The Regime Fairy

Since Dubya and his Magic Elves are, apparently, of the opinion that Iraq is just itching to be invaded, our government has now embarked upon a great sham debate on the subect. I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb in predicting that the conclusion of this debate will be something along the lines of "yup, they're itching, all right."

Unfortunately for the Magic Elves, there's one basic problem with most of the with most of the alleged justifications for going into Iraq: most of these justifications would also support the proposition that the rest of the world ought to support an Iraqi invasion of the United States.

After all, we're talking about a nation that has invaded all of its near neighbors. (1) It has the largest army in the world, and far and away the largest military budget. It's staged attacks on itself for the sole purpose of creating a pretext for war (see above). And once in a war, the United States is brutral: this is the nation that developed strategic bombing of cities (viz. civilians), and the one that brought you the atomic bomb.

Ah, yes. Weapons of mass destruction, one of the favorits of the anti-Iraq lobby. Of course, America is the world leader in developing nuclear weapons and the undisputed champion in using them. We're also the world leader in biological and chemical weapons research. Juding from recent evidence, it also looks like discriminating bioterrorists buy American when shopping for top-quality spores. How were these cruel beauties developed? In some cases, through field tests on unsuspecting American citizens.

Now, the United States does technically get a pass on the related charge of importing major arms, as the Iraqis have been doing (or trying to) for years. But this is only because we make all sorts of neat weapons ourselves, and already have all we need. In fact, given that every import necessarily implies an equal and opposite export, this whole line of argument is problematic. The US, after all, is the largest supplier of arms to the world (most years, that is; Russia beat us in 2001, but much of that was in one-time sales, and I suspect accounting tricks).

America also exports those who use the weapons. The School for Torturers in Georgia is particularly notorious, but the U.S. is also quite generous about sending our people over to lead on-site seminars in assassination, coups, and other poltiical party tricks. Distinguishing the good clean fun the CIA has overseas from the terrorism we'd like to pin on the Hussein regime is a tricky one. One typical claim is that much of the mayhem we underwrite is carried out by other governments within their own borders and is therefore legitimate. But this makes these actions different from Bad repression, Taliban-style, precisely how?

Cooperation with the international community? That's usually a good test for rogue states. We get by this one with a squeak, but mostly because we're powerful enough to keep international bodies from condemming us outright. You get that with your Security Council veto. Now Iraq has gotten itself slapped down, and justly so, for defying UN resolutions on arms inspections, but when you run down the list of issues on which the US has stood up to, essentially, the entire rest of the world, it's enough to make your hair stand on end. Environmental treaties. War crimes statutes and conventions on the treatment of combattants. Human rights resolutions left and right. The free-trade straitjackets we force smaller nations into. The International Criminal Court and anyone else who might ever try to hold us accountable.

Ill-treatment of foreign nationals is another favorite supposed indicator of national evil. Just to take one example, Afghanistan, back in the bad old days of a year ago, was taking flak over its prosecution of some foreign missionaries. That picture of Saddam Hussein (2) mussing the hair of one of his British "guests" during the early standoff after his invasion of Kuwait is one of the more chilling memories I retain from the Gulf War. But still, countries who run detention camps on "foreign" soil so they can keep the press, international observers, and, most importantly, the courts (3), far away should perhaps not cast the first stone.

I think we come out ahead on treatment of our own citizens. Not clean, but at least ahead. We have the death penalty and we use it capriciously; human rights groups regularly point out serious deficiencies in our alleged "system" of justice. Not a cause for pride, no, but still, by no stretch of the imagination is the United States a military dictatorship that regularly conducts massive purges. Plenty of our "friends" have been, though; I can think of one on every continent save Antarctica.

Economically, things are muddy. The effects of sanctions and repression on Iraq are near-impossible to untangle at this point, so even changes in absolute standards of living aren't useful measures. The United States has a much weaker prima facie claim to superior financial integrity than it did even a few months ago; just open to the business section to understand why. And the corruption indicator has some unfortunate readings right now; we've just had a congressman sent to prison for taking bribes, another one who looks like he's getting off easy, and an administration that steadfastly refuses to disclose its own past financial dealings.

And when you come back to the basic question about any government -- is this regime legitimate? -- once again, you have to wonder if we're maybe witnessing a giant act of projection. Yes, it was all legal in the sense that the Supreme Court spoke and lo! it was so, but the only purely formal difference from the banana republic way of doing things may well be that no one took up arms in the aftermath. This peacefulness is a characteristic of a society and not a regime; Al Gore didn't think it was worth fighting, and neither did the rest of us. We let small things slide, even for some quite large values of "small." The point? Legitimacy is contextual (4), and any claim that the Ba'ath government of Iraq is illegitimate probably really turns on some other ugly feature of their rule. Of which, as we've been observing, there is no shortage, neither in Iraq nor elsewhere.

So what makes this dictator different from all other dictators? Why is this one sooo special that people are working very hard figuring out exactly how to take him down, at great cost and great risk? Take even the amount of money involved, the billions on billions. Just thinking in terms of bribes, that's a hell of a lot of influence. Thinking more positively, if we were that serious (in dollar terms, perhaps the most useful terms in which to measure the gravity of political intent) about helping Afghanistan rebuild, maybe Afghans wouldn't be taking potshots at their president quite so often. Maybe, just maybe, we wouldn't be having such a hard time lining up allies. And wouldn't that be a fresh way of dealing with international problems?

As a rule, I'm skeptical of send-the-Marines solutions. Gunboat regime changes, almost tautologically, involve serious bloodshed. They create instability. They do all sorts of terrible collateral damage to a country and its hopes for the future. They eat into a country's built-up reserves trust. And they set up a newly disappointed and resentful opposition that will forever remember its disgraceful exit from power and dream about returning in a similar fashion. But this is hardly the same as saying that it would be a bad thing if Marvin K. Mooney were to go.

No one really needs to be convinced Saddam that deserves to be tossed out on his ear. We know that already; we've all seen the South Park movie; it's fawking obvious that Hussein is a classic nogoodnik. After this many years, formal recitations of his offenses are superflux. I'm deeply concerned about all the ways in which ham-handed attempts to do something about him might suck, but I don't have much against the idea of a regime change per se.

So while I have my doubts about the Magic Elves' proposals, I wouldn't turn down an offer from the Regime Fairy (5). In fact -- and see the discussion above -- if you could change Iraq's malign government for a better one with the wave of a wand, I'd have another question for you.

Please sir, may we have a regime change too?

(1) Mexico is holds the dubious honor of "most often invaded by the United States;" we've gone across the border on thirteen separate occasions. Panama is close behind at twelve; Nicaragua takes the bronze with eleven. We've been into Cuba and Honduras seven times each, five times into the Dominican Republic and four into Colombia. Argentina has been our host three times, Uruguay and Haiti twice apiece. We've also invaded Paraguay, Chile, Brazil, Grenada (remember Granada?), Bolivia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Peru, and Canada (once in the War of 1812, and once in the little-remembered Aroostook War). Don't believe me? Ask the Navy.

(2) I couldn't find it, but here's his astral chart instead:

(3) U.S. courts have refused to take cases from the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay because the Justice Department has successfully argued that U.S. courts lack jurisdiction over foreign territory and Gitmo is still, technically, under Cuban sovereignty. Which strikes me as just the biggest can of worms ever.

(4) Take Algeria. FIS, an Islamic party, won the parliamentary elections in 1991; the military immediately staged a coup with the not entirely implausible claim that the FIS itself was anti-democratic and determined to set up a theocracy. Legitimate? Illegitimate? There are defensible claims each way.

(5) You know. Like the Tooth Fairy.