Dialogues

But It Is Genocide, Bob

Robert Wright  finds it “annoying” that I used the words “moral” or “morality” five (!) times in a previous posting on the question of Iraq. Let me annoy him further by restating a basic principle that many people in this debate have forgotten: The defeat of fascism is a profoundly moral cause. Let me say, also, that writers who spend their days clinically examining the downside of invasion would seem less indifferent to the human toll of Saddam’s rule if they at least paid lip service to his many victims.

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That said, I promise not to invoke the dreaded words “morality” and “evil” again. I also promise not to address each and every point in Wright’s response. But I must begin by pointing out Wright’s most appalling error. In his post, Wright states: “Speaking of trying to keep the Iraq debate rational: Goldberg says Saddam Hussein has ‘committed genocide.’ My dictionary defines genocide as ‘the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political or cultural group.’ Obviously, Saddam hasn’t ‘committed genocide’ in this strict sense of the term.”

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I found Wright’s assertion to be astonishing, the sort of statement seldom heard in and about the mainstream of Western opinion. The only person I’ve ever interviewed who denied that Saddam’s 1987-89 campaign against the Kurds—the “Anfal” campaign in which between 100,000 and 200,000 Kurdish men, women, and children were exterminated—was in fact genocide was a representative of Iraq’s Ministry of Information.

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I mean no offense to Robert Wright’s dictionary when I say that its definition of genocide is both incorrect and irrelevant. What is relevant is the definition found in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was approved by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1948, and entered into force in January 1951. Article Two of the convention states, “Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: a) Killing members of the group; b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” (Italics mine.)

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It was based on the convention’s definition of genocide that Human Rights Watch ruled in 1993 that the Anfal campaign was in fact genocide. I would point Wright to the organization’s masterful, 373-page investigation of Saddam’s crimes against the humanity, which it titled, in the most straightforward way possible, Iraq’s Crime of Genocide, and which was published in 1995 by the Yale University Press.

For those who doubt my judgment—or the judgment of Human Rights Watch—there is a good deal of other literature on the genocide of the Kurds. I would point people to the writings of Ambassador Peter Galbraith, the American diplomat who first uncovered the horrors of the Anfal campaign; to the books of the brave Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, including his Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq and Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World; and to a wonderful book published early this year called A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power, who is the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard. Power notes that Saddam’s genocide of the Kurds was primarily instrumental, rather than ideological, but that the distinction does not matter, legally or morally (sorry—there’s that word again).

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“Genocide was probably not even Hussein’s primary objective,” Power writes. “His main aim was to eliminate the Kurdish insurgency. But it was clear at the time and has become even clearer since that the destruction of Iraq’s rural Kurdish population was the means he chose to end that rebellion. Kurdish civilians were rounded up and executed or gassed not because of anything they as individuals did but simply because they were Kurds.”

I spoke to Power over the weekend, and she explained that tribunals in the Hague and Arusha, which are weighing evidence of crimes against humanity committed in Bosnia and Rwanda, respectively, have in their recent rulings only buttressed the case for charging Saddam with genocide. “The courts have found that ‘in part’ means a substantial part, but not necessarily a majority,” she told me. “If you kill the men, that’s substantial. If you kill the intellectuals, that’s substantial, too.”

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Wright states that he would “urge Goldberg to use language carefully when advocating an invasion that will lead to many deaths.” I would urge Wright to read the Genocide Convention and read the work of Human Rights Watch. I would urge him to familiarize himself with the statements of Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam’s cousin, who was in charge of the campaign against the Kurds. In May 1988, he said, “I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them!” Wright should also remember that genocide-denial in the face of overwhelming evidence is a particularly nasty business.

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As for Wright’s charge that I am advocating an invasion that will lead to many deaths, let me state the obvious: I am fully aware of the downsides of invasion (I didn’t feel a need to harp on them unduly, seeing as how most everyone else in this debate was tackling that issue with enthusiasm). But I support taking action against Iraq because I believe it will save lives: American, Kurdish, Shiite, Sunni, Israeli, Kuwaiti, ad almost infinitum. Let me remind Wright that people are dying now in Iraq, because Saddam continues to rule by homicide. (I would point him to the work of Amnesty International and other human rights groups, as well as to the work of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard, for proof of this assertion.)

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Another point: Wright takes issue with my claim that a successful invasion of Iraq would cause America to be respected in the Middle East, rather than loathed. He writes that many people will loathe us even more in the event of an invasion, and that they are “the kind of people who will work hard to kill lots of Americans.” Wright argues not infrequently against the use of military force to defeat terrorist groups and terrorist regimes because such use of force will lead to more anti-American terror.

