I officially do not get it. The British government released this week a gruesomely detailed account of human rights violations by the Iraqi government. Among the "highlights" are the use of electric drills on prisoners' hands, brutal rape of men and women, eye-gouging, cutting off ears, slicing off tongues, lowering of prisoners, slowly, into vats of acid, electroshock and prolonged confinement in coffin-like cages.
The British displayed a March 6, 1991, order from Baghdad Security Headquarters instructing operatives in some provinces to "kill 95 percent" of all anti-government demonstrators but spare the remaining 5 percent for interrogation -which would, of course, involve eye-gouging, rape, drills, acid, tongue-slicing, etc.
There's a lot more in the report, but it doesn't matter, according to critics. Echoing numerous anti-war critics, Irene Khan, the secretary general of Amnesty International, declared. "This … is nothing but a cold and calculated manipulation of the work of human rights activists."
Khan should know, considering much of the British report uses information compiled from Amnesty International. Meanwhile, the British government rejected the suggestion that the report was being used for such "cold and calculated" purposes. An official at the press conference insisted, "This dossier itself is not attempting to provide a justification for military action."
And this is what I don't get. Why? Why lie and say it's not intended to justify military action when it surely is? Why shouldn't it be intended to justify military action? And why shouldn't it be persuasive?
Oh, I don't expect it to persuade hard-bitten realists, Arabists or right-wing isolationists. Folks like Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak take the principled position that atrocities against the Iraqi people -no matter how horrible or widespread -simply aren't our business.
I may disagree, but, intellectually, I can respect that as a principled position. But why isn't any of this well-documented horror persuasive to groups like Amnesty International or to liberals who revere Amnesty International?
Though this would come as a surprise to college students today, there's nothing inherent to liberalism that makes it reflexively anti-war. Indeed, in the 20th century context, it is conservatives who are more reliably knee-jerk in their opposition to military action -the great exception being the right's principled and pragmatic opposition to communism. Liberals created the idea of interventionism around the globe. Woodrow Wilson painted himself as a liberator of oppressed peoples and exporter of democracy. FDR could hardly be called a knee-jerk peacenik.
Obviously, it was Vietnam that drained the will to fight from liberalism, though certainly not from many individual liberals. But it's worth noting, again, that liberals were complicit in getting us into Vietnam and they saw no intellectual inconsistency in doing so.
The liberal justification for war has always seemed the more compelling to me morally. The conservative case for war is obviously more compelling intellectually. Liberals believe in helping people around the world. Conservatives believe in doing what is in our self-interest and no more.
Obviously, these are gross simplifications, especially since only a brain-dead liberal would object to America defending itself against an obvious aggressor, and only a heartless conservative would say no affront to our common humanity would warrant even a tiny sacrifice of American blood or treasure to stop it.
The truth is there's a huge overlap between liberals and conservatives when it comes to war and the definition of "self-interest." A liberal might have justified fighting communism or Nazism to help people. A conservative might have emphasized self-defense. But conservatives were certainly interested in helping people, and liberals were eager to protect America.
The point is that -until recently -liberals didn't think liberal ends were negated simply because conservative ends were being satisfied as well. But no more. During the 1990s, liberals opposed any conflict that was defined primarily as being in America's interests and supported any conflict that was defined as purely humanitarian. Hence, liberals supported armed intervention in Kosovo, Haiti and Somalia but had a problem with the Gulf War.
If Saddam Hussein were the president of Belgium, New Zealand or Chad with no oil under his feet, but with just as many tortured and brutalized subjects, I can't help but suspect that liberals would be in favor of removing him from power. What I don't get is why liberals can ignore the indictment against Saddam simply because conservatives have good reasons for going after him, too.
This isn't about oil -and those who say so are generally fools. But let's say it was. Does that negate the liberal rationale for war? If FDR were interested in German timber, would that mean getting rid of Hitler was an illegitimate goal? If you think this is about oil, we can have that argument when Saddam is gone. But at least concede Saddam should be gone.