An open letter to Divinity School faculty: The war in Iraq

By Jean Bethke Elshtain

To my colleagues:

I learned from Don Browning that a statement had circulated concerning the Iraq War and the Bush Administration. As I wasn’t sent the statement—no doubt an oversight—I didn’t have the opportunity to respond. I would not have signed it for a number of reasons. What follows are a few of my considerations based, as I believe political interventions ought to be, on the available evidence.

First, the claims concerning WMD by the Bush administration were as one with the Clinton administration, going back to 1998. At that time, both President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, argued that Saddam’s WMD were sufficient to “destroy the world”, in Albright’s words. The Iraq Liberation Act was passed at President Clinton’s urging, calling for “regime change” in Iraq. Clinton, Gore, and Albright are all on record as declaring Saddam had WMD, was a threat to the US, and should be removed. Unless we are so cynical that we believe two US administrations, Prime Minister Blair, and a host of others were all lying, there is no reason to suspect an intention to mislead on this subject. Too, the Kay report confirmed dozens of Iraqi weapons programs and documented Saddam’s intention to restart these programs when possible.

Second, the United States invoked international law. In November 2002, the administration persuaded the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 1441 which warned of “serious consequences” if Iraq failed to provide a thorough accounting. (And there were NO UN inspections going on until President Bush gave his speech and called upon the United Nations to live up to its own resolutions.) Hans Blix reported in December 2002, that Iraq had thus failed. We now know that the French and the Russians had no intention of backing “serious consequences” should Saddam flout this resolution. (More on this story will come out as the investigation of the kickback scandal concerning the UN food for oil program emerges—with French officials, apparently, heavily involved.) As I am sure you know, Article 51 of the UN Charter acknowledges that membership in the UN, based as it is on de jure sovereignty, does not inhibit a member nation from acting in its own behalf where its own assessment of security needs are concerned. The Clinton Administration by-passed the UN entirely to mount a war against the Serbs during the Kosovo crisis, given its assessment of the state of international law. Curiously, I heard very little by way of protest that this was a violation of international law.

Third, humanitarian considerations were offered consistently. These considerations went beyond the consignment of hundreds of thousands to mass graves—now being unearthed with forensic scientists working in Iraq to try to identify the dead, to get the most accurate sense of numbers slaughtered, and to help prepare the dossier for Saddam’s trial for crimes against humanity. In one of the recent operations, scientists found as of yet untold hundreds and hundreds—they are still counting—that included women and children, the women with hands tied behind their backs and all shot in the back of the head, the children clutching toys in some cases. Beyond that, Saddam’s diversion of oil-for-food money to his palaces and weapons programs resulted in the deaths of an estimated 60,000 Iraqi children per year—THIS ON THE UNITED NATION’S OWN DATA. (The United Nations Children’s Fund compiled this data.) Why does not the silent and unseen death that took place on a day-by-day basis figure in assessing whether a war to dislodge Saddam was or was not justified?

Fourth, the argument that oil played a central role as a casus belli cannot be sustained for the following reasons: Iraq has something like 12% to 13% of the world’s proven reserves. Kuwait has 10%. If oil were a key motivation, Kuwait could be conquered in a morning. If it was control over a lot of somebody’s oil that we wanted, we would have turned our tanks south from Camp Doha, rolled 10 miles into Kuwait City, and been done with it. Oil did play a role in another sense. Suppose Saddam acquired nuclear weapons, as he intended to do, and as the entire Clinton team believed he was bent on doing. Then he might have exercised control over his own 13%, Kuwait’s 10%, and Saudi Arabia’s approximately 25%. He would have had the potential to destroy the world economy. This no doubt helps to explain why such great heroes of democratic civil society as Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic, supported both Persian Gulf War I and the operation against Iraq. He, and other leaders in the new democracies, could anticipate potentially catastrophic consequences to their economies, hence their efforts to build up structures of decent, human rights-respecting societies. The US has spent $100 billion to fight Saddam. There are cheaper ways to get oil.

Finally, I agree with Don Browning that political interventions are much more effective and powerful if they take account of available data and are based on a response to the strongest arguments from the side one is contending against. I am sorry that the collective statement didn’t do that, in my view. Reasonable people of good will differ on the war in Iraq. I always give those who oppose the war the benefit of the doubt and accept their sincerity and credibility. It seems not to work the other way around. The statement suggests that anyone who, on balance, finds the Iraq war justified has been gulled by a wicked and ruthless administration using religion and ‘Old Glory’ as a cover. It suggests that we are a party to “sacrilege,” no less. It suggests that we have permitted ourselves to be “deliberately” misled. It leaves little room for debate and dialogue. In everything I have written about the war I acknowledge that there are grounds for opposing the war. It seems, however, that if one has found grounds for supporting it one falls into the camp of the deluded.

Forgive me for being blunt, but the statement is scarcely a model of circumspection. Clearly, it was not intended to be such but, rather, to be a polemical intervention in a presidential campaign. It would have been a much stronger intervention had serious consideration been given to the strongest arguments for going to war. My response is not intended to be a public intervention. I am not sending it to anyone save my colleagues and I do so because I think it important that we not assume that we are entirely monolingual on the Iraq war. I regret that the statement suggests otherwise.

Your colleague,

Jean Bethke Elshtain