Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 37, May 2003 b


The war against Iraq is over, and it is time to pause to reflect about a few points that seem to have been lost in the shuffle, as well as a few new issues that are already emerging in the aftermath.

First and foremost, I have heard plenty of people ridiculing the antiwar movement reckoning that, after all, there were very few casualties (on the American side, that is), and that everything went smoothly. This irritatingly misses the point of the antiwar sentiment. Just because things went according to US plans, that doesn’t make it right from an ethical perspective, unless one is ready to accept the Machiavellian position that the end justifies the means. Even then, one can still ask if the end is a good one to begin with.

And here is where another common misunderstanding of the peace movement comes about. In that movement nobody ever defended Saddam Hussein. Nobody in his right mind thinks that having an Hussein-like regime anywhere in the world is a good idea. But remember that removing dictators, or even aiding democracy, has never been a real goal of American foreign policy, despite the rhetoric. The US has put plenty of dictators in power when it was convenient for it to do so, even at the cost of overthrowing democratically elected governments (the case of Chile, the murder of its elected president, Salvador Allende, and the ensuing pro-American dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet come to mind).

No, the only real goal of US foreign policy has always been the goal of any nation’s foreign policy: “national interest.” The trouble is, national interest in this case was defended with the idea that it was justified for the US to wage a war of preemptive action against a hostile government prepared to use weapons of mass destruction. Besides the obvious question of why not apply the same logic to countries that really have been threatening the United States, and that really do have weapons of mass destruction (North Korea comes to mind), the fact is that -- so far -- no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, not even after American troops have taken complete control of the country. Now, this is an empirical matter, and it may turn out that such weapons do in fact exist, but even Bush doesn’t seem so sure anymore (was he ever?). Very recently he said that it is possible that the Iraqis destroyed the weapons during the war! Why on earth would they do that? Indeed, why did they not use such weapons against the invading American and British armies? What is it good for to have weapons of mass destruction if you don’t use them as a last resort to defend yourself? What did Saddam Hussein have to lose by holding back?

Other interesting things are emerging during the aftermath. The anti-American sentiment is already running high among Iraqis, which -- quite understandably -- are asking themselves why don’t the “liberators” go away now that their job of liberating them has been done (perhaps because that wasn’t what the liberators set out to do?). In fact, the US is now complaining that Iran is allegedly attempting to “interfere” with the “internal politics” of Iraq, something that the US cannot and will not allow! I wonder if anybody in the Bush administration even gets the irony of such position. I guess a full scale invasion of another country doesn’t count as “interference” with that country’s internal politics.

What was wrong with the war on Iraq (and with the possibility of others against Iran, Syria, and North Korea, to mention but a few of the other countries that have been casually threatened by one or the other of Bush’s officials during the past few weeks) is not that we should condone or protect the dictatorships or repressive regimes of those countries. It is that no other country has the right to act as a self-appointed policeman, circumventing the due process of international law as established by the United Nations. Yes, of course the UN is slow, bureaucratic, and often impotent. But that impotence is largely the fault of the United States, which keeps using the UN whenever convenient, and undermining its authority or cutting its funding whenever the rest of the world doesn’t want to follow what the American government decides to do. Not always being able to get one’s way is the obvious price of democracy, but the self-declared best democracy in the world doesn’t want to pay that price.

Let me try to clarify the problem with an analogy. We have all seen movies in which the police can’t do anything to stop a criminal because of the due process of law and its many loopholes and slowdowns. In those movies, there usually is a hero who finally takes things in his (it’s normally a male) hands and simply gets the job done, and we all cheer. But in real life, we don’t want vigilantes to roam our cities, we prefer the slow and inefficient machine of public justice, and in fact we insist in putting strict limits to that as well. Why? Because once you bypass laws, the only rule is that of might makes right. Today, perhaps, this may appear acceptable because it happens to be a democratic country that is able to play bully. But what if the cards on the table change? Who is going to protect the world from a vigilante out of control? That is why the war on Iraq was and remains wrong.

Next: It's the fundamentalism, stupid!

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2003