normblog on Iraq 

Norman Geras has written a wonderful 4000-word post defending the Iraq war. This latest installment in his "The argument over Iraq" series addresses a wide variety of possible objections, including my own ones that I last discussed here some days ago.

Geras's post is so valuable because it lays out many distinctions that need to be considered for a full version of the debate - so many of them are usually collapsed or glossed over for the sake of brevity (and laziness). For myself I have to say, I cannot object to the way in which Geras structures his presentation and his distinctions. Where I disagree with his final judgement - and I still do - is on issues that he lists, but on which he does not fully elaborate his own beliefs.

My position falls under his 'HW' group of objections: The preferred way for removal of a dictator should be self-emancipation of the people. In the case of Iraq, Geras calls this hand-waving (hence the unflattering acronym), because in 2002/2003 such self-emancipation was not a realistic scenario in the short term. Geras then mentions the historical examples of Nazi concentration and death camps, the target population of the Rwandan genocide, and the people of Darfur - it would be immoral to demand 'self-emancipation' of the victims in these situations. Does Iraq in 2002 pattern with these situations? Geras argues that while the situation in Iraq was not quite as bad as in these cases, it still passes the test of his two criteria for human intervention established earlier (see discussion in an update below). Geras also points out that other people believe Iraq did not pass appropriate thresholds for humanitarian intervention.

In my own opinion, there is a qualitative difference that is rather obvious: in the three extreme examples, no human-possible effort of the victims could have changed their collective predicament decisively. [UPDATE2 after comment by Jabotinsky: Therefore, humanitarian intervention is legitimate and even called for in these and similar situations. They are also characterised by support from a part of the population for atrocities against another part of the population, so that the struggle is not simply that of the collective 'people' against a tyranny exercised by a tiny minority. END OF UPDATE2] However, I do have a strong gut belief that a people can bring any unpopular dictator to the brink, even a violent one. True, this hardly ever happens in the worst of dictatorships with a strong security and suppression apparatus - but then it does. The case of Romania in 1989 comes to mind (and Eastern Germany to a lesser extent). The Hungarians in 1956 and the Czechs and Slovaks in 1968 almost managed. If a few percent more of the population would have participated actively in these revolutions, they might have succeeded - and even if they hadn't, without the Cold War support for a fledgling revolution would be available in today's geopolitical environment. This, of course, is armchair politics, and nothing to be proud of. But to call in the bombs is armchair politics as well for everybody except the supreme commander (and he, in this case, unfortunately seems to have been psychologically incapable of any significant empathy with the likely victims on the other side of the confrontation - another lesson from Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack). The fact is, there was no insurgency that could have been supported in Iraq, as the CIA for example was painfully aware.

One objection to the preceding paragraph could be that it ignores the different levels of 'human development' or the different strength-levels of civil society in Europe and in Iraq. Such differences surely would have to be considered, and less broad participation in an insurgency should be required in less developed nations before the international community would jump in to support the insurgents. Yet I am afraid that the situation in Iraq would have failed also under such a revised test.

UPDATE: In an earlier post, Norman Geras had stipulated two criteria that call for humanitarian intervention:
(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.

(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.
I consider these criteria acceptable, at least for provisional use as they are intended by Geras. However, to make the point of this post clear, I contend that they are not sufficient. If the people is the source of sovereignty, as democrats believe, then the people should condone the imminent infringement of the sovereignty of its nation before humanitarian intervention from outside takes place. In an undemocratic regime, the best way to convey the desire for intervention is if the people rises against the regime, in a scale and intensity that passes appropriate minimum thresholds that reflect the circumstances. This insurgency, which is carried by citizens putting their own personal security at stake, then has some moral legitimacy in calling for intervention by force from outside to overthrow the regime. Where such an insurgency does not exist, the criteria for humanitarian intervention would have to be applied in the strictest manner possible, and after particularly painstaking scrutiny of expected casualties of an invasion, to avoid a misinterpretation by outsiders of the preferences of the population itself.


Geras further discusses the necessary distinctions between premedidated murder and unintended killing, as well as distinctions of killing civilians and of killing combatants. These distinctions are valid. My own view, considering the Iraq case, is that economic hardship will have driven many people into the army for employment. Many of these soldiers would not have chosen to risk their lives for the defense of a mass-murderer in another social and economic system. And I admit that the refusal of leading politicians of the coalition to express what I would consider adequate grief for the Iraqi victims of the invasion may bias me against their case in this matter - something that is not relevant for the argument as such.

