Self-Criticism After the Victory (and a Postscript)

By Irfan Khawaja
[First published Pakistan Today, May 2003.]

“It’s one thing to have a good point,” one of my mentors used to say, “and quite another to make one.” If there’s anyone who could stand to learn this distinction, it’s the US government. No country does as bad a job as ours at defending its own principles and policies, and none works harder at undercutting them.  As it happens, there’s no better illustration of this than its conduct during and since the recent Iraq war.

As I argued in my February 28 [2003] column, there really was only one defensible justification for war with Iraq: disarmament. And as I argued there (and will argue at length in forthcoming columns), more than a decades’ worth of evidence indicated (and still indicates) that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and that such WMDs could pose a real threat to the US. Whether we find them now or not, to deny this fact is to flout the evidence, akin to arguing that the theory of evolution must be false because there are gaps in the fossil record.

The evidence also indicated that while UN inspections could have diminished the WMD threat somewhat, they could not, by the inspectors’ own admission, have eliminated it. The inspectors were more careful in this respect than those who propagandized on their behalf: unlike the propagandists, the inspectors were careful to withhold guarantees of success—any kind of success, no matter how modest. That meant that to play the UN inspections game was to gamble American national security quite literally on insecurity.

Given the necessity of disarming Iraq, and lacking a peaceful way of doing so, war was our only feasible disarmament option. To the extent that full disarmament might require regime-change and occupation, these things were also justifiable—but only as a means to disarmament, not as an act of charity to the Iraqis, much less as part of an open-ended adventure in worldwide liberation. Liberation was a side-benefit of the war, not its basic rationale. The basic rationale was American national security, no more and no less.

It’s a matter of puzzlement to me that no government official (with the exception of Tony Blair) has been able to make this point in a convincing way. Nor have most of the supporters of the Iraq war. Instead, both the government and its boosters have spent the better part of a year trying to hide the actual justification for the war by cloaking it in three irrelevancies: liberation, the authority of the UN, and “the Al Qaida connection.” As a result, volumes of anti-war illogic, evasion, and lies have gone unanswered while defenders of the war have focused elsewhere. Before we can deal the intellectual crimes of the war’s critics, then, we have to clear away the pseudo-justifications of some of the war’s defenders.  

The most popular pseudo-justification for the war—and the most dangerous—is what I call the argument from liberation. The argument has been made loudly by some Iraqi-Americans, including the Iraqi-American academic Adeed Dawisha of Miami University: “Getting rid of Saddam Hussein is a subject of much higher moral order than avoiding a war. It is a mystery to me how people in academia, who consider themselves liberal, don’t see that in terms of justice and moral responsibility of a civilized world, we need to rescue the Iraqi people from this nightmare” (quoted on the website of Professor Martin Kramer,, April 11 [2003]).

It’s not a “mystery” at all. Saddam Hussein was, to be sure, unqualifiedly evil, and his regime had zero legitimacy. But the illegitimacy of a regime is not by itself a reason for invading a country, and was not the right reason for invading Iraq. What made Iraq invasion-worthy was not its turpitude as such, but its danger to us. After all, there are and have been any number of terrible regimes in the world, many of them as bad as or worse than Iraq. We have generally ignored or tried to ignore such regimes: think of Rwanda. And we have been absolutely right to do so. If the badness of a regime were a sufficient reason for invading it, consistency would require our waging perpetual warfare for the rest of our time on earth, incurring monumental costs without the hope of compensation. That moral issue may leave Professor Dawisha cold, but I suspect that it makes perfect sense to the soldiers who actually have to do the fighting. The hard fact of the matter is that while the Iraqis may have “needed” to be rescued, we had no “need” whatsoever to rescue them.

To advance liberation as a justification for the Iraq war is willfully to forget the lessons of Vietnam. We went to war in Vietnam not because our security demanded it, but because our leaders, obsessed with ideas like “credibility” and “national prestige,” decided to liberate a nation essentially unwilling to liberate itself. In doing so, we violated our Constitution, incurred tens of thousands of casualties, created a culture of discord and distrust at home, and gained little more than a big black wall in Washington D.C. with the names of the dead carved into it. If the only reasons for going to war with Iraq were replicas of LBJ’s reasons for defending South Vietnam, the invasion of Iraq would have been pure folly—folly compounded by the fact of repetition.

