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A war of liberation
The war that America is currently trying to justify is not

By Salman Rushdie
November 4, 2002
The Washington Post

NEW YORK: Just in case it had slipped your memory - and as the antiwar protests grow in size and volume, it easily might have - there is a strong, even unanswerable case for a "regime change" in Iraq. What's more, it's a case that ought to appeal not just to militaristic Bushie-Blairite hawks but also to lily-livered bleeding-heart liberals; a case, moreover, that ought to unite Western public opinion and all those who care about the brutal oppression of an entire Muslim nation.

In this strange, unattractive historical moment, the extremely strong anti-Saddam Hussein argument isn't getting a fraction of the attention it deserves.

This is, of course, the argument based on his three and a half-decade-long assault on the Iraqi people. He has impoverished them, murdered them, gassed and tortured them, sent them off to die by the tens of thousands in futile wars, repressed them, gagged them, bludgeoned them and then murdered them some more.

Saddam Hussein and his ruthless gang of cronies from his home village of Tikrit are homicidal criminals, and their Iraq is a living hell. This obvious truth is no less true because we have been turning a blind eye to it - and "we" includes, until recently, the government of the United States, an early and committed supporter of the "secular" Saddam against the "fanatical" Islamic religionists of the region.

Nor is it less true because it suits the politics of the Muslim world to inveigh against the global bully it believes the United States to be, while it tolerates the all-too-real monsters in its own ranks. Nor is it less true because it's getting buried beneath the loudly made but poorly argued U.S. position, which is that Saddam is a big threat, not so much to his own people but to Americans.

Iraqi opposition groups in exile have been trying to get the West's attention for years. Until recently, however, the Bush people weren't giving them the time of day, and even made rude remarks about Ahmed Chalabi, the most likely first leader of a democratized Iraq. Now, there's a change in Washington's tune. Good. One may suspect the commitment of the Wolfowitz-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis to the creation and support of a free, democratic Iraq, but it remains the most desirable of goals.

This is the hard part for antiwar liberals to ignore. All the Iraqi democratic voices that still exist, all the leaders and potential leaders who still survive, are asking, even pleading for the proposed regime change. Will the American and European left make the mistake of being so eager to oppose Bush that they end up seeming to back Saddam, just as many of them seemed to prefer the continuation of the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan to the American intervention there?

The complicating factors, sadly, are this U.S. administration's preemptive, unilateralist instincts, which have alienated so many of America's natural allies. Unilateralist action by the world's only hyperpower looks like bullying because, well, it is bullying. And the United States' new preemptive-strike policy would, if applied, make America itself a much less safe place, because if the United States reserves the right to attack any country it doesn't like the look of, then those who don't like the look of the United States might feel obliged to return the compliment. It's not always as smart as it sounds to get your retaliation in first.

Also deeply suspect is the U.S. government's insistence that its anti-Saddam obsession is a part of the global war on terror. As Al Qaeda regroups, attacking innocent vacationers in Bali and issuing new threats, those of us who supported the war on Al Qaeda can't help feeling that the Iraq initiative is a way of changing the subject, of focusing on an enemy who can be found and defeated instead of the far more elusive enemies who really are at war with America.

The connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda remains comprehensively unproven, whereas the presence of the Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, and of Qaeda sympathizers in that country's intelligence services, is well known. Yet nobody is talking about attacking Pakistan.

Nor does America's vagueness about its plans for a post-Saddam Iraq and its own "exit strategy" inspire much confidence. Yes, the administration is talking democracy, but does America really have the determination to (a) dismantle the Baathist one-party state and (b) avoid the military strongman solution that has been so attractive to American global scenarists in the past - "our son of a bitch," as Franklin Roosevelt once described the dictator Somoza in Nicaragua?

Does it (c) have the long-term stomach for keeping troops in Iraq, possibly in large, even Vietnam-size numbers, for what could easily be a generation, while democracy takes root in a country that has no experience of it whatever; a country, moreover, bedeviled by internal divisions and separatist tendencies?

How will it (d) answer the accusations that any regime shored up by U.S. military power, even a democratic one, would just be an American puppet? And (e) if Iraq starts unraveling and comes apart on America's watch, is the administration prepared to take the rap for that?

These are some of the reasons why I, among others, have remained unconvinced by President Bush's Iraqi grand design. But as I listen to Iraqi voices describing the atrocities of the Saddam years, then I am bound to say that if, as now seems possible, the United States and the United Nations do agree on a new Iraq resolution; and if inspectors do return, and, as is probable, Saddam gets up to his old obstructionist tricks again; or if Iraq refuses to accept the new UN resolution; then the rest of the world must stop sitting on its hands and join the Americans and British in ridding the world of this vile despot and his cohorts.

It should, however, be said and said loudly that the primary justification for regime change in Iraq is the prolonged suffering of the Iraqi people, and that the remote possibility of a future attack on America by Iraqi weapons is of secondary importance. A war of liberation might just be one worth fighting. The war that America is currently trying to justify is not.


Salman Rushdie, author of "Fury" and other novels, contributed this comment to
The Washington Post ("The liberal argument for regime change" -- Novemver 2, 2002).

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By Salman Rushdie

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