Yet, Geras is right when he emphasises that leaving Saddam in place would also have cost lives, namely those of Iraqi citizens that the regime would have tortured and killed in the future. The opponents of the war have to acknowledge this responsibility, which is by no means an easy thing to do.


"If the people is the source of sovereignty, as democrats believe, then the people should condone the imminent infringement of the sovereignty of its nation before humanitarian intervention from outside takes place."

And if "the people" are not just weak but also every bit as morally bankrupt as the dictator himself, as in Austria in 1938, is the suggestion that the world should stand by as the innocent victims of a targeted minority are murdered in their many thousands?

The price we Jews had to pay makes this kind of nonsense as utterly repellent as I am sure it would be to the Kurds, the Shia and the Marsh Arabs.

On a personal note, I am utterly sickened that, as an Austrian, you are not more sensitive to these matters. Not only has your country never truly recognised its immense guilt for the almost total destruction of European Jewry, but also the wealth of very many of Austria's citizens is derived from the victims of that great crime.

The next time you contemplate this matter: think of your fellow Austrians welcoming in Germany's army with wild abandon (no arms ever rose higher in the Nazi greeting); consider the jeering mobs of Austrians who took such great pleasure in the fact that Jews were forced to get down on their hands and knees and clean the streets; observe many of your businesses and homes and think about who should really own then; imagine the ghosts of all those people who cannot walk the streets because their grandparents were betrayed by their fellow citizens.

Or are you going to tell me that even a man of your obviously very high intelligence has not learned one single thing in the last sixty years?

jabotinsky, I agree with your attitude to the matter and I believe you have misunderstood my post.

In the post you criticise, I approvingly repeated three clear cases for intervention mentioned by Geras, namely the Nazi regime, the Rwandan genocide, and Darfur. I have recently also defended the Kosovo intervention. In all these cases, some part of the population was victimised by another part of the population - so that notion of "the people" is not applicable, since the population does not share in a collective, unvoluntary suffering. I would concede that in EVERY regime there are profiteers who prop up even the worst dictator, but I believe it is clear that there is a difference.

Should there have been humanitarian intervention to save the European Jews from the Nazis, as well as the Iraqi Kurds, Shia and Marsh Arabs in the early nineties? Yes, absolutely.

In the Iraqi case, the Kurds achieved tolerable autonomy by outside pressure later on - too late, of course - and the Shia and Marsh Arabs also stopped their insurgent activities, after suffering tremendous persecution. I might be empirically wrong in my evaluation of the Shia and Marsh Arabs situation, about which I know not as much as I should.

I apologise if my wording was not clear enough to prevent what I consider your misinterpretation of what I tried to say.

Let me assure you that I am painfully aware of what some of my own ancestors, as well as their generation of Austrians, did between 1938 and 1945. One of the recipes to prevent such events from ever reoccurring must be to strengthen the culture of critical argument, which is underdeveloped in this region.

I agree on all your points, but I have at least one addition: there should be a humanitarian intervention in the case of Palestina against the Israeli occupier.

Zev, I disagree with you if you claim that the situation in the occupied territories fulfills either the criteria for humanitarian intervention established by Geras or the even stricter version argued for in this post.

Do we have to find a way to deal with tyrannical governments that murder their own people. I would say yes. But, how remains a huge question still. I certainly hope it's not the way of Mr. Bush. If our aim is a humanitrian one then our means must be also. I agree that the people themselves must first agree to any intervention.

As an anti-war advocate I did disagree with Mr. Norman's statement that the opponents of the war would have supported it if the UN had authorized it. We never expected the UN to do such a thing. Bush's move against Iraq was clearly wrong so it never entered our minds at least not mine or those anti-warriors that I know that the UN would sanction such a move. And, we certainly expected the US to stand behind the Security Council it was a member of. That they didn't was the beginning of the end.

I haven't read the entire post. It's late here in France and it's a bit more information than I can take in at the moment. I will get back to it.

Frenchie, OK, I'm looking forward to your additional feedback. Of course in theory it would even be possible to dislike Bush and his style of politics profoundly but to believe that the war was a good thing independently (not my position).
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