The liberationist justification also understates the risks and costs of a protracted occupation. It’s true that some past American occupations have been success stories (or partial success stories): one thinks of Japan, Germany, South Korea, and the Philippines. But history is littered with liberationist failures, as well, failures motivated by the same “idealism” as that behind Prof. Dawisha’s comments. Apart from Vietnam, think of the British “liberation” of India, the French “liberation” of Algeria, the Israeli “liberation” of the West Bank, or the American “liberation” of the Cherokee and Sioux. Worth repeating?

For that matter, think of the Union occupation of the South after the Civil War (1865-1877). Those wild-eyed about liberation might remember that the project of liberating African-Americans from slavery in this country took a whole century—from Appomattox (1865) to the Voting Rights Act (1965)—and came at a wrenching and astronomical price. If this is the pace and price of liberation in our own country, let’s not hope for liberationist miracles elsewhere, or embrace them from a sense of noblesse oblige. Altruism, to paraphrase Lenin, is the highest stage of imperialism.

Slightly better as a rationale for war but still ultimately silly was the idea that we invaded Iraq to uphold the authority of the UN. Iraq, we were told, violated its post-war obligations to the UN (some seventeen times), and so it became our glorious duty to uphold the UN’s authority in light of its own failure to do so.

That Iraq was in violation of UN resolutions is true, but then so are India and Israel, and no rational person would suggest that invasion is the answer there. If violation of UN resolutions was a sufficient reason for going to war, we would long since have invaded both countries. Since we haven’t, the real reasons for invasion must lie elsewhere.

Anyway, the fact that the UN was incapable of upholding its authority in Iraq (or for that matter in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kashmir and the Palestinian territories) hardly implies that the US has an obligation to uphold that authority. What it implies instead is that the UN’s brand of multilateralism has been an abject and pathetic failure for a decade now. The rectification of that failure requires multilateral reform, not a bilateral bailout.

Having made these altruistic arguments, some proponents of the Iraq war then switched to the reverse extreme, suggesting that we should attack Iraq because Saddam’s regime was linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Much was made of Mohammed Atta’s alleged meeting (in Prague, in April 2001) with Ahmad Ani, an Iraqi intelligence official, the suggestion being that the two helped plan the 9/11 attacks at that meeting. Attempts have also been made to try to pin the 1993 World Trade Center bombing on Iraqi intelligence, as in Laurie Mylroie’s recent book The War Against America (2002), endorsed by prominent members of the US national security establishment.

This would be the perfect justification for war had it been supported by evidence, but it wasn’t: the evidence here was so speculative and sketchy that even the Administration went back and forth on whether to accept or reject it. As Kenneth Pollack points out in his excellent book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (2002), the general consensus in the intelligence community is that there is no good evidence for a Saddam/Al Qaida connection. The Al Qaida connection is at best a distraction from the real issue.

And that brings us back to the real issue: disarmament. To put it bluntly: if the war wasn’t about disarmament, it wasn’t worth fighting. But to give you a sense of the priority being given to disarmament issues in post-war Iraq, consider the following dispatch from the AP, reporting on the state of our disarmament teams there (May 12): “US weapons hunters—empty-handed after seven weeks of field work—are still operating without translators, have had almost no contact with Iraqi scientists, and can’t tell what’s missing from looted sites where suspected weapons of mass destruction were thought to be hidden. Some of the problems are logistical. Others seem to be the result of limited manpower and expertise.” So: having spent all of our time and energy defending the war by way of the indefensible, we now find ourselves unwilling to defend it by way of the defensible. This is Gresham’s Law with a vengeance: the pseudo-justifications for war have all but driven out the real ones in rhetoric and in practice.

