George Bush made a mistake when he referred to the Saddam Hussein regime as "evil." Every liberal and leftist knows how to titter at such black-and-white moral absolutism. What the president should have done, in the unlikely event that he wanted the support of America's peace-mongers, was to describe a confrontation with Saddam as the "lesser evil."
This is a term the Left can appreciate. Indeed, "lesser evil" is part of the essential tactical rhetoric of today's Left, and has been deployed to excuse or overlook the sins of liberal Democrats, from President Clinton's bombing of Sudan to Madeleine Albright's veto of an international rescue for Rwanda when she was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Among those longing for nuance, moral relativism -- the willingness to use the term evil, when combined with a willingness to make accommodations with it -- is the smart thing: so much more sophisticated than "cowboy" language.
Actually, the best case for a regime change in Iraq is that it is the lesser evil: better on balance than the alternatives, which are to confront Saddam later and at a time of his choosing, trust him to make a full disclosure to inspectors or essentially leave him alone.
You might think that the Left could have a regime-change perspective of its own, based on solidarity with its comrades abroad. After all, Saddam's ruling Ba'ath Party consolidated its power by first destroying the Iraqi communist and labor movements, and then turning on the Kurds (whose cause, historically, has been one of the main priorities of the Left in the Middle East). When I first became a socialist, the imperative of international solidarity was the essential if not the defining thing, whether the cause was popular or risky or not. I haven't seen an anti-war meeting all this year at which you could even guess at the existence of the Iraqi and Kurdish opposition to Saddam, an opposition that was fighting for "regime change" when both Republicans and Democrats were fawning over Baghdad as a profitable client and geopolitical ally. Not only does the "peace" movement ignore the anti-Saddam civilian opposition, it sends missions to console the Ba'athists in their isolation, and speaks of the invader of Kuwait and Iran and the butcher of Kurdistan as if he were the victim and George W. Bush the aggressor.
Some peaceniks clear their throats by saying that, of course, they oppose Saddam Hussein as much as anybody, though not enough to support doing anything about him.
But some don't even bother to make this disavowal. In the United States, the main organizer of anti-war propaganda is Ramsey Clark, who perhaps understandably can't forgive himself for having been Lyndon Johnson's attorney general. However, he fails to live down this early disgrace by acting as a front man for a sinister sect -- the International Action Center, cover name for the Workers World Party -- which refuses to make any criticism of the Saddam regime. It is this quasi-Stalinist group, co-organized by a man with the wondrous name of Clark Kissinger, which has recruited such figures as Ed Asner and Marisa Tomei to sign the "Not In Our Name" petition. Funny as this may be in some ways (I don't think the administration is going to war in the name of Ed Asner or Marisa Tomei, let alone Gore Vidal), it is based on a surreptitious political agenda. In Britain, the chief spokesman of the "anti-war" faction is a Labour MP named George Galloway, who is never happier than when writing moist profiles of Saddam and who says that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the worst moment of his life.
For the democratic and libertarian Left, that same moment was a high point and not a low one. But there were three ruling parties in the world that greeted the liberation of Eastern Europe with unreserved gloom. These were the Socialist Party of Serbia, the Ba'ath Party of Iraq and the Workers' Party of North Korea, guided by their lugubrious yet megalomaniacal leaders. Since then, these three party-states and selfish dictators have done their considerable best to ruin the promise of the post Cold War years and to impose themselves even more ruthlessly on their own peoples and neighbors. It took a long time for the world to wake up to Slobodan Milosevic and even longer to get him where he belongs, which is in the dock. It will probably be even more arduous ridding ourselves of the menace of Saddam Hussein.
The most depressing thing, for me at any rate, has been to see so much of the Left so determined to hamper this process, which is why, after 20 years, I have given up my column in the Nation magazine. The Left has employed arguments as contemptible as those on whose behalf they have been trotted out. It maintained that any resistance to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo would lead to a wider war, chaos and/or the rallying of the Serbs to Milosevic. It forecast massive quagmires and intolerable civilian casualties. If this sounds familiar, it may be because you are hearing it again now and heard it last year from those who thought the Taliban-al Qaeda base in Afghanistan was not worth fighting about.
But the element of bad faith in the argument is far worse than the feeble-minded hysteria of its logic. In the Balkans, those on the Left and Right who favored intervention could not live with the idea that Europe would permit the extermination of its oldest Muslim minority. At that point, the sensibilities of Islam did not seem to matter to the Ramsey Clarks and Noam Chomskys, who thought and wrote of national-socialist and Orthodox Serbia as if it were mounting a gallant resistance to globalization. (Saddam, of course, took Milosevic's side even though the Serb leader was destroying mosques and murdering Muslims.)
Now, however, the same people are all frenzied about an American-led "attack on the Muslim world." Are the Kurds not Muslims? Is the new Afghan government not Muslim? Will not the next Iraqi government be Muslim also? This meaningless demagogy among the peaceniks can only be explained by a masochistic refusal to admit that our own civil society has any merit, or by a nostalgia for Stalinism that I can sometimes actually taste as well as smell.
There is, of course, a soggier periphery of more generally pacifist types, whose preferred method of argument about regime change is subject change. The same people, in other words, who don't think that Saddam has any weapons of mass destruction will argue the next moment that, if attacked, he will unleash them with devastating effect. Or they say that a Palestinian solution should come first, which would offer Saddam a very long lease, given the prospects of a final settlement with Israel (which, meantime, he would have the power and incentive to disrupt). Or they say we should try deterrence or containment -- the two terms most ridiculed by the Left during the Cold War. And what about the fact that "we" used to be Saddam's backers? And, finally, aren't there other bad guys in the region, and isn't this a double standard?
The last two questions actually have weight, even if they are lightly tossed around. The serious response to the first one would be that, to the extent that the United States underwrote Saddam in the past, this redoubles our responsibility to cancel the moral debt by removing him. The serious response to the second one would involve noticing that the Saudi Arabian and Turkish oligarchies are, interestingly enough, also opposed to "regime change" in the region. And since when is the Left supposed to argue for preservation of the status quo? Even a halfway emancipated Iraq would hold out at least the promise of a better life for the Kurds (which annoys the Turks). Its oil resources, once freed up, could help undercut the current Saudi monopoly. Excellent. This is presumably unintelligible to those content to chant, "No war for oil," as if it were a matter of indifference who controlled the reserves of the region, or who might threaten to ignite or even irradiate these reserves if given the chance.
As someone who has done a good deal of marching and public speaking about Vietnam, Chile, South Africa, Palestine and East Timor in his time (and would do it all again), I can only hint at how much I despise a Left that thinks of Osama bin Laden as a slightly misguided anti-imperialist. (He actually says he wants to restore the old imperial caliphate and has condemned the Australian-led international rescue of East Timor as a Christian plot against Muslim Indonesia). Or a Left that can think of Milosevic and Saddam as victims.
Instead of internationalism, we find among the Left now a sort of affectless, neutralist, smirking isolationism. In this moral universe, the views of the corrupt and conservative Jacques Chirac -- who built Saddam Hussein a nuclear reactor, knowing what he wanted it for -- carry more weight than those of persecuted Iraqi democrats. In this moral universe, the figure of Jimmy Carter -- who incited Saddam to attack Iran in 1980, without any U.N. or congressional consultation that I can remember -- is considered axiomatically more statesmanlike than Bush.
Sooner or later, one way or another, the Iraqi and Kurdish peoples will be free of Saddam Hussein. When that day comes, I am booked to have a reunion in Baghdad with several old comrades who have been through hell. We shall not be inviting anyone who spent this precious time urging democratic countries to give Saddam another chance.