Edward W Batchelder

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The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions
ed. Micah L. Sifry & Christopher Cerf
(A Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster)

cover of Iraq War Reader

Though the war in Iraq has officially ended, the peace—in the form of continued casualties and as-yet-unknown international repercussions—will continue to haunt us for some time. Americans interested in knowing exactly how we arrived at this conflict, and how we might eventually move beyond it, will find this book required reading.

Like the 1991 Gulf War Reader by the same editors, this volume collects a wide range of documents concerning the history, debates, and ultimate objectives of the war. While the editors are clearly in the anti-war camp (most evidently in their footnotes), they’ve done an admirable job of collecting opinions and evidence from every side of the debate.

George Bush is here, along with his many supporters, and Saddam Hussein and his one or two spokesmen show up as well. More to the point, since few on the planet actually fess up to being pro-Saddam, the editors have assembled a good cross-section of the many and varied arguments against the war, from its effect on minority Americans to its impact on global relations.

Among other things, this book serves as a valuable reminder of certain unpleasant truths. Philip Knightly details in the book’s first essay how the region’s history is littered with broken promises from Western powers, suggesting that their suspicion of our motives may be quite justified. As the Indian writer Arundhati Roy notes pungently later in the volume, “Wars are never fought for altruistic reasons.”

Further, as three early essays chronicling Saddam’s brutal rise to power make clear, Iraq was a client state of the U.S. during the period of Saddam’s greatest excesses. It was the Reagan-Bush administration, after all, who removed Iraq from the list of terrorist states during the 1980s, and supported Saddam after his unprovoked invasion of Iran.

Beyond that, the book’s greatest value lies in being arranged more or less chronologically, allowing the reader to follow the debates as they unfolded. Susan Sontag’s immediate response to September 11—with its tone of national self-criticism—is followed by Charles Krauthammer’s scathing response. George Bush’s 2002 graduation speech at West Point receives a reasoned, point-by-point dissection by Richard Falk.

Inevitably, of course, much of what is here amounts to ideological drumbeating, but there are enough reasoned arguments and well-researched articles to piece together the underlying causes for the war.

What gradually becomes evident as one reads the book—like watching an island grow clearer in the fog as one approaches—is that the true motives for this war had less to do with Saddam’s military power than the United States’. The collapse of the Soviet Union left a power void that only the United States, with its unmatched military superiority, could step into. September 11 may have represented a sea change in America’s view of its place in the world, but many of the war’s architects were planning it long before al Qaeda struck.

The book features, for example, a 1998 open letter to President Clinton from the Project for the New American Century (a group including Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz) that advocates “a new strategy that would secure the interests of the U.S. and our friends and allies around the world.” This idea is seconded by Charles Krauthammer in his defense of America as a benevolent empire, and by empire-advocates Lawrence Kaplan and William Kristol, who spell out in a more detailed fashion exactly what this might mean for us and the rest of the world.

Quite naturally, many Americans don’t see any problem with a world dominated by the United States and run according to U.S. interests. Just as naturally, many citizens of other countries do.

As Jonathan Schell states concisely in his essay: “Empire is to the world what dictatorship is to a country.” This is hard to square with Americans’ instinctive sense of being on the side of the underdog. We may see ourselves—as several of the pro-war theoreticians quoted here do—as Gary Cooper facing down the bully in High Noon, but for much of the world, it’s the United States that has become the bully.

More to the point for Americans themselves, though, is the question of what an American empire might do to America.

“The price of maintaining an empire,” writes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jay Bookman, “is always high.” Among these costs, professor Michael Klare warns, are “more people in uniform. . . . increased spending on war, and reduced spending on education and other domestic needs. . . . more secrecy and intrusion into our private lives.”

The bitter irony suggested by reading the essays in this book is that America’s move towards empire may lead not only to less freedom for other countries, but for our own as well.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from The Tennessean)

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