The Meaning of Abu Ghraib

The events at Abu Ghraib Prison are a disgrace to the United States military and government, and an embarrassment to the American people. But since the event has now become a Rorschach blot from which any and all inferences about the war may now be made, it’s worth clarifying its larger significance. Does Abu Ghraib somehow prove that the war was a mistake? The answer is an emphatic “no,” but it takes some doing to explain why. 

It can’t be repeated often enough that the real justification for the war was disarmament, not liberation, and not regime-change as an end-in-itself. There is a widespread belief, spread by default, that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq has somehow refuted the disarmament justification for war, and put the entire burden of justification on the liberationist cause. But nothing could be further from the case. To see why, we have to rehearse the rationale for forcible disarmament—if only for the nth time.

After the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq incurred the obligation of being disarmed once and for all of its WMD. The obligation was set by UN Resolution 687, but the legal authority of the UN was not the fundamental basis for the binding force of Iraq’s obligation. The fundamental basis was Iraq’s having forfeited by its actions (genocide!) any right to keep such weapons and its having agreed after losing the war to relinquish them—facts not dependent on the UN or its legal procedures.

From 1991-1998, the inspectors of the UN’s Special Commission on disarmament (UNSCOM) made concerted efforts to verify Iraq’s compliance with its disarmament obligations. The Iraqi government thwarted them at every opportunity, failing for seven years to discharge obligations that could have been discharged in less than one. In 1998, Iraq refused, contrary to those obligations, to allow US inspectors to continue working in Iraq. This action, tantamount to a wholesale rejection of UNSCOM’s authority, led to UNSCOM’s ejection from Iraq. Four years went by without inspections—which is to say, four years went by with Iraq in material breach of its disarmament obligations while concealing from the world any reliable information about its weapons programs or systems.

In 2002, at the initiative of the US and UK, the UN introduced (the widely unread and now essentially forgotten) Resolution 1441 “recalling all its previous resolutions,” “recalling…its intention to implement” those resolutions fully, “recognizing the threat Iraq’s non-compliance” posed, and recalling that UN Resolution 687 had “authorized Member States to use all necessary means to uphold and implement” all relevant UN resolutions. Acknowledging that Iraq was, as of November 2002, “in breach of its obligations under relevant resolutions,” Resolution 1441 demanded full, honest, and unconditional cooperation from Iraq. In the event of non-compliance—meaning any form of non-compliance, minor or major, procedural or substantive—Iraq was to face “serious consequences.” Since Iraq had already been under sanctions for more than a decade, the only “consequence” left was forcible disarmament. (The text of UN Resolution 1441:

That was the rationale—the only legitimate rationale—for the use of force problematically called “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” 

Notice that the disarmament justification for war does not rest on certainty about Iraq’s possession of WMD. Certainty is not just inessential to the stated justification, but an inversion of it. The Resolution explicitly refers to “the threat” posed by “Iraq’s non-compliance with Council resolutions” (my emphasis) not an “imminent threat” posed by its possession of anything. The truth is that the proper justification for forcible disarmament was the lack of certainty about Iraq’s weapons programs, and the lack of any certain means of achieving it. Hans Blix himself conceded in press interviews that forcible disarmament would come closer to delivering certainty then peaceful inspections would.

Since Iraq had once previously been credibly accused of spreading WMD to terrorists—it was accused in August 1998 by the Clinton Administration of giving VX nerve gas to Al Qaeda via the Al Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant in Sudan—it was entirely proper to demand that we have a full and certain accounting of Iraq’s weapons programs, whether or not it turned out to possess large stockpiles of WMD. If Iraq was shipping VX nerve gas to Sudan in 1998, had ejected UNSCOM just after that, and had concealed its doings for four subsequent years (aka our “intelligence failure”), by what leap of logic could anyone have inferred with certainty that Iraq was free and clear of WMD in early 2003? (For details on the bin Laden/Iraq/WMD connection, see Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror, [Random House, 2003], pp. 351-363; it is also discussed in a bizarrely cursory way in Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies [Basic Books, 2004]).

We repeatedly hear the mantra nowadays that “no weapons were found” in Iraq. The claim is a brazen falsehood even if we confine ourselves to the period following the adoption of Resolution 1441. The mantra is any case shorthand for the more accurate claim that no large stockpiles of WMD were found.

That more accurate claim does not mean that no illegal weapons were found: Iraq was demonstrably guilty of manufacturing missiles that exceeded the allowable range determined by its post-war agreements. Nor does it mean that no WMD stockpiles were found: mustard gas is a WMD, and 49 liters of mustard gas were found and destroyed by the UN inspectors in early 2003. Nor does it mean that Iraq had nothing to hide: as David Kay discovered, Iraq was until very recently engaging in illegal negotiations to transfer missile technology to North Korea. Nor does it mean that no WMD programs were found: according to David Kay, research was continuing on a variety of biological warfare agents, such as Brucella, Congo Crimean Hemorraghic Fever, ricin, and aflatoxin. Nor does it mean that Iraq’s missing WMD were ultimately found (they were missing in the first place because Iraq had failed to document their destruction): we still can’t account for Iraq’s VX nerve gas, anthrax, and mustard gas. (For details on these subjects, visit the website of Iraq Watch,

These facts may not have indicated an “imminent” threat to us, but then (as Resolution 1441 explicitly recognized), not all threats are imminent. A threat doesn’t have to be imminent to be a threat, and a non-imminent threat is not one that can be ignored.

