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Big Questions About Iraq

The Iraq situation is turning into a mess. Bickering between the United States and Germany-France-Belgium over how to deal with Saddam Hussein has risen to worrisome levels. Should there be a war? Should there be a second resolution? Should the United Nations be involved? Should Hussein be given another chance? These are all questions that deserve to be debated and which have obvious short-term relevance.

Yet, unless we stand back from the immediacy of this situation, we may miss the opportunity to consider the vital longer-term questions that this crisis raises. In other words, the world community may be missing the opportunity to think about the forest instead of the trees.

To my mind, there are two fundamental questions that must be debated but that receive scant attention. The first is: ought the world community permit a figure like Saddam Hussein to rule? Is it right-in the year 2003-for one person to oppress a whole nation through terror and fear?

We tend not to talk a lot about this but Saddam has created one of the world’s most brutal totalitarian states. This man is-at this very moment-severely restricting the political freedoms and civil liberties of 25 million people: ordering summary executions, imprisoning thousands without trial, looting the country’s resources for his benefit, sending secret police to monitor conversations and travel, preventing exit from the country, etc. Iraq’s economy-once relatively rich compared to its neighbors at some US$9000 per capita-has been smashed by Saddam’s escapades and is down over 90 percent. Is all of this okay? Is it that Iraqis just unlucky and we’re lucky to have been born somewhere else?

If you didn’t know whether you would be born an Iraqi or born as an American or European, would you still think the same?

For what it’s worth, I think it is unacceptable. And the conclusion that follows for me is that the world community must do something. This leaves us to the second fundamental question: how should the world community deal with such a figure as Saddam Hussein?

The answer is not obvious to me. I am mindful of the horrible costs of war after reading Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August last year.

I believe every opportunity to avoid such a fate must be tried. Yet it bothers me enormously that the “no war at any costs” argument fails to address the fundamental questions I mentioned. If there is no war, what is to be done with Saddam Hussein? Will he be allowed to continue oppressing 25 million Iraqis? Containment seems a fine option, as long as one’s own family doesn’t live under Saddam’s finger in Baghdad.

I think our best hope (and the best hope for people being oppressed around the world) is to have a strong, reformed, and more legitimate United Nations that is able to declare such oppressive rulers in violation of basic global principles and-after a lengthy period of consideration and an appeal for change-to remove and arrest them. Importantly such a body would need a deep foundation of legitimacy from the world community (something the current UN seriously lacks) and a strong, standing army or enforcement arm to put its judgments into effect. We’re a long way from that now, but my sense is that in 50 years time such a body will exist.

The main point is: Saddam Hussein’s behavior raises deep questions about justice in the international system. We must think about these larger questions-the stakes are enormously high. We can begin by asking: is it okay for a leader like Saddam (and others) to oppress their people? If not, what should be the response of the world community?

February 18, 2003
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