Sunday, February 01, 2004

The vanishing case for Iraq

As the months have gone by and Saddam's WMDs have failed to be uncovered, supporters of the war have increasingly fallen back on humanitarianism as a justification for the Iraq war. "Saddam was a tyrant who oppressed his people", the usual refrain goes, "he had to be overthrown to save Iraqis".

So what do the real humanitarians think of this? Human Rights Watch - an organisation which was chronicling Saddam's crimes when Bush I was ordering his troops to stand by and let the Shi'ites be massacred - doesn't buy it. It's director, Ken Roth, examines the conditions under which humanitarian military interventions are justifiable, and concludes that the war in Iraq was not justifiable on humanitarian grounds.

The analysis parallels traditional analyses of when it is permissible for an individual to use force in defence of themselves or others. However, because war is such a messy and uncertain business, with far greater potential for death, destruction, and disorder, HRW sets the bar far higher. Without the consent of the local government, humanitarian intervention

...can be justified only in the face of ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life

While Saddam had certainly met this threshold in the past (notably during his 1988 campaign against the Kurds, and in suppressing the uprisings against his regime following his defeat in Kuwait in 1991), there was nothing on this scale going on in early 2003, and no obvious preparations for such. HRW concludes that

Brutal as Saddam Hussein’s reign had been, the scope of the Iraqi government’s killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire magnitude that would justify humanitarian intervention

But what if it had been? HRW lays out five subsidiary conditions which must also be met. Military action for humanitarian motives must:

  • be a last resort;
  • be "guided primarily by a humanitarian purpose" (this does not preclude other motives, but they must be subsidiary);
  • comply with international human rights standards (the means must be concordant with the ends);
  • be reasonably likely to actually make things better; and
  • ideally should be endorsed by the UN or other appropriate multilateral institutions, except in extremis.

HRW concludes that even if the brutality of Saddam's regime had justified intervention, it did not meet these conditions. The war was not a last resort (quite the contrary - Bush has been looking for an excuse to attack Saddam since taking office); at the time it was sold as being all about WMDs, terrorism and preventing an "imminent threat" to the United States; it was conducted with significant disregard for civilian lives; post-war planning was inadequate to non-existent, virtually guaranteeing the total collapse of security and living standards we have seen, and inviting a civil war when the US departs; and there was no UN or multilateral support - the international consensus was firmly against the war.

That's a fairly thorough trashing of the "humanitarian justification". I wonder what ad-hoc excuse Bush's supporters will trot out next?

(As for Juan Cole's disagreement, the case of the Marsh Arabs is fairly well covered by those five criteria; the war that was planned and the war we got simply did not meet those conditions. Justifying the war as punishment for Saddam's past crimes is more interesting... self-defence theory rules out using force after the fact if there is no threat; if you see a murderer eating lunch in McDonald's, you can't just shoot him. However, if the US had pursued the course of action suggested - approaching the UN demanding action under the Convention on Genocide, and effectively deposed (in the medieval sense) Saddam for his crimes - then their actions would have been entirely justifiable...)