In 1968, after the terrible Arab defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, the Syrian philosopher Sadiq Al-Azm produced a book called Al Naqd al Dhati Ba’d al Hazima (Self-Criticism After the Defeat), intended to explain what it was about Arab political culture that produced so monumental a disaster. It seems to me that despite our military victory in Iraq, we have much to gain from a similar project here in America. We should call it “Self Criticism After the Victory,” and its aim should be to dispense with media hype, fight the national will to amnesia, and get straight on the real reasons why we invaded and are now occupying Iraq.

We have, thankfully, won the war on the military battlefield. What we now need to do is to win it on the battlefield of principle, where a war of attrition has long since begun. That latter war can be won as surely as the military one. But we won’t win it unless we set the right objectives, pick the right targets, and decide that it’s worth fighting—which we have yet to do.

Postscript, January 2004:

I wrote this essay for Pakistan Today in May 2003, a few weeks after the end of the “main phase” of the fighting in Iraq. What I wrote then has, I think, acquired new urgency in recent months: unsurprisingly, defenders of the war haven’t set the right objectives, picked the right targets, or decided to fight very hard or very well on the battlefield of principle. There are, as I see it, four important points to be made here.

First, if disarmament was the only justifiable goal of the war, then disarmament (not liberation) should have set the priorities of the war: how the war was to be fought, and how it was to end. From this perspective, the war should have been fought in such a way as to facilitate disarmament, and it should have ended (or should end) when our disarmament goals were met.

Neither thing seems to have happened or be happening. As David Kay’s Interim Report makes clear, the US military failed, in the waning days of the war, to secure key pieces of evidence relevant to Iraq’s WMD program—evidence that might have clarified what now seem to be sheer mysteries about those WMDs. The Administration made a fundamental mistake in exploiting the issue of disarmament to sell the war, only to discard it when no weapons were found. But disarmament was never about finding weapons per se, nor was certainty about the existence of weapons a necessary condition of going to war. “Disarmament” referred fundamentally to ensuring Iraq’s compliance with its 1991 disarmament agreements, and its obligations to comply with those agreements were binding, regardless of whether it had weapons or not. Its failure to comply was all the reason we needed to go to war.

Second, the fact that we have not discovered WMDs not only doesn’t undermine the disarmament rationale for the war, but confirms it. No one could possibly have known in January 2003 what we now know about Iraq’s WMD program had we not gone to war (not that we know everything we ought to know). And, given the stakes, certainty about Iraq’s WMDs was a moral and strategic imperative. A national security strategy premised on uncertainty about WMDs is a contradiction in terms: it’s not a “strategy” at all, but a pact with death.

Critics who now triumphantly declare the “failure” of the war because no weapons have been found are missing the point as flagrantly as any point can be missed: they only know that there “are” no Iraqi WMDs because the invasion has made it possible to find out. Absurdly, such people still tend to hedge their bets about whether Iraq’s WMDs exist: typically, they’ll bravely venture the observation that no weapons have been found (not quite true, actually), but hesitate to go out on a limb to assert that none exist. Thus Thomas Powers, writing in The New York Review of Books, takes a couple of dozen paragraphs to prove that no weapons have been found, then pounds the table with this strangely understated indictment: “The conclusion seems inescapable—on the eve of war, and probably for years beforehand, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, and it had no active program to build them.”

Why does Powers, writing nine months after US survey teams went into Iraq, still find it necessary to hedge his claims by such transparent evasions as what “seems inescapable” and is “probably” the case?  For starters, can something really seem inescapable as opposed to being so? If something seems a certain way, it could be another way. If something is inescapable, it can’t be any other way. The very locution “seems inescapable” is a disingenuous way of evading the fact that “on the eve of the war,” no one had any clear idea of what Iraq had or didn’t have—nor did anyone have any clear way of finding out. (Likewise, if a conclusion is inescapable, it’s true with 100% probability, in which case it makes no sense to say, as Powers does, that it’s “probably” true. To say that something is “probably” true is the opposite of saying that it’s “inescapable”: it’s to say that there is some probability that it is escapable.)

What explains the illogic here is Powers’s unwillingness to grapple with a simple fact: his case against the war depends, almost entirely, on evidence that has come to light as a result of the war, and but for the war, might never have come to light. He thus wants to oppose a war on the basis of the benefits that have accrued as a result of fighting it. This leads to the obvious, but unasked question in his forty-four paragraph rant: how would he have secured those benefits without fighting?

