A virtual cat!

The weapons-inspector speaks: Why we shouldn’t bomb Iraq (WARNING: INSANELY LONG POST)

While the military is on my mind, I confess I’m freaking out because of a brilliant speech I heard at MIT last week by Scott Ritter — the former U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq. He gave an absolutely amazing explanation of why we shouldn’t attack Iraq.

In point form, the argument is thus:

a) Iraq is actually not a threat to us. This is because …

b) The nuclear-bomb thing is a red herring. Iraq most likely doesn’t have any fissile material for a nuke. It has missiles capable of delivering fissile material to a target, but without the fissile material, there’s no nuke.

c) Iraq also did not have chemical and biological weapons, back when Ritter was last there with his weapons inspectors. Mind you, the U.S. recalled its inspectors — so in the intervening time, it’s entirely likely that Iraq built them up again, and does have chemical and biological weapons. They’re much easier to build than nuclear material.

d) However, it’s really unlikely that Iraq is going to do anything to threaten the U.S. with these chemical and biological weapons.

e) This is because, contrary to Bush’s statements, Saddam Hussein is not crazy. He’s been in power for 32 years — which is, indeed, a mark of a highly rational guy, if a bloodthirsty and power-mad one. He is vanishingly unlikely to do anything that would give the U.S. legitimate cause to demolish him. He does not want to be demolished. He does not give a flying fuck about his people, clearly, but he himself does not want to die.

f) The best way to prevent Hussein from getting nuke material, BTW, is to have weapons inspectors in there. If there are a few hundred inspectors crawling around the country all the time, Hussein can lie through his teeth all he wants, but we usually find out when he’s building weapons. In the past, Ritter always found stuff Hussein was trying to hide. This is the point: Inspectors are a deterrent to Hussein having really nasty weapons. So long as they’re in there, he has a lot of trouble building weapons. Which is why it’s so scary that the U.S. pulled the inspectors out.

g) Bush has suggested Hussein might give a nuke to Al Qaeda. This is insanely improbable. Hussein and Al Qaeda hate each other. Hussein is a competely secular leader; he only pretends to be hard-core Islamic when it serves his political ends. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, has actually declared war on all secular Muslim leaders, including Hussein. They think he’s as bad as the U.S. There is no way that, if Hussein finally got his hands on nuclear material — which he’s spent 20 years trying, and failing, to get — he would give it to Al Qaeda. As he knows, if Al Qaeda used an Iraqi nuke to attack the U.S., it would be immediately traced to Hussein. The U.S. would thus move in and have good justified cause to demolish him. And he does not want that. He is a despot, but not suicidal.

h) In fact, Hussein knows international politics quite well. He knows that the reason the U.S. cannot legally demolish Iraq is that it violates U.N. law, and the U.N.’s charter calling for the weapons-inspection program. Iraq has, by the way, repeatedly agreed to submit to that weapons-inspection program. It’s not just because they’re losers; it’s out of self-interest. Hussein knows that by (mostly) co-operating with the U.N. and international law, other countries will support him. Or at very least, they will not support U.S. unilateral action.

i) Which is actually really good for our homeland security, because, as noted above, the weapons-inspection program is actually the best possible deterrent to Iraqi building totally awful weapons. How ironic is that? What Hussein wants (i.e. to be safe from being personally killed by the U.S.) also gets us what we want: To be safe from him having, say, a nuke. We both have good reasons for sticking with the weapons-inspection program. It is, as management theorists are fond of saying, a “win win” situation.

j) In fact, the only situation under which Hussein has ever promised to actually use incredibly horrific weapons is if he himself is personally about to die. Recall the Gulf War, when he issued orders that — in the event of his death — the Iraqi army should fire their seven chemical-weapons-tipped missiles at Israel. He made it absolutely clear that, if he himself is personally going down, he’ll take others with him.

k) Let’s recap: The best way to ensure Iraq does not acquire horrible weaponry is to continue with U.N.-sanctioned weapons inspections, a measure that even Iraq agrees to. However, the precisely best way to ensure incredibly bad shit goes down in the mideast — like, say, Israel getting bombed senseless by Iraq — is for the U.S. to ignore the U.N. and unilaterally attack Iraq with the intention of killing Hussein and having a “regime change.”

l) So why the hell are we doing the latter?

m) Ritter figures it’s because the military hawks, kept so long in the deep freeze during the Clinton administration, have gone totally nonlinear and just do not give a shit about anything other than kicking some Arab ass.

n) Possibly, but I think that’s too simple. It’s also quite clearly about oil. The U.S. would love to have a “regime change” so that it could help instal a new Iraqi leader, one that is more amenable to U.S. influence, and thus more amenable to giving us easy access to that gorgeous Iraqi oil.

o) It’s not much different from how the U.S. has tweaked the Iraqi trade embargoes to get cheap oil. When we lobbied to have big trade embargoes put on Iraq back in the early 90s, it was under the theory that Iraqis would all starve and die and then decide to overthrow Hussein so that the U.S. and U.N. would finally lift the embargo.

p) It didn’t happen that way, of course. Hussein does not give a shit about the Iraqi population starving. They just died and died and died and died because of our embargo. Then after the American population finally clued into this, and realized that our policies were starving and killing totally innocent Iraqi children and babies and old people, we got embarrassed and filled with guilt. And this allowed U.S. politicians to dream up the “food for oil” trade: They get food if we get cheap oil.

q) Interestingly, it can be easily argued that the trade embargo is keeping Hussein in power — because it’s starving and killing the very people who might overthrow him: Everyday Iraqi citizens. Ritter argues — quite reasonably — that the best way to empower everyday Iraqis is to lift the trade embargo. He figures we should embark on tons of trade with Iraq. Over the next few decades (and possibly even sooner) it would create a genuine middle class in that country — people with a nice standard of living to maintain. And people with a nice standard of living to maintain i) do not like the idea of a megalomaniac running their country and getting it into crazy stupid unwinnable wars, and ii) have enough social power to do something about it. You want to have an Iraqi uprising that gets rid of Hussein and creates a democracy? Help the country create a middle class.

r) In fact, the odd thing is that we never really needed to have a wholesale trade embargo on Iraq. Because the U.N. had something more powerful and important — a weaponry embargo, a prohibition for foreign nations selling arms to the country. Of course, many still do sell Hussein guns and missiles, but with the weapons embargo, the U.S. is allowed under international law to kick the living shit out of anyone caught doing so.

s) So let’s recap again. The U.S. has several excellent U.N.-supported tools to help prevent Hussein from becoming a problem: It has the ability to send in gazillions of weapons inspectors (keeping Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction) and it has a great weapons-sale embargo it can enforce. It also could throw lots of trade at Iraq aimed at helping to create a genuine Iraqi middle class, precisely the sort of people most likely to overthrow Hussein in a completely legal and internationally kosher fashion. And in Hussein, the U.S. has — fortunately — an enemy who is actually quite unlikely to launch a mass attack against the U.S. for fear of personal death.

t) Instead, we’ve pulled out the weapons inspectors, essentially letting Hussein build whatever insanely creepy shit he wants without us knowing about it. We’ve openly threatened his life and said we intend to push a regime change on him, which is — as he has said in the past — the only thing that would make him launch really huge attacks against Israel or us or other foreign nations. We’ve lobbied to levy punitive economic sanctions against the country, which have destroyed and decimated the very Iraqi citizens we hoped would overthrow Hussein. Then we’ve cynically used that human loss to extract cheap-oil deals from the country.

u) Our political leaders are either totally on crack or are more expansively and horrifyingly venal than we could ever possibly imagine, and hope to personally profit from this situation.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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