Another request in my in-box, asking if I’ll be interviewed about Iraq for a piece “dealing with how writers and intellectuals are dealing with the state of the war, whether it’s causing depression of any sort, if people are rethinking their positions or if they simply aren’t talking about it.” I suppose that I’ll keep on being asked this until I give the right answer, which I suspect is “Uncle.”
There is a sort of unspoken feeling, underlying the entire debate on the war, that if you favored it or favor it, you stress the good news, and if you opposed or oppose it you stress the bad. I do not find myself on either side of this false dichotomy. I think that those who supported regime change should confront the idea of defeat, and what it would mean for Iraq and America and the world, every day. It is a combat defined very much by the nature of the enemy, which one might think was so obviously and palpably evil that the very thought of its victory would make any decent person shudder. It is, moreover, a critical front in a much wider struggle against a vicious and totalitarian ideology.
It never seemed to me that there was any alternative to confronting the reality of Iraq, which was already on the verge of implosion and might, if left to rot and crash, have become to the region what the Congo is to Central Africa: a vortex of chaos and misery that would draw in opportunistic interventions from Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Bad as Iraq may look now, it is nothing to what it would have become without the steadying influence of coalition forces. None of the many blunders in postwar planning make any essential difference to that conclusion. Indeed, by drawing attention to the ruined condition of the Iraqi society and its infrastructure, they serve to reinforce the point.
How can so many people watch this as if they were spectators, handicapping and rating the successes and failures from some imagined position of neutrality? Do they suppose that a defeat in Iraq would be a defeat only for the Bush administration? The United States is awash in human rights groups, feminist organizations, ecological foundations, and committees for the rights of minorities. How come there is not a huge voluntary effort to help and to publicize the efforts to find the hundreds of thousands of “missing” Iraqis, to support Iraqi women’s battle against fundamentalists, to assist in the recuperation of the marsh Arab wetlands, and to underwrite the struggle of the Kurds, the largest stateless people in the Middle East? Is Abu Ghraib really the only subject that interests our humanitarians?
The New York Times ran a fascinating report (subscription only), under the byline of James Glanz, on July 8. It was a profile of Dr. Alaa Tamimi, the mayor of Baghdad, whose position it would be a gross understatement to describe as “embattled.” Dr. Tamimi is a civil engineer and convinced secularist who gave up a prosperous exile in Canada to come home and help rebuild his country. He is one among millions who could emerge if it were not for the endless, pitiless torture to which the city is subjected by violent religious fascists. He is quoted as being full of ideas, of a somewhat Giuliani-like character, about zoning enforcement, garbage recycling, and zero tolerance for broken windows. If this doesn’t seem quixotic enough in today’s gruesome circumstances, he also has to confront religious parties on the city council and an inept central government that won’t give him a serious budget.
Question: Why have several large American cities not already announced that they are going to become sister cities with Baghdad and help raise money and awareness to aid Dr. Tamimi? When I put this question to a number of serious anti-war friends, their answer was to the effect that it’s the job of the administration to allocate the money, so that there’s little room or need for civic action. I find this difficult to credit: For day after day last month I could not escape the news of the gigantic “Live 8” enterprise, which urged governments to do more along existing lines by way of debt relief and aid for Africa. Isn’t there a single drop of solidarity and compassion left over for the people of Iraq, after three decades of tyranny, war, and sanctions and now an assault from the vilest movement on the face of the planet? Unless someone gives me a persuasive reason to think otherwise, my provisional conclusion is that the human rights and charitable “communities” have taken a pass on Iraq for political reasons that are not very creditable. And so we watch with detached curiosity, from dry land, to see whether the Iraqis will sink or swim. For shame.
Brief plug: The University of California Press has just published A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq. This book contains essays from the left, by myself among others, in favor of regime change and is edited by Thomas Cushman, himself editor of the Journal of Human Rights.*
Correction, Aug. 9, 2005: This article originally identified Thomas Cushman as the editor of the Human Rights Review. Cushman is editor of the Journal of Human Rights.