After all, what evidence could have justified the assertion, in January 2003, that there was no point in looking for Iraq’s WMDs? For that matter, what evidence was there that the UN inspectors would have achieved certainty on the disarmament issues that were left outstanding as of March 2003—not merely saying that no weapons had been found, but telling us with certainty where they were? The answer, for anyone who has read the relevant UNMOVIC reports, is: none. (We may never find out what happened to those weapons, but we have a better chance now than we would have had under UNMOVIC.) What self-styled critics of the war (like Powers) owe us is a plausible account of (a) how UN inspections would have uncovered what the Coalition invasion did uncover and (b) how they would have uncovered anything had the Coalition not been exerting military pressure on Iraq in the first place. As it happens, Hans Blix is on record as asserting that the Coalition’s military build-up facilitated a good measure of the cooperation that the inspectors got before the war, and that the invasion made inspections more efficacious than peacetime inspections would have been. So critics like Powers have a more difficult case to make than they have so far grasped.

Third, evidence has come to light since May 2003 that the connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein may have been better than I had originally realized. Stephen Hayes’s reporting on this issue in The Weekly Standard is crucial, and apart from some spurious (and monumentally illogical) nitpicking, his claims have not been rebutted in any serious way. Hayes’s claims strengthen what I called “the perfect justification” for the war in ways I hadn’t anticipated but can easily welcome.

Fourth, it’s time to start thinking about a US withdrawal from Iraq—either a full withdrawal, or a withdrawal to military bases in Iraq that are essentially out of harms’ way. The reason is simple: once our disarmament goals have been met, our fundamental strategic goals have been met as well, and it’s unclear what obligation we have to remain much longer in Iraq, employing a static defense against a dynamic and well-concealed enemy. Most military experts agree that this sort of fighting is just a way of taking endless casualties without accomplishing anything of value. This suggests that we are precisely at the crossroads between staying in for a pointless long-haul, and getting out now that the job has been done. To use a Vietnam-era analogy, if Iraq were Vietnam, we’re still in the Kennedy administration.

I’m sure some will squawk at this claim. Shouldn’t we stay in Iraq until we “restore its infrastructure”? No. In my view, we never had an obligation to restore Iraq’s infrastructure, but by now we’ve surely met even that overly-stringent criterion: sanctions have been lifted (as well as the rationale for them), water and electricity have been restored, markets are beginning to function, the beginnings of a new government are in place, and the largest obstacle to the development of infrastructure, the Ba’aathist regime, is gone. Four-hundred lives and $87 billion is payment enough for the restoration of anyone’s infrastructure.

“What about Iraq’s future?” Well, it’s not clear to me why Iraq really ought to have a future as a single unified nation: as a congeries created by British imperialism, Iraq has never been one unified nation but a group of nations held together by brute force. Here is one case where I’m perfectly willing to follow Wilsonian advice: if the Iraqis want to keep their country unified, let them; if not, that’s fine, too. In any case, it’s not our job to reconcile Shia with Sunni or Arab with Kurd. If they don’t know how to do it, it’s a stretch to imagine that we will.

“But what about the security situation?” That is ultimately for Iraqis themselves to resolve. It’s their country. Vietnam should have taught us that one cannot fight for a country unless its people intend to fight (and are capable of fighting) for themselves. We’ve lost hundreds of soldiers over more than a decade liberating Kuwait and Iraq, and spent billions upon billions of dollars setting things right. Our responsibilities have to end somewhere.  “Withdrawal by summer 2004” sounds to me like just the right time and just the right place.


Interim Report of Iraq Survey Group, by David Kay (Oct. 2, 2003):

Thomas Powers, “The Vanishing Case for War,” New York Review of Books, Dec. 4, 2003:

Stephen Hayes, “Case Closed,” The Weekly Standard, (Nov. 24, 2003):

Irfan Khawaja is adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey and Mercer County College, and lecturer in politics at Princeton University. This article is not to be reproduced, except for short excerpts.