No Justice, No Peace

The battle for Baghdad may be over, but the war is only getting more dangerous

Rashid Khalidi

Go back 33 years and look at the pretexts given for the war in Indochina. See how hollow they look today? In far less than 33 years, the pretexts for the war in Iraq, which now appears to have ended, will be revealed as being equally hollow, shortsighted and mendacious.

This was explicitly described as being a preventive or pre-emptive war, meaning it absolutely had to be waged to prevent an imminent, present danger to the national security of the United States. It is now crystal clear, if it were not so before the war began, that there was no demonstrable danger to the United States from Iraq. The country was so debilitated after the 1991 war and subsequent sanctions that even its immediate neighbors did not feel threatened. Most of them did not support this war, even though all of them had strong grievances against the regime in Baghdad. We have now seen just how feeble Iraq was: Barely four divisions of American and British troops crushed its military and occupied the country in little more than three weeks. Iraq’s execrable and tyrannical regime posed no threat to anyone but its own people. There was absolutely no connection between Iraq and 9/11.

Its backers justified this war largely because of the dangerous arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that Iraq allegedly possessed. If they existed, the Iraqi regime did not use such weapons defensively against U.S. forces when its very existence was in peril. This shows that Iraq was eminently deterrable, contrary to the hysterical frothing of the war proponents about the irrationality of its regime. Moreover, U.S. forces have not yet found these weapons, meaning at the very least that they were probably not issued to military units. Indeed, they may all have been destroyed, as the defector Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel stated during his interrogation before his ill-fated return to Baghdad. And evidence from a variety of sources shows that Iraq had no nuclear or biological weapons (though it had programs to develop them before the 1991 war).

Iraq did have chemical weapons. Declassified government documents revealed that the United States facilitated their acquisition and acquiesced to their use during the ’80s against Iran and Iraq’s own Kurdish citizens. But when Donald Rumsfeld visited Baghdad as a presidential envoy in 1983, he never mentioned them. If chemical weapons still exist, they are illegal and should be removed. But chemical artillery shells and short-range rocket warheads posed no direct threat to the United States, and were no justification for a war.

Nor would such weapons warrant war if they exist in Syria. These and all other non-conventional weapons in the Middle East, notably Israel’s well-documented nuclear arsenal, should be removed (just as Israel should be brought into compliance with Security Council resolutions it has flouted). This should not be achieved by war, but rather as part of a multilateral effort to end the proliferation of non-conventional weapons and resolve disputes throughout this dangerous region.

This war was unjustified and foolish because it represented a dangerous challenge to international law and morality, to the stability of the international system, to traditional alliance systems, and ultimately to the security of the United States. Pre-emptive war on flimsy pretexts establishes dangerous precedents that will now be cited by other would-be aggressors, for whom the elevation of the law of the jungle to the guiding principle of international morality will be most convenient. We have benefited enormously from the existing post-World War II international order anchored in the United Nations, which the Bush administration cavalierly decided to discard. While it did so, the administration deceived the public via its compliant organs of war propaganda, FOX, CNN and MSNBC, with transparent fictions like the existence of a “coalition” consisting of Britain, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and a few other states ashamed to be publicly associated with this disreputable effort.

This war was unjustified and indeed dangerous because it has completely and utterly alienated the rest of the world. You will not see that stark reality conveyed in the pap served up by the American cable TV outlets, but you need just look at media produced literally anywhere else in the world to see that the United States is totally alone in its effort in Iraq, except for Sancho Panza Blair at No. 10 Downing Street. We need international cooperation to achieve many national purposes, not least among them dealing with the real purveyors of terrorism directed against this country, like al-Qaeda, rather than the phantasmal conglomeration of enemies conjured up by the Bush administration to justify what amounts to a permanent state of war domestically and globally.


This war also was allegedly fought to bring liberty and democracy to Iraq. The war party would have been more honest if they had stuck to their original stated objective of “regime change.” The United States has changed the regime in Baghdad with relative ease. However, I would venture to predict that we are unlikely to see true democracy on the banks of the Tigris anytime soon. The Iraqis do not want U.S. bases established in their country, do not want others to control their oil resources, and undoubtedly do not want their country to recognize Israel and provide it with oil—all things that we have been explicitly told will take place under the shadow of the U.S. occupation. Moreover, most Iraqis are Shi’a and may want an Islamic government. They are unlikely to be allowed one by their occupiers.

Finally, what you will not hear in the flow of muscled sarcasm and aggressive bullying Donald Rumsfeld so enjoys engaging in from his podium in the Pentagon are four words: the rule of law. That is something else we are unlikely to see in Baghdad anytime soon. Instead, we are already seeing stooges, carpetbaggers and convicted embezzlers like Ahmad Chalabi installed in positions of power. We will see rigged elections and handpicked assemblies. If the Iraqis get anything but chaos, they will get the regime the Pentagon wants, a regime which will last only as long as U.S. forces occupy the country and can maintain it in power.

