Dear brothers and sisters, boys and girls, comrades and friends,
The editor of this rag told me of your upcoming "Potlucks for Peace" event and invited my comments, and at first I couldn't think of a thing to say. For one thing, why should I address a Seattle audience (or even suppose that I have a Seattle audience, for that matter)? I daresay that I can claim a tenuous connection, because I have always had a good crowd when reading at the splendid bookstores of the city, and because it was in Seattle that I stayed when grounded on September 11, 2001, a date that now makes some people yawn.
I had been speaking to the students of Whitman College in Walla Walla about the crimes of Henry Kissinger and had told them that 11 September--which was then tomorrow--was a symbolic date. On that day in 1973, the civilian government in Chile had been drowned in blood by an atrocious military coup. On the same day in 2001, a group of Chilean survivors proposed to file a lawsuit against Kissinger in a federal court in Washington, D.C. I showed a film illustrating this, made some additional remarks, and closed by saying that the date would be long remembered in the annals of the struggle for human rights. I got some pretty decent applause--and this from the alma mater of Henry "Scoop" Jackson, whose family was present. On the following morning I got a very early call from my wife, who was three hours ahead of me. She told me to turn on the TV, and she commented mordantly that the anti-Kissinger campaign might have to be on hold for a while. (Oddly enough, and as recent events have shown, she was mistaken about that.) Everyone knows what I saw when I turned on the TV.
Now hear this. Ever since that morning, the United States has been at war with the forces of reaction. May I please entreat you to reread the preceding sentence? Or perhaps you will let me restate it for emphasis. The government and people of these United States are now at war with the forces of reaction.
This outcome was clearly not willed, at least on the American side. And everybody with half an education seems to know how to glibly dilute the statement. Isn't Saudi Arabia reactionary? What about Pakistani nukes? Do we bomb Sharon for his negation of Palestinian rights? Weren't we on Saddam's side when he was at his worst? (I am exempting the frantic and discredited few who think or suggest that George W. Bush fixed up the attacks to inflate the military budget and abolish the Constitution.) But however compromised and shameful the American starting point was--and I believe I could make this point stick with greater venom and better evidence than most people can muster--the above point remains untouched. The United States finds itself at war with the forces of reaction.
Do I have to demonstrate this? The Taliban's annihilation of music and culture? The enslavement of women? The massacre of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan? Or what about the latest boast of al Qaeda--that the bomb in Bali, massacring so many Australian holidaymakers, was a deliberate revenge for Australia's belated help in securing independence for East Timor? (Never forget that the Muslim fundamentalists are not against "empire." They fight proudly for the restoration of their own lost caliphate.) To these people, the concept of a civilian casualty is meaningless if the civilian is an unbeliever or a heretic.
Confronted with such a foe--which gladly murders Algerians and Egyptians and Palestinians if they have any doubts about the true faith, or if they happen to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, or if they happen to be female--exactly what role does a "peace movement" have to play? A year or so ago, the "peace movement" was saying that Afghanistan could not even be approached without risking the undying enmity of the Muslim world; that the Taliban could not be bombed during Ramadan; that a humanitarian disaster would occur if the Islamic ultra- fanatics were confronted in their own lairs. Now we have an imperfect but recovering Afghanistan, with its population increased by almost two million returned refugees. Have you ever seen or heard any of those smart-ass critics and cynics make a self-criticism? Or recant?
To the contrary, the same critics and cynics are now lining up to say, "Hands off Saddam Hussein," and to make almost the same doom-laden predictions. The line that connects Afghanistan to Iraq is not a straight one by any means. But the oblique connection is ignored by the potluck peaceniks, and one can be sure (judging by their past form) that it would be ignored even if it were as direct as the connection between al Qaeda and the Taliban. Saddam Hussein denounced the removal of the Sunni Muslim-murdering Slobodan Milosevic, and also denounced the removal of the Shiite-murdering Taliban. Reactionaries have a tendency to stick together (and I don't mean "guilt by association" here. I mean GUILT). If the counsel of the peaceniks had been followed, Kuwait would today be the 19th province of Iraq (and based on his own recently produced evidence, Saddam Hussein would have acquired nuclear weapons). Moreover, Bosnia would be a trampled and cleansed province of Greater Serbia, Kosovo would have been emptied of most of its inhabitants, and the Taliban would still be in power in Afghan-istan. Yet nothing seems to disturb the contented air of moral superiority that surrounds those who intone the "peace movement."
