One of the more lamentable arguments deployed by those opposed to the Iraq war has been that, though what went on in Baathist Iraq was very bad, it wasn't quite bad enough to validate a humanitarian or regime-change justification for the war. As glimpsed in passing, this thought has surfaced here and there throughout the public controversy over the war, and it continues to do so. You can see it on an anti-war poster from September last year; or in John Pilger's description of his feeling of safety when travelling in Saddam's Iraq; or again, most recently - going on reports I've read of this - in scenes from Michael Moore's movie, scenes of 'children [in pre-war Iraq]... flying little kites, shoppers... smiling in the sunshine... the gentle rhythms of life... undisturbed'. But the thing has been laid out also as full-blown argument, in order to counter the humanitarian case for the war. Common within formulations of it has been the claim that, for all the horrors perpetrated under Saddam Hussein, the worst of them weren't being perpetrated just then, in the run-up to the war or the period immediately before that. There was no ongoing or imminent humanitarian crisis. It is not only anti-war journalists and bloggers who are to be found favouring this argument; it is also, unfortunately, Human Rights Watch, as spelled out in a statement by Kenneth Roth from January of this year.
In the earlier posts in the present series, I argued, first, that the humanitarian or regime-change case for the war did not rest on the fact of Iraq's being a dictatorship, but on its being a particularly murderous one; and I went on to sketch, tentatively, some threshold conditions which might be held to justify a humanitarian intervention by outside powers in the affairs of a sovereign state. These were:
(1) Where a state is on the point of committing (or permitting), or is actually committing (or permitting), or has recently committed (or permitted) massacres and other atrocities against its own population of genocidal, or tendentially genocidal, scope.In what follows, I continue the series by opposing arguments (against humanitarian intervention) from the absence of a massive humanitarian crisis in pre-war Iraq.
(2) Where, even short of this, a state commits, supports or overlooks murders, tortures and other extreme brutalities such as to result in a regular flow of thousands upon thousands of victims.
Critical as I'm bound to be, in the combination of circumstances already set out, of Kenneth Roth's statement on behalf of Human Rights Watch - an organization doing invaluable work - let me begin by registering some of the statement's good points; points in which it is superior to much run-of-the-mill anti-war advocacy.
1. Roth's statement registers that in the US-led coalition's justification for the invasion of Iraq the humanitarian consideration played a part, albeit a minor one. That is the truth, though often denied in anti-war polemics.
2. His statement rejects 'the argument that humanitarian intervention cannot be justified if other equally or more needy places are ignored' - a point I have already dealt with, although differently from Roth, in one of my earlier posts.
3. And it also rejects 'the argument that past U.S. complicity in Iraqi repression should preclude U.S. intervention in Iraq on humanitarian grounds' - an argument people never tire of, no matter how many times it has been seen off.
The nub of Roth's and HRW's rejection of the humanitarian case for military intervention is this: that, though the organization had no illusions about the 'vicious inhumanity' of his regime, 'by the time of the March 2003 invasion, Saddam Hussein's killing had ebbed'. The more extravagant of the blood-letting in Iraq lay in the past - much of it in 1988 and 1991 - and 'the scope of the Iraqi government's killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire magnitude that would justify humanitarian intervention.'
The brutality of this viewpoint could not be more sharply highlighted than it is being, now, by the steadily unfolding horror of Darfur. Terrible as that horror is in itself, it stands also for one humanitarian crisis after another in which the world community looks on, lazily scratches its backside, talks and talks, talks at the UN, utters its billionth condemnation of Israel, and then reacts finally when it is much too late for thousands, or millions, of dead, if it reacts at all. One might have thought, against this grim reality, that the chance of finally removing a regime which on HRW's own estimate was responsible for the slaughter of 290,000 people (290,000, you understand: give one short minute of your time to mourning each of these people and you'll need to devote 240-odd days to the exercise if you permit yourself four hours sleep on each of the nights of those days), a regime which left, even amongst those it didn't kill, God knows how many permanently damaged survivors of rape, torture, branding, having their tongues cut out or their ears cut off - that the chance of finally removing this regime should not need to meet the even higher requirement that it wasn't killing enough people when late 2002 was turning into early 2003.