The demise of the Iraqi regime must be counted as an unmitigated good. But against this unquestioned gain must be set the unknowable losses. Fortunately, only about 150 American and British soldiers have been killed and less than 600 wounded so far. How many thousands or tens of thousands of Iraqi conscripts died in the hail of fire our forces rained on them? The figures will be concealed from us as a matter of firm, unstated Pentagon policy. How many civilians died in Basra, Hilla, Nasiriya, Diwaniya and Baghdad? Again, our government will not tell us.

Most members of the compliant U.S. media, who should be finding out these things as a matter of professional responsibility, are too busy writing down the ineffable gems uttered by Rumsfeld and the generals. One British reporter has mentioned 1,000 civilians killed in one day, counted by one Baghdad hospital during the capture of the city. Another reported on the BBC that an Iraqi doctor in Hilla stated that 240 to 300 wounded patients had passed through his clinic alone. Where is the investigative reporting that would verify or disprove these numbers and provide us with serious totals of civilian casualties?

We also must know how much damage was done to Iraq’s educational, health and administrative systems by the war and the extensive looting and pillage thereafter. We already know two universities in Baghdad and one in Basra, the museums in Baghdad and Mosul, most hospitals in Baghdad, and 38 government ministries have been looted, many of them burned. Of course, the oil wells are safe. Ours is a government run by men (and one woman) with long experience in the oil business, and they know what is really important in Iraq. Its oil wells and its oil ministry escaped virtually unscathed from the war, and were carefully protected by U.S. troops thereafter. This was unfortunately not the case for the greatest collection of antiquities from perhaps the greatest and oldest civilization on earth, which were contained in those two museums, or for the national archives of Iraq going back hundreds of years, or for an extensive collection of Islamic texts including the oldest known copy of the Quran.

These are all gone, looted or burned, and this tragic loss (which under the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention and the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict is the responsibility of the occupying power) will be remembered and mourned by history long after the shabby, deceitful pretexts for this war have been forgotten. And as it has begun, with looting, chaos and deceit, so will this occupation continue, notwithstanding the relentlessly optimistic fairy tales provided by the Bush administration about how everything is getting better each day in Iraq.


Two final points are in order. First, Iraq has a long tradition of fierce resistance to foreign occupation. Most Iraqis probably wanted to see the end of the tyrannical regime that ruled them for 35 years. But most of those Iraqis who have expressed themselves to Western and Arab reporters (though never seen on television) almost without exception have said clearly that now that Saddam is gone, American troops should leave quickly.

They will most likely not go quickly enough, since the Bush administration seems to have too many sinister plans for installing carpetbaggers who are the personal friends of the mandarins in the Pentagon, for the long-term establishment of U.S. military bases in Iraq, for private (read: American) control of Iraqi oil, for scandalous profits for the likes of Bechtel and Halliburton. We should remember that Iraq was a country that Britain had to conquer, reconquer, and reconquer again with the greatest difficulty, in 1917, 1920 and 1941. It is a country that never willingly accepted British bases on its soil or British control of its oil. The protests against the continued American military presence we are seeing already in different parts of the country are only a harbinger of what is to come.

Finally, the people who sold us the shabby justifications for this war, the neocon hawks who emerged from their lairs at the American Enterprise Institute and now infest the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the vice president’s staff, have been very explicit in saying what they really want: Iraq is only part of a larger plan for a larger war. And this is the most profound reason why the war in Iraq was wrong.

A muscular international effort to disarm Iraq, by force if necessary, governed by an international consensus with strictly limited aims, would have been one thing. It might well have been achievable, were it not for the fact that the transparent ulterior motives of the Bush administration terrified the rest of the world. But the hawks did not want such a limited, multilateral effort under any circumstances. They were lusting for a unilateral, pre-emptive war to change the Iraqi regime and begin a process of radical, destabilizing change in the entire Middle East. This is not only wrong, it is profoundly misguided, for it ignores the history and present-day realities of the Middle East and seriously overestimates the power of the United States to reshape the international system single-handedly. It is a doomed project, one whose cost will be borne not only by the soldiers called on to sacrifice in Iraq and on the next battlefield, and the one after that, but by all of us here at home and by the entire world.

In the end, the best justification for having opposed the war in Iraq—futile though such opposition may temporarily seem today in light of the current orgy of chauvinistic triumphalism led by the cheerleaders on cable TV—is this: The war was wrong because it was unjustified, was driven by base motivations, and was intended by its authors to lead to another unjustified war, and perhaps another after that. That way lies empire, and the end of our republic, for the history of Athens and Rome teaches us that no republic can long survive at home when it becomes an empire abroad.

However, this transition from republic to empire is not an inexorable process. We, the citizens of this country, are not yet imperial subjects, and we can halt it. We can do so by halting the drive to the next war, by questioning the flimsy, shifting, deceitful rationales for the last one, and by exposing the corrupt nature of the anaesthetizing, shameless propaganda offered up by FOX, CNN and MSNBC.

Over two centuries ago, the founders of this republic all wisely warned against foreign adventures and dangerous entanglements of the sort we have just embarked on in Iraq. Perhaps they could not have foreseen the awesome power of the United States, or its global reach, or the depths of shamelessness to which so much of its media have sunk. Nevertheless, the wisdom of their advice remains highly relevant. We should heed it, and oppose the senseless march toward empire, which this war, and the next war, are meant to lead us on.

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Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University and author, most recently, of Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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