There are at least three well-established reasons to favor what is euphemistically termed "regime change" in Iraq. The first is the flouting by Saddam Hussein of every known law on genocide and human rights, which is why the Senate--at the urging of Bill Clinton--passed the Iraq Liberation Act unanimously before George W. Bush had even been nominated. The second is the persistent effort by Saddam's dictatorship to acquire the weapons of genocide: an effort which can and should be thwarted and which was condemned by the United Nations before George W. Bush was even governor of Texas. The third is the continuous involvement by the Iraqi secret police in the international underworld of terror and destabilization. I could write a separate essay on the evidence for this; at the moment I'll just say that it's extremely rash for anybody to discount the evidence that we already possess. (And I shall add that any "peace movement" that even pretends to care for human rights will be very shaken by what will be uncovered when the Saddam Hussein regime falls. Prisons, mass graves, weapon sites... just you wait.)
None of these things on their own need necessarily make a case for an intervention, but taken together--and taken with the permanent threat posed by Saddam Hussein to the oilfields of the region--they add up fairly convincingly. Have you, or your friends, recently employed the slogan "No War for Oil"? If so, did you listen to what you were saying? Do you mean that oil isn't worth fighting for, or that oil resources aren't worth protecting? Do you recall that Saddam Hussein ignited the oilfields of Kuwait when he was in retreat, and flooded the local waterways with fire and pollution? (Should I patronize the potluckistas, and ask them to look up the pictures of poisoned birds and marine animals from that year?) Are you indifferent to the possibility that such a man might be able to irradiate the oilfields next time? OF COURSE it's about oil, stupid.
To say that he might also do all these terrible things if attacked or threatened is to miss the point. Last time he did this, or massacred the Iraqi and Kurdish populations, he was withdrawing his forces under an international guarantee. The Iraqi and Kurdish peoples are now, by every measure we have or know, determined to be rid of him. And the hope, which is perhaps a slim one but very much sturdier than other hopes, is that the next Iraqi regime will be better and safer, not just from our point of view but from the points of view of the Iraqi and Kurdish peoples. The sanctions policy, which was probably always hopeless, is now quite indefensible. If lifted, it would only have allowed Saddam's oligarchy to re-equip. But once imposed, it was immoral and punitive without the objective of regime change. Choose. By the way, and while we are choosing, if you really don't want war, you should call for the lifting of the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq. These have been war measures since 1991.
What would the lifting of the no-fly zones mean for the people who live under them? I recently sat down with my old friend Dr. Barham Salih, who is the elected prime minister of one sector of Iraqi Kurdistan. Neither he nor his electorate could be mentioned if it were not for the no-fly zones imposed--as a result of democratic protest in the West--at the end of the last Gulf War. In his area of Iraq, "regime change" has already occurred. There are dozens of newspapers, numerous radio and TV channels, satellite dishes, Internet cafes. Four female judges have been appointed. Almost half the students at the University of Sulaimaniya are women. And a pro al Qaeda group, recently transferred from Afghanistan, is trying to assassinate the Kurdish leadership and nearly killed my dear friend Barham just the other day.... Now, why would this gang want to make that particular murder its first priority?
Before you face that question, consider this. Dr. Salih has been through some tough moments in his time. Most of the massacres and betrayals of the Kurdish people of Iraq took place with American support or connivance. But the Kurds have pressed ahead with regime change in any case. Surely a "peace movement" with any principles should be demanding that the United States not abandon them again. I like to think I could picture a mass picket in Seattle, offering solidarity with Kurdistan against a government of fascistic repression, and opposing any attempt to sell out the Kurds for reasons of realpolitik. Instead, there is a self-satisfied isolationism to be found, which seems to desire mainly a quiet life for Americans. The option of that quiet life disappeared a while back, and it's only coincidence that for me it vanished in Seattle. The United States is now at war with the forces of reaction, and nobody is entitled to view this battle as a spectator. The Union under Lincoln wasn't wholeheartedly against slavery. The USA under Roosevelt had its own selfish agenda even while combating Hitler and Hirohito. The hot-and-cold war against Stalinism wasn't exactly free of blemish and stain. How much this latest crisis turns into an even tougher war with reaction, at home or abroad, could depend partly upon those who currently think that it is either possible or desirable to remain neutral. I say "could," even though the chance has already been shamefully missed. But a mere potluck abstention will be remembered only with pity and scorn.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the I. F. Stone Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Why Orwell Matters.