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Two-and-a-half years ago, I spent some time in a madrasah, a Muslim religious seminary, near Peshawar, in the Northwest Frontier Province. The madrasah was populated by mainly Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun boys, and they were quite feverish in their support for Osama Bin Laden, whose attack on America was still more than a year away. After staying at the madrasah for a while, I drove across Afghanistan, ending in Kandahar. I wrote this experience up for the New York Times Magazine, which published the story under the headline “Jihad U.”

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Shortly after it was published, Robert Wright, in Slate, posted the following: “On Sunday the New York Times Magazine had a spooky piece about Pakistan’s thousands of madrasahs, schools that immerse boys and young men in Islam and often have a militant bent. Reporter Jeffrey Goldberg, visiting one of them, asked the students, ‘Who wants to see Osama Bin Laden armed with nuclear weapons?’ The reaction: ‘Every hand in the room shot up.’ “

“This is a reminder,” Wright continued, “of what a bad idea it was for Clinton to launch that cruise missile attack on Bin Laden in retaliation for the African embassy bombings. As a wise man wrote six months ago in an influential periodical, ‘Even with a bunch of terrorists conveniently assembled in a single spot, the cruise-missile strike in Afghanistan was self-defeating: It no doubt guaranteed Osama Bin Laden 10 new recruits for every terrorist who was killed.’ “

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When I first read Wright’s comments on my article, two thoughts crossed my mind: One, I was glad someone noticed the piece (this was before Sept. 11 of last year, when virtually no one cared about madrasahs or the strange goings-on in Kandahar). The second thought that crossed my mind was: This guy’s got it exactly wrong.

I left Pakistan and Afghanistan believing that America had done nothing to alienate the Taliban or these madrasah boys: Their hate was independent of American action. In fact, these fundamentalists owed the United States their thanks: It was the United States that supported them during the fight against the Soviets; the food many of them ate came to them courtesy of USAID, and many of the men I met who spoke English learned their English from American teachers, funded by American taxpayers. Their hatred of America, I realized, was rooted in their culture, in the theology of Islamic supremacy, in their jealousy and rage at American success. 

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I also noticed another emotion present in these men: contempt. They were contemptuous of America and Americans; they found us weak and unmanly, they found our culture corrupt and perverted, and I don’t have to tell you what they thought of American women.

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It was after a couple of months in Pakistan and Afghanistan that I began to realize that these forces of Islamic fundamentalism had already declared war on us; that there was nothing left for us to do but fight them; and that by not fighting them, we were convincing them we were without virtue, strength, or courage.

Robert Wright took a different message away from my reporting: The best thing to do would be to leave these people alone and hope they go away. But what he failed to understand is that we provoked them by not provoking them.

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Of course I recognize that an invasion of Iraq will cause some people to hate us more than they already do, but I also recognize that their hatred of America will not dissipate—and that their contempt may intensify—if we do not take strong action against Iraq.

This past weekend, at a conference of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, I had the chance to talk about these issues with two men I admire very much: Bernard Lewis, the scholar of Islam, and Ali Salem, the dissident Egyptian playwright. Lewis told me the following: “Sept. 11 was quite obviously supposed to be the opening blow in a series of attacks. These attacks have not happened because our enemies were shocked by the forcefulness of our response. This is connected to the way they have viewed our society, and now view our society. They were expecting a soft, ineffectual response, a few misdirected cruise missiles, perhaps. And they were met with much more force than they expected, which is why they are running.” He went on to say that America is more or less powerless to turn hate into love, but that it still possesses the means to turn contempt into fear.

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As for Ali Salem, when I put the same issue to him, he quoted a Bedouin proverb: “You beat the dog to scare the lion.” I asked him to apply the lesson of this saying to American behavior in the Middle East. He mentioned, like many people mention in this context, the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut 20 years ago. The American response to the murder of 241 Marines by Hezbollah was to run away, to flee Beirut in terror. (Please see, by the way, my article in today’s New Yorker on the subject of Hezbollah.)

“This is the root of your problem,” Salem said. “You should have flattened Beirut.” I must have appeared surprised at the ferocity of his response—he is a well-known secular humanist—because he said, “Yes, I, Ali Salem, the great liberal, says, kill your enemies.”

There is much else in Wright’s post that I would like to debate (I think, for instance, he will regret the day he cast such scorn on the idea that Saddam’s secret police maintains serious links to al-Qaida), but let me end this with one observation. I do not mean to insult people who write about the Middle East without traveling to the Middle East. I admire writers who inhabit the realm of pure thought. I find many of their thoughts to be brilliant. But I do believe that sometimes it is good for people to go outside and see what the world looks like.

—Jeffrey Goldberg is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a frequent contributor to Slate.

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