In this space last week I referred to one possible version of “regime change”—the preservation without Saddam Hussein of the Sunni Muslim (actually Tikriti) military authority in Iraq—as the “nightmare scenario” of the Kurdish forces and the more democratic Iraqi dissidents. A version of this same “scenario” is now being discussed, and even endorsed by administration nodders and winkers, on the apparently humane grounds that it would obviate the necessity for war.
Actually, abdication without invasion could be justified on more exalted grounds than that. If Saddam Hussein could be induced to surrender his personal dictatorship and leave his martyred country for a presumably “secure” but this time “disclosed” location, it would demonstrate that the mere threat of force, if convincing enough, could achieve astonishing results. Quite evidently, the Turkish and Saudi Arabian and Egyptian regimes would not be adopting this latest rather noisy form of “quiet” diplomacy if they were not persuaded that the alternative was military intervention. Q.E.D., in a way, for the hawks, with a generously deferential nod to the doves and the allies and the U.N.
However, this happy-seeming outcome would leave two factions with gritted teeth, for different reasons. In the minds of the tougher thinkers at the Defense Department in particular, the whole point of removing Saddam Hussein is to inaugurate a wave of change in neighboring states as well. Thus a victory over Saddamism that skips this critical demonstration is a somewhat hollow one, especially if the “skip” is undertaken at the request of the very regimes—most notably the Saudi—that were the undeclared but definite targets of the demonstration in the first place.
Then there are those who have worked tirelessly and at great risk to change, not merely the government of Iraq, but the Iraqi system of government. It would be a mistake to view this in theological terms only. After all, the Kurds are just as “Sunni” as Saddam Hussein, if not indeed more so. More to the point is the complex and ambitious plan, proposed by Kanan Makiya on behalf of the Iraqi opposition at its recent rather fractious London summit, to declare Iraq a multicultural and multiethnic pluralism, defined neither as Arab or Muslim but as constitutional.
The follow-up meeting to this conference, a gathering of Iraqi exiles and oppositionists to be held in the Kurdish town of Suleimaniah last weekend, was abruptly called off by its Bush administration supporters on the rather odd grounds of “security.” This can’t have been a truly serious objection, since the town has been within muzzle-range of Saddam for some time and was thus either too risky to begin with or no more risky than before. The likelihood that Saddam would decide to shell or bomb the town during a meeting between the Bush administration and his local enemies—an action which, if taken, would offer the perfect pretext for an invasion—must be accounted pretty slight, at least before the inspection deadline of Jan. 27.
If talk of a relatively painless and vestigial change of regime doesn’t come from the Defense hawks and doesn’t come from the Iraqi opposition in exile, whence does it arise? The suspicion emerges that there is some covert diplomacy at work, designed to accommodate the local and regional oligarchies and the waverers at the U.N. The concept of Saddam removing to some sort of exile (which in my memory was first “floated” by the foreign minister of Qatar last September) is not despicable on its face. It would avert the possibility of even the smartest bombs going astray and hitting orphanages, and it would mean that Iraqi soldiers would not be ordered pointlessly to their deaths by a deranged Caligula. It would also remove the chance of some final apocalyptic lunge on Caligula’s part.
Moreover, the next Iraqi regime would certainly need a lot of help with security, law and order, civil reconstruction, and food and medical aid. So, the forces of the coalition would most probably be “invited” in to provide some of this support and to secure the oilfields from sabotage or worse, as well as to identify and destroy some conspicuous weapons “sites.” It would still count as a great deliverance for the Iraqi people. President Bush would be in an especially strong political position, at home and abroad, for achieving a version of “peace through strength” and for avoiding the charge of “cowboy” tactics.
However, it would be nice to have some sense in advance of what the price of this deliverance might be. The argument for “unconditional surrender” in previous conflicts was, first, that it insisted that further resistance was futile and, second, that it did not necessitate the degrading business of bargaining with war criminals and fascists. Since the best moral argument for regime change in Iraq is based upon the horrific way in which the Iraqi and Kurdish peoples have been treated, one would like to know how much water is being added to the wine here. Is Saddam Hussein to be granted perpetual immunity? Is Ali Hassan al-Majid, the butcher of Kurdistan and Kuwait, to escape the trial that he so conspicuously needs? (He is currently touring Syria, Jordan, and Egypt as an Iraqi roving delegate, and it is to the shame of all those governments that they do not place him immediately under arrest.) Are we expected to look the other way if some capital offers protective hospitality to Saddam, as we now officially pretend that Saudi Arabia is not sheltering Idi Amin? Moreover, what do we say to the numberless Iraqis and Kurds who will wish to seek redress or information about their missing relatives or compensation for their violated property and lives?
I personally never ask myself what would Jesus do, and if I did I hope I would have the self-possession to say that I had no idea. In any case he is a quasi-mythical figure. Saddam Hussein and his gang are corporeal and material in the extreme, and they believe that it takes a regime to protect them from what they have done. If the regime is changed, as it obviously will be soon, one way or another, then life should change abruptly for them, too. The point of the change is to instate some standard, however tenuous and hypocritical, of international law. One can not easily achieve that by exempting its chief violators to begin with. The Kissinger principle—the greater the crime the greater the immunity—would be a shabby reward to those who have borne the heat and burden of the day.