Alternatives to war?

I’ve been negligent in following up on answers to my earlier challenge to the anti-war crowd to explain what should have been done instead with respect to the Saddam Hussein regime.

There wasn’t much blogospheric action on that challenge, but I did get some quite thoughtful emails, arguing that the sanctions/inspections/Security Council process should have been given one more chance to work. The idea was for the SC to pass yet another resolution, this time with criteria for compliance and deadlines, in the hopes that SH and his crew would, at last, choose to comply.

That raises the question, though, why compliance to a new resolution should have been expected given the regime’s defiance of earlier resolutions, including SC 687 calling for the Iraqis to eliminate all WMD and WMD-making capacity and submit to inspections to verify that elimination, and SC 1441 calling for “complete and immediate” compliance with 687. The answer, if I understand it, is that providing precise criteria for compliance and a specific deadline would have focused attention.

But I fail to see the ambiguity in “complete and immediate.” “Complete” means “everything,” and “immediate” means “right now.” Blair’s speech gave a very impressive catalogue of the ways in which 1441 had been defied, and pointed out that what late and limited compliance had taken place was the result of having a quarter of a million troops parked on Iraq’s doorstep. Now it’s true that a new resolution setting a deadline for compliance with a convincing threat of UN-sanctioned use of force were compliance not forthcoming might — I say might — have done the trick. Once Saddam Hussein understood that he was really staring down the barrel of a gun that would fire if he didn’t do the right thing, he might have done the right thing.

But that is exactly what France and Russia refused to consider. They wanted another resolution like 1441, bringing matters back to the SC — that is to say, back under their power of veto — in case of noncompliance. The result would simply have been to postpone the war, given the Iraqis more time to dig themselves in and guaranteeing, due to the course of the seasons, more heat and sandstorms. Given that the US and the UK were going to wind up fighting Iraq in defiance of the UN Charter (I think our attempts to use 687 and the Article 5 right of self-defense to justify the current attack simply don’t stand up to textual analysis), I think there was a good reason to do so now rather than in April, May, or June.

The only response I got on a weblog was one from Todd Morman, who had previously accused me of “brutality” for supporting the war. His preferred alternative: supporting the Iraqi people in overthrowing Saddam Hussein themselves. He links to an article in Sojourners called “With Weapons of the Will.”

The thesis:

It’s essential to understand that unless a regime wants to murder the entire population, its ability repressively to compel a population’s compliance is not infinitely elastic.

The examples: Romania and Chile. (One might add the Philippines and Iran.)

But no reasonable person, after what happened, for example, in Basra the last time the population there rose up, could really have thought that the Saddam Hussein regime was going to be overthrown by banging pots and pans. It’s not necessary to kill literally everybody to stay in power; as long as you’re willing to kill tens of thousands the job can usually be done. The Romanian regime was caught in the downfall of Communism, and the Russians made it clear that they would intervene if Ceaucescu created a bloodbath to stay in power. Chile was a country with a democratic tradition; it’s not clear that Pinochet’s army would have been willing to fight to keep him in power. Marcos never ran a truly totalitarian regime. An insurrection succeeds only when (1) the leadership decides to give up rather than endure the human cost of continued suppression (2) the soldiers and police of the existing regime refuse to fire on the insurgents, or (3) an external power with the capacity and willingness to intervene in force tells the existing regime that it will not be allowed to create a bloodbath. There’s no reason to think that Saddam Hussein would have preferred exile to slaughtering some additional tens of thousands of his people or that the Republican Guard would have refused to do so.

Morman is certainly right that supporting an internal struggle was an alternative to an invasion. But the name of that process is “civil war.” It would have looked like Spain or Angola or Nicaragua or El Salvador or Algeria, not like Chile or Romania. It probably would have failed, but even if it had succeeded the human cost would have been enormous. Now arguably the result of a successful internal revolt that we armed and financed would have been better in the long run, for Iraq and for the rest of the world, than the result of the current invasion. But the notion that a civil war against a totalitarian regime could have been less brutal than the invasion now in progress doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Update Randy Paul reports that Pinochet, after losing the referendum in 1989, asked the military to take the issue to the streets, but was turned down cold by Gen. Maffei, the commander of the air force. Anyone who expects the Republican Guard commander to behave similarly is entitled to his beliefs, but I’m entitled to mine.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: