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…

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