In fact, the topic of “imminence” deserves a discussion of its own here. For all of the loose and loud talk about it, I have yet to hear someone explain why we should have waited for Iraq’s WMD to become an “imminent” threat before deciding to take action about them. Nor have those who regard “imminence” as the criterion for war gone back to criticize the Clinton Administration’s attack on the non-imminently threatening VX nerve gas factory in Khartoum. In fact, in two years’ reading on the subject, I haven’t managed to find a single workable definition of this supposedly crucial term. The irony is that the standard authoritative work on just war theory, Professor Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars ([Basic Books, 1977/2000], pp. 80-85), asserts that pre-emptive military action depends not on “imminent” threats but on “sufficient threats”— which Walzer defines, in part, as “a general situation in which waiting, or doing anything other than fighting, greatly magnifies the risk” (p. 80). That situation describes Iraq.

Whether WMD were found or not, ample evidence existed that they might be there, and their possible existence was a threat sufficient to justify armed action (just as probable cause is a sufficient reason for arrest, whether or not the arrest ultimately yields a conviction). We simply could not rest our national security on the chance possibility that those weapons didn’t exist. Nor could we depend on the UN inspectors to find them. They had repeatedly failed in the past, and had given no assurances of success in the present—just the reverse. It was imperative either to certify that the WMD did not exist, or if they did, to destroy them. It’s worth adding that those who now blather so triumphantly about “the non-existence of the WMD” can do so only because they rely for that claim on evidence gathered from a military operation that they opposed. Unwilling to explain how they would have made discoveries about those supposedly non-existent WMD without the use of force (and in some cases, without bothering to look at all), they have nothing to say. Nor does anyone think to ask them.

If the justification for the Iraq war had consistently focused on disarmament, the Coalition could have certified Iraq’s compliance with its disarmament obligations (or forced it to comply)—and then left Iraq to its own devices. The imperialist task of “liberating” the country—or of “rebuilding” it—would not have been ours. We would not have needlessly sacrificed our soldiers for the sake of a freedom that too few Iraqis want, understand, or are willing to fight for. Nor would we have made our soldiers sitting ducks for the shameless treachery of our Sunni enemies or Shia “allies” (who owe their lives to our no-fly zones, and whom we could easily have abandoned years ago to annihilation at Saddam’s hands). At best, we might have made a separate peace with the Kurds who welcome our presence, have some experience with self-rule, and have been willing to fight on our side. But we would have left the rest of Iraq to its own sad fate.

So what does any of this have to do with Abu Ghraib? Answer: Absolutely nothing. And that’s precisely why it’s worth bringing up (and repeating) at such length. Abu Ghraib is a disgrace, but the disgrace does not touch, much less discredit, the disarmament justification for war. The attempt to use Abu Ghraib to discredit the war is a piece of disingenuousness characteristic of the entire debate on Iraq since late 2002.

I don’t want to suggest that Abu Ghraib could not possibly have happened if we had stuck to the disarmament rationale. Even if we had made disarmament our top priority, we would still have had to put Iraqi insurgents, militants, and criminals in prison, and if so, an Abu Ghraib-like event was always a possibility.

But the longer we persist in the delusion that we can “liberate” Iraq, the more Abu Ghraibs we court. And the more we rely on Baa’thist mercenaries for the job of “liberation” (a contradiction in terms if ever there was one), the more we invite some Iraqi equivalent of Jalianwala Bagh or Sabra and Shatila. Abu Ghraib, after all, is the typical product of imperialist contempt for the subjects of imperial rule. It is a proof, if proof was needed, that human beings cannot maintain their dignity under conditions of imperial rule, however well-intentioned. Nor can freedom be imposed by force on people who neither want nor understand it.

I should emphasize that some Iraqis do want and understand it, and in withdrawing from Iraq “prematurely,” there is no denying that we will be abandoning them to a terrible fate. If that happens, the same hypocrites in the Arab/Muslim world who jeered at Operation Iraqi Freedom will jeer even more loudly at the aftermath of a US withdrawal. These are, after all, the sort of people who sat in silence while Saddam built and maintained Abu Ghraib for decades, suddenly deciding to take notice of its existence in May 2004.

Putting the point another way: an American withdrawal from Iraq in 2004 will be a re-run of the British withdrawal from India in 1947. Just as the British were assailed for quitting India “too precipitously” by the very people who had demanded that they do it sooner, the US will be on the receiving end of the analogous criticism from people who argued that we had no business in Iraq in the first place. (The analogy is not perfect: the British were arguably responsible for creating the divisions in India that led to the violence of 1947, but we can’t be held responsible for the divisions that are fragmenting Iraq. That was Saddam’s doing.)

Be that as it may, the fact remains that Iraq has not reached the stage at which its population as a whole wants or understands freedom, and it is futile to try to educate them at gunpoint in the wake of Abu Ghraib. But really, it was futile before Abu Ghraib, too. Abu Ghraib is not some bump in the road in the inexorable march toward liberation; it’s a clear sign that the cause was lost at its inception. We should admit as much, accept the consequences, and move on—while insisting tirelessly on the fact that the forcible disarmament of Iraq was a military and moral necessity. We should insist just as tirelessly on the Baathists’ moral responsibility for that necessity and for virtually every aspect of the war’s aftermath. They could easily have complied with their own disarmament obligations. They didn’t. The results are their doing, not ours. (I should add that the pious Arab/Muslim hypocrites who sit on the sidelines gasping indignantly at what happened at Abu Ghraib would be more credible if they had done any gasping when Saddam was using chemical weapons on the Kurds and Iranians.)

In the meantime, we should prepare for our departure from Iraq with all deliberate speed, resolving to leave at the first opportunity after the June 30 deadline, simply observing as the Iraqis undertake the tasks we attempted to undertake on their behalf. If they can do better than we have, they can have our congratulations. If they can’t, they can have our condolences. Whatever the result, Abu Ghraib Prison will belong to them, not us. They built it, after all. Let it be theirs to tear down.

Irfan Khawaja is adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey and Mercer County College, and lecturer in politics at Princeton University.