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After Five Years

The Iraq war deeply divided democratic public opinion all over the world. It divided the community of former dissidents of Eastern Europe, too, including the authors of this text. Adam Michnik supported the invasion while János Kis opposed it.

We have been united in the struggle against Communist totalitarianism. In 1989, we both supported a peaceful, negotiated transition in our countries— Poland and Hungary—to liberal democracy and a market economy. In the 1990s, we both resisted—in our different ways—the attempts by a variety of political forces to launch an anti-Communist witch-hunt. We both favored the accession of our countries to NATO and the European Union. We agreed that the international community had a duty to intervene in Bosnia to halt armed conflict and genocide, and that the intervention ought to have come much earlier than it finally did. We agreed that military action to reverse ethnic cleansing in Kosovo was justified. But we found ourselves in serious disagreement over Iraq. How could this happen to us?

Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator. His rule was based on naked force; he had no moral right not to be removed by force. The intervention promised to end a bloody tyranny, and that was a very good reason for supporting it. The justification of invading a sovereign state requires pondering other considerations as well; both of us were clear about this. But we formed different judgments on whether post-Saddam Iraq would become a pilot democratic state in the Middle East or fall prey to sectarian violence and international terrorism. We were not equally convinced by the allegations concerning Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and not equally pessimistic about the threat that American unilateralism posed to the international order.

One of us, Adam Michnik, judged that the value of ending extensive and flagrant violations of human rights is so great that the risks and dangers inherent in military action, no matter how serious they are, cannot outweigh it. The other, János Kis, believed that the likelihood of Iraq sinking into civil war, the division of opinion about the invasion in the community of democratic states, and a new surge of anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East would ultimately compromise the entire venture. At the end of a long, friendly debate, each of us remained unconvinced by the arguments of the other.

Five years after the invasion of Iraq we continue to disagree on whether the war was worthy of support, given what information, or misinformation, was available in the months leading up to it. Clearly, the Bush administration has dealt with the occupation of Iraq with extreme irresponsibility, arrogance, and incompetence. But this disastrous performance was not intrinsic to the idea of toppling Saddam. The leaders of the occupying forces could have avoided dismantling the state institutions, disbanding the army, and engaging in a de-Baathification campaign. They could have had a plan to deal with ethnic and religious conflict. They could have prepared themselves for the rising influence of Iran on the Shia majority that has come to power in Iraq. They could and should have refrained from arbitrarily arresting, humiliating, and torturing people; but the guidelines issued by the Department of Justice and the Pentagon on how to deal with suspected terrorists encouraged the practice of arbitrary detention and “harsh interrogation.”

Ironically, the mistakes and sins of the Bush administration have contributed to sustaining rather than resolving the disagreement over support for the invasion. For some of those who opposed the war, the arrogance and recklessness of the way the Bush administration dealt with the post-invasion situation is evidence that the very idea of ending Saddam’s rule by military force was a blunder. For some of those who supported the war, the same facts are evidence that much could have happened differently. And so we continue to disagree on the retrospective question. But the backward-looking disagreement has small impact on the judgments concerning what to do now, five years after the invasion. As quite often happens with serious disagreements, ours has been resolved not by an achievement of consensus but rather by the disagreements fading into irrelevance. Even if we remain divided on the case for starting the war, we are now united on the necessity of ending it.

We both believe that the war cannot be won by military means. With or without more troops, the American military forces have no capacity to control or defeat all the militias and insurgent groups that pose a challenge to the Iraqi government.

Three tentative practical conclusions seem to recommend themselves. First, the aim of establishing a state capable of enforcing the rule of law in Iraq cannot be promoted by a desperate pursuit of military success. It rather has to be promoted through a complex political process. Second, it may well be the case that an indefinite occupation of the country obstructs that process rather than facilitating it. Third, when deliberating on the conditions of military withdrawal, one should not stick to the aim of a final victory. More modest goals must be set.

There is one conclusion that certainly does not follow. The disastrous outcome of the Iraqi adventure does not suggest that the very idea of humanitarian intervention should be abandoned. The protection of human rights is a responsibility of the international community and there are occasions when force must be used in order to discharge that responsibility properly. One reason why the Iraq policy of the Bush administration must be reversed is that the war against Saddam has compromised a principle that should be upheld and made an integral part of international law. That principle will not be rehabilitated until the American troops leave Iraq.

—June 19, 2008

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