The ethics of the GWOT: was Iraq a legitimate target?

By Charles Allen Glenn

Millions of words have been written about the justification for war with Iraq. From WMD to the repeated violation of UN Sanctions, and they are all good arguments. Yet many in the public and the press continue to paint post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy with the broad brush of "imperialism" or "corporate greed."

Columnist Mark Steyn has made an excellent case regarding the charge of imperialism. In his April 13th U.K. Telegraph article, he pointed out that:

"The very reason that Hawaii is a state is the same reason that America makes a poor imperialist: it is uncomfortable with colonial subjects; it lacks the benevolent paternalism necessary for empire," wrote Steyn. "In Iraq, they're betting not on imperialism, but on liberty. That's a long shot, given the awful passivity and fatalism of the Arab world. But it's not inherently more preposterous than the fake Hashemite kingdom imposed on Mesopotamia by Britain. America may fail. But it will be an American failure. Imperial nostalgics who wish to live vicariously will have to look elsewhere."

That just about sums that up.

But what about corporate greed? Isnít that a relevant argument? After all, arenít we all watching U.S. companies wallowing in the bonanza that is post-Saddam Iraq whilst Rumsfeld and Cheney try to block out French conglomerates? "Why should France be left out?" cries Chiraq. In response, Rumsfeld chuckles, Cheney sneers, and Wolfowitz rubs his little neocon hands together in anticipation of sticking it to those damned snooty French good this time.

And then reality sets in and we find out the French and German companies have been there all along (in fact, they never left Ė even after the í91 war, but letís not get into that). It turns out that half the subsidiaries doing the reconstruction work are owned by French and German companies. So much for a petulant U.S. not letting the Euro-weenies get a piece of the action.

But that still doesnít answer the charge that our motives in Iraq arenít pure; that we are there for the oil, to put the criticism in its most simplistic form. Are we there for the oil? Really?

One can simply point to the roadside pricing signs with the ever-rising digits as a response, but that doesnít cut it for the more sophisticated critics. While itís true that the U.S. has laid no claim to Iraqi oil (indeed, our importation of "Basrah light crude" has dropped by 200,000 barrels since before the invasion), nor tried to interfere with its distribution (besides restoring it to pre-í91 levels), the critics say all thatís irrelevant. None of that means we arenít really there for the oil.

According to Arom Roston in Januaryís edition of The Nation, "[The] reason the big boys from the oil industry are staying clear is the legal black hole into which they'd be stepping. After all, until there is a legitimate sovereign government in Iraq, it is unclear whether any new long-term oil exploration deals will stand."

That remains to be seen, of course, but itís a reasonably sound point if you take an extremely cynical view of American foreign policy. Itís possible that the number-one priority of the Bush administration is creating an environment in Iraq which will produce lucrative contracts for American oil companies at some point in the vaguely defined future. Of course, how that squares with Bush himself spending nearly a year traipsing around Western Europe in an effort to get France and Germany on board is dubious, at best; but once again, an extremely cynical point of view can explain away even that anomaly.

But letís assume for a moment, purely for the sake of argument, that the war in Iraq has to do with Bushís plan to root out terrorism and not with corporate greed. Critics would still point to the fact that, in the business of terrorism, Iraq was a minor player at best. North Korea, Syria and Iran, they say, are far more legitimate targets if our goal is to root out terrorism.

And theyíre right.

So where does that leave us? Why did we go into Iraq instead of Syria or Iran?

My guess is Ö because we could.

Color me unpatriotic if you wish, but Iím not at all certain that our nation or our military forces would have survived an invasion of Syria or Iran. The reason we could get away with deposing Saddam Hussein was because, despite his latent efforts to support Palestinian suicide bombers, he wasnít exactly on most Arabís Top Ten Most Beloved Tyrants list.

If you find that your home has become infested with insects, you have to pick your battles carefully and strategically. Simply blowing the place up leaves you homeless. A much wiser course would be to make some changes. Stop leaving your dirty dishes in the sink overnight. Mop the floors a couple of times a day. Plant some traps. If you canít find the huge, central breeding place of the insects, then find one thatís more easily accessed and clean it out. Do what you can do to shine light and fresh air into their hiding places without knocking down any parts of your home that are vital to its foundation and its structural integrity.

Time will tell if the critics are right about U.S. motives, but at the end of the day, Iraq is about shining a light into a place of darkness. Itís about giving Arabs a chance at self-government and liberty. A free Iraq with close ties to U.S. oil companies is still a free Iraq, and a free Iraq is one small but not insignificant step toward making Americans safer than they were before 9/11.