Iraq: The Road Not Taken

By mid-April, well over two million Iraqis, mainly Kurds, had fled their homes and were struggling to survive in freezing conditions on the high mountain range that forms the frontier with Iran and Turkey. A thousand a day, mainly babies and small children, were estimated to be dying either directly from cold and starvation or from diseases they could normally have resisted. Thousands, probably tens of thousands, Arabs and Kurds alike, have been killed or wounded by artillery or helicopter fire from Saddam Hussein’s forces, thousands more rounded up and tortured or summarily executed, or both, in the aftermath of the fighting. All the cities of the south, including the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, which are centers of veneration and pilgrimage for Shi’ite Muslims all over the world, have been laid waste by a bombardment far more indiscriminate than that of the allied air forces which took part in Desert Storm. Saddam Hussein is still in power in Baghdad, and has apparently regained control of most of the country.

One day, in the nature of things, Saddam will cease to rule Iraq. Some of his prisoners will probably be released alive. Some of the refugees may be able to return and rebuild their homes in relative safety. No doubt the cities and shrines will in due course be reconstructed. Some of those things may even have begun to happen by the time this article is published. But much of the damage done in Iraq since President Bush suspended hostilities on February 28 is by its nature irreparable. Could it have been avoided?

Argument about that question has tended to concentrate on two issues. Was Bush right to halt the fighting when he did? Should he have ordered his forces to shoot down Iraqi helicopters taking part in operations against the insurgents?

I believe he was right to halt the fighting. Not because of the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 678 which, by authorizing him to “restore international peace and security in the area,” gave him very wide discretion. But because the war had turned into a “turkey shoot” in which Iraqi conscripts, few of whom were even attempting any resistance, were being mowed down by the thousands; and because, by driving straight on to Baghdad, the US and its allies would have confirmed the widely held view in the region that their real objective was the destruction and domination of Iraq rather than the liberation of Kuwait. Any government that they installed in Baghdad would have been regarded as a puppet one, and Saddam would probably have become a regional martyr. The allies might all too easily have repeated the experience of so many external powers, including Israel and the US itself, which have intervened in Lebanon: initial welcome, attempt to restore the authority of a “legitimate” state, identification with one faction in a bitter internal dispute, growing resistance (“terrorism”), ignominious withdrawal.

The instinct voiced by Bush and by his British ally, Prime Minister John Major,…

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