strong horse.
No one will want to side with a dead horse.
Huh? Is Zakaria saying that the terrorists who flew into the World Trade Center
considered the USA to be a weak horse and Saddam Hussein to be a strong one?
If they were going after weak targets, why didn’t they attack Belgium? It
seems much more likely that anti-Westernism would be bolstered by the unprovoked
US invasion of an Arab country than that it would be "dealt a severe blow".
If oil prices stay low, over time the pressures for reform could build even
more. The regimes of the Middle East—most of which are nondemocratic
and nonperforming—will find it increasingly difficult to stay in power
if they don’t open up. In short, if oil goes to $10 a barrel, the Saudi
monarchy goes to Majorca.
True, oil prices could drop in the wake of an Iraqi invasion – provided
that Iraq’s oil wells haven’t been torched, and that the new Iraqi regime doesn’t
join OPEC, both of which are far from foregone conclusions. And it’s also true
that a plummeting oil price could deal the death blow to the Saudi monarchy.
But what basis has Zakaria for assuming that some kind of people’s regime in
Saudi Arabia would be any less dangerous than the one we have right now? The
Saudi monarchy are allies of the US, while most of the population hates the
Great Satan. If Islamists can win elections in Turkey, what kind of hardliners
would end up running Saudi Arabia? Who’s to say that they wouldn’t use their
petrodollars to develop their own WMDs on a timetable much faster than the likes
of Pakistan and North Korea could ever dream of?
Zakaria’s point is that democracy and economic vitality are good things, that
they might be consequences of a war on Iraq, and that the Middle East has suffered
too long under the current repressive regimes. But even if he’s right, and change
would be destabilising in a good way rather than in a bad way, he still hasn’t
really made a case for a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq.
There are lots of places where change would be a good thing: nearly all of
sub-Saharan Africa for starters. In Venezuela, the stand-off between the democratically-elected
president and his ruling-class opponents has almost destroyed the economy. In
North Korea, the totalitarian regime really has destroyed the economy. Yet in
all these places, the US accepts that it does not have a mandate for enforcing
In fact, as recently as 1991, the US accepted that it had no such mandate in
Iraq. Back then, Saddam Hussein was a much greater threat than he is now: as
Nicholas Kristof points
out in the New York Times today, the UN destroyed much more Iraqi weaponry
during the duration of the inspections regime from 1991-98 than the US did during
the Gulf War. Yet even with Saddam Hussein being months away from having a nuclear
weapon, George Bush the elder did not push for regime change, accepted the norms
of international law, and left the Iraqi government in power.
The decision to stop the war with Saddam Hussein still in power was, says
war skeptic Norman Schwartzkopf, "probably the only decision that could
have been made at that time." Yet now, we are told, everything has changed,
and the American imperium has conferred upon itself the right to go barging
in to one of the most geopolitically fragile regions on the planet with its
fingers crossed that everything will turn out all right in the end.
But the US plainly does not have the support of the international community
in this endeavour. Zakaria makes the good point that in the case of the countries
of the Middle East, that’s probably because the ruling elites have the most
to lose from any growth in democracy and freedom. But that argument doesn’t
wash in the case of Europe. And without European support, a unilateral US action
would only redouble the anger and resentment that the rest of the world feels
It is entirely possible that invading Iraq will be a good thing, with positive
consequences. (Of course, the opposite is true as well.) But the ends do not
justify the means. Sometimes we must stop short of doing good, just because
we’re not allowed to.