For you have to grasp the full secret of this kind of argument - the argument that military intervention in Iraq might have been justified at some earlier point, but not any longer since the killing had 'ebbed' - and this secret is that the great majority of the victims are already dead. I can improve on that, actually. All of the victims of murder, whether of mass slaughter or serial individual butchery, are already dead. And some that aren't, soon will be already dead. It doesn't take very long to kill a human being; and it doesn't take very long to kill thousands upon thousands of them. In Rwanda, going on a million were done to death in a matter of months. If you discount the already dead from your calculation of the morality of a given regime change, a given humanitarian intervention, you thereby put a value of next to nothing on anyone who is still alive, but menaced with the proximate threat of being killed. For there's only a fleeting few moments between being alive and being violently dead, and once people are dead (the way the world works), they're immediately dead already. If their lives, once taken, are worth nothing to the moral case, then the lives of others yet to be taken aren't going to be worth very much.
I don't want to do any distortion to the position as argued by Kenneth Roth for Human Rights Watch. It can be said in his defence that he doesn't discount the already dead. For he writes:
"Better late than never" is not a justification for humanitarian intervention, which should be countenanced only to stop mass murder, not to punish its perpetrators, desirable as punishment is in such circumstances.But this is to displace the political question at issue here into a legal one. Of course, bringing the perpetrators of terrible crimes to justice is a necessary and vital pursuit. It does not, however, stand in for the question of whether or not the regime whose thugs the perpetrators were is fit, morally and politically, to survive within the community of nations, fit to have its sovereignty respected, and fit - one cannot avoid saying this bluntly - to enjoy the benefit of marchers, enlightenened opinion formers, veteran socialists, spotless liberals, a whole huge planetary wave of protest, mobilizing against the prospect of its being militarily taken down. To discount the already dead in discussing that question is falsely to skew the issue in one way. It's not the only way it gets skewed, however. There's also an implication in some advocacy of this sort that, the killing having 'ebbed' in Iraq, the only reasonable counterfactual inference that can be made about future victims of the regime, had the latter not been taken down, is a rate of killing of the 'ebbed' kind. This line of thought might be validly applicable to some state or other with grave crimes (maybe even genocidal ones) in its remote past, but which has evolved over decades or more into something more benign. I think I can safely say without additional argument that that wasn't true of the Saddam Hussein regime. Presided over by a political monster, with two sons waiting, in the possible succession, who had more than shown their own aptitude for cruelties which most of the good peace marchers will find nearly unthinkable without their being overcome by existential revulsion and fear, a regime that was certainly a continuing threat to those living under it and perceived, quite reasonably, as a potential if not immediate threat beyond its borders, it gave no grounds at all for confidence in the hypothesis of an 'ebbed' future level of killing.
That does not mean that past atrocities should be ignored. Rather, their perpetrators should be prosecuted.
The criteria for humanitarian intervention deployed by Kenneth Roth (amongst others) would allow a regime that had just massacred, let us say, two million of its own people, but had finished massacring them, to stand with its sovereignty and its international legitimacy intact. If those are the criteria you uphold, do you not, in effect, say this to every Saddam Hussein, every Robert Mugabe? 'It's not the killing of people that will imperil your regime; it's the killing of them too slowly, too continuously, in too ongoing a sort of way.' Not quite a year ago I wrote on this blog of a shameful moral failure of left and liberal opinion (July 29 - old site). Nothing that has happened in the year since has changed my view about that. One of its most unpleasant symptoms has been the style of argument I've highlighted in this post. That it should have been adopted even by so good an organization as Human Rights Watch is testimony to the sorry state of progressive opinion across the globe.
In due course I shall conclude this series of posts with one more instalment.