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Gulf War II: Costs, Benefits, and Ethics
June 4, 2003
By Bucky Rea

We've still not seen the end of the consequences of this war with Iraq. The invasion by the US and Britain is still potentially a recruitment boon to al-Qaeda. During May, over 30 American service personnel have been killed by Iraqi resistance or by accidents. But I have other concerns about the human and political costs and the value of any claims of "benefits" that may arise from the war.

The human cost is not just the 200 or so coalition dead. Since the war's supporters want to include the humanitarian benefits of the war, it's only honest to count the full human costs, as well. The civilian death count, as of May 31st, includes between 5500 and 7000 Iraqis. The numbers will almost certainly go much higher. Iraqi military deaths are still officially uncountable, but best estimates "start at around 10-12,000."

Compared to the 200 coalition deaths, almost 20% of which resulted from the inevitable accidents of large-scale troop movements, the thousands upon thousands of dead Iraqis speak to exactly what sort of "threat" Saddam Hussein ever really posed to the US and Great Britain.

Well, if Iraq wasn't a military threat, perhaps it was a terrorist threat? Not according to Hans Blix, who, among others, is starting to wonder whether Saddam Hussein ever had any WMDs. Every time we hear about possible new finds of terror weapons, it turns out to be a false alarm. Or rather, after the initial reports of possible finds, the stories drop from the air, leaving only the vague impression that something must be there.

Perhaps some illegal weapon stores will still turn up. But two other scenarios are much more likely: (1) Saddam Hussein may have (as months ago), handed over any weapons he had to terrorists in response to an imminent American attack. If this is the case, attacking Iraq was amazingly stupid.

Or, (2) Saddam Hussein never really had the weapons that the Bush Administration claimed he held. If the White House suspected this, they would be wise to keep the trained UN inspectors out and rely upon only American inspectors (even if the less experienced US military inspectors are prone to the occasional false alarm). This is, of course, exactly what the US has done.

The reasons for keeping UN inspectors out and relying on neophyte American inspectors is spurious and facile - it amounts to little more than the assertion that, because we did the killing, we get to do the looking. The most logical fear in the world community is that, without trained UN oversight, the US could ensure that terror weapons are "found" in Iraq, which would be necessary because of US assertions before the war. The lack of an emergence of actual WMD stores since US inspections began, however, belies the fear that the administration is willing to plant evidence on Iraq. But the absence of evidence also continues to belie our claims of how necessary the war ever really was. To be less gentle, the facts at present seem to suggest that the 15-20,000 deaths were for nothing.

In either case, the US administration has begun to shift the "emphasis" away from the security aspects of the war, which were either fallacious (if are no WMDs) or bungled badly (if there are some which Saddam has now squirreled away to the next bin Ladin), and away from the legal justifications for the war (which never existed) and shift emphasis toward the humanitarian/world order benefits.

No one can doubt that the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein in power. Perhaps his demise will serve as an example to other office-holding thugs in the third world. For instance, he's probably inspired Iran, North Korea, and who knows who else to develop more credible threats to American invasion plans. Sadly, US actions are based solely on a simple "ends justify the means" argument - unless and until we can provide some legal foundations for the war. But such foundations simply do not exist.

Iraq was no threat to the US. Evidence of links between Iraq and any "al-Qaeda-like" organizations does not exist. The authorizing body for action in Iraq, the UN and its Security Council, specifically refused to support the US-British invasion of Iraq. The war itself blatantly violates the UN Charter, which as a treaty holds a higher authority of law in America than even the US Constitution. The invasion itself violate s international law.

But it is not just what the war violates that we should think of. For people to whom such things matter, there is also the problem of the legal precedents that the US has established by this war. What tinpot dictator won't jump onboard to share in the policy of "pre-emptive war"? In light of the war against Afghanistan in 2001, even the 9/11 terrorist attacks could be spun as a preemptive strike, after all. What international bully doesn't benefit from the US's refusal to adhere to the voice of the Security Council - thus making the principal voice of peace in the world seem irrelevant?

We can flatter ourselves, claiming that it is a moral country like the US that has the power to ignore world opinion and that we will only attack bad guys like Saddam Hussein. And certainly no rational person can look at the US military's performance in Iraq and say this was not the behavior of an honorable nation. There was little looting by our soldiers. As individuals, as the sons and daughters of a democratic nation, they instead were punctilious about avoiding, wherever possible, causing civilian casualities. The high numbers of civilian casualties easily could have been higher and the responsibility for the deaths is to be shared by Bush's poor policy choices and Saddam's willingness to sink his nation along with his own corrupt career. Impolitic displays of "conquest" as with the display the American flag atop Iraqi buildings, were quickly corrected by superior officers.

But with the selection of Iraq as this year's whipping boy, while North Korea, Nigeria, Liberia, Saudi Arabia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Bangladesh, and Guatemala go unmolested, we cannot escape the impression that it is simply a matter of Saddam having his sand on top of our oil. The 2003 Amnesty International report provides a convenient checklist of countries with equally vicious regimes equally worthy of being deposed. This is not even to count the abuses of more powerful countries, like Russia's behavior in Chechnya, Israel's toward the Palestinians, and China's occupation of Tibet.

Instead, the ties between the Bush Administration and the oil and construction companies who have been awarded multibillion dollar reconstruction contracts in Iraq - without the normally required bidding process - only exacerbate the impression that this was a war about profits, not human justice. If these cozy relationships are not evidence of corruption, they are at least acts of cronyism by men and woman with a remarkable apathy toward avoiding the impression of being corrupt.

Justifying the war with Iraq requires us to base the rules of international military behavior on who men are, not on laws, principles, and the covenants between nations. The selection of Iraq for a take-down is either arbitrary, or based on political convenience - not based on law. But Machiavellian ethics is a two-way street. If we base the permissibility of our own actions solely on the facts that (1) we think it's OK for us to do it in this situation and (2) everyone else can be safely ignored, then we empower every terrorist in the world to make the same assumptions. This is the very definition of the law of "might makes right," the law of the jungle. I want us to be better than that. I know our principles expect us to be better than that. Certainly the maintenance of world peace requires us to do better than that.

But because the US has embraced this philosophy of "the ends justify the means," the Bush Administration has instead championed the exact opposite of a peaceful world order. They have laid the foundation for a more competitive, violent, and turbulent international system. We have not felt the last of the ripples of this war. I'm very much afraid that we have not felt the worst of the ripples either.


Bucky Rea is a high school teacher in Texas and writes an online history column, Alternative History, for Suite 101.com. He can be reached for comment at foolscourtpress-at-hotmail-dot-com.

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