The Status Quo Ante

The US has lost the war. Now its efforts in Iraq will be defined for the history books by the photos of psychosexual torture methods used by US soldiers and civilian contractors in Baghdad. There is no avoiding this. The mask as moral liberator was ripped off long ago. The danger now is that the US presence will live up to the worst caricature of the most fundamentalist Islamic cleric.

What must the US do to dig out of disaster? What must the US do to make it right? The US strategy now is to try to put the head back on the body by reinstalling former Baathists in positions of power. The fear, of course, is that this will only further infuriate the Shiites. Trying to sort through all this, the US is frantically studying how Saddam was able to maintain order and political stability, and doing its best to replicate this feat. The problem is that even Saddam’s top henchmen cannot enjoy legitimacy if the public perceives them as tools of the US.

Clearly, nostalgia for Saddam is sweeping all sectors. The experience of Jasim Muhammad Saleh demonstrates this. He is a former general of Saddam’s Republican Guard. When the US pulled back from Fallujah — the first really smart thing the US has done in this entire war — he drove into the city wearing his old uniform and was cheered. He was the de facto head of state in that city, his legitimacy deriving entirely from his association with the old regime.

So too with the new commander of Iraq’s army, Amer Bakr al-Hashimi, who publicly announced that he is “proud” to have served Saddam. What is the US to do? Making such statements only reinforces his status. Punishing him does the same. Replacing him will only destabilize matters more. Day by day, the US is realizing that the status quo ante is the only way out, but US officials are unsure how or to what extent it can go back.

In some way, there is no going back. Many thousands are dead and tens of thousands are wounded, civilians and soldiers. Mosques have been bombed and cities destroyed. The US made mass graves necessary. What was left of civilization in Iraq after the sanctions was nearly eradicated, and for no cause. There were no WMDs. There was no connection to 9-11. This war was a malevolent hoax.

It is preposterous for anyone to speak of democracy in Iraq so long as Saddam Hussein is in an official spider hole. Whatever war propaganda said about Saddam’s evil has been turned back on the US: torture chambers, rape rooms, outlawing dissent, and all the rest.

Yes, the troops ought to come home. When? As soon as they can get packed. The same goes for the phonies calling themselves the “Coalition Provisional Authority.” All these bureaucrats need to admit is that they have no legitimacy at all, but rather acted as civilian cover for a martial law junta that ruled by blood and lies. Then the UN can work with Islamic clerics, the merchant class, and other Iraqi leaders to fill the void, not with force but with peace.

And yet a straight pullout from Iraq at this point only goes so far. Iraq is left with devastation and death. A generation of Muslims has been taught by this war to hate and despise American influence. The hard core among them will be easy recruits in a terrorist army that will last until kingdom come, always threatening and always providing a pretext for our own government to increase its despotic control over American life.

What can be done to prevent this awful scenario? The US government must apologize, or at least eat a truckload of humble pie. It needs to do everything possible to admit wrongdoing, through both symbolic and substantial acts of penance. This is essential for showing the Arab world that we too recognize that a grave injustice has been done. Insofar as it is possible, acts of public humility will help reverse the damage and help prevent acts of vengeance.

But such expressions will only be symbolic. They need to be matched by substantive acts as well. Perhaps the US can assist in establishing something resembling a representative democracy in Iraq, or at least not deliver the final death blow of permitting an Islamic dictatorship to arise in what used to be the most liberally-minded nation in the region. This cannot be done by the US as such, but under the guidance of an international delegation of the sort that Jimmy Carter has led in the past, operating again under the aegis of the UN.

This isn’t just my idea. All people of good will (and, yes, that excludes the entire war cabal in the Bush administration) would immediately view this scenario as the most humane and viable transition from ghastly war to restorative peace.

At the same time, it is preposterous for anyone to speak of democracy in Iraq so long as Saddam Hussein is in an official spider hole. He was unseated on a basis that is contrary to all standards of legal conduct between nations. The US decided on its own that he should no longer be the president of Iraq — the very thing all norms of international law are designed to prevent. No government needs to be permanent, but those who pose no threat to international peace should be managed, controlled, or overthrown by their own citizens.

The end is unjustified by the means used. There is no moral nor legal basis (other than might makes right) for Saddam to be held by the US, much less subjected to a kangaroo court staffed by neoconservative conspirators. Saddam must be immediately released and escorted back to Iraq under the protection of an international delegation. At that point, Carter can supervise elections with Saddam among the candidates. And yes, it’s not impossible that he might win.

Is this a shocking suggestion? Yes, and I hesitate to be the first one to say publicly what so many people — including ex-government officials and long-time foreign policy commentators — have been saying privately for months. But at some point, such thoughts will become commonplace. It is a fact that this war was unjust. Releasing him would at least concede that the US was wrong to wage it. This is the first step toward ending the bloodshed and terror.

In fact, there is no other option for Iraq at this point. Phony polls aside, the US has made Saddam more popular than when he was in power. The US can choose between keeping Saddam locked up and thereby continue to stir the pot, leading to ever more violence, or it can release Saddam without any charges against him — let alone by Ahmed Chalabi’s son — and have a hope for reconciliation and peace.

Let’s deal with a number of objections to releasing Saddam.

He is a tyrant, a liar, a killer, and the new Hitler. We’ve been hearing this for so long that it is tough to separate the truth from the war propaganda. It was the Bush administration and not Saddam that turned out to be lying about WMDs. As for the other charges, Putin is also a killer and a tyrant. He has killed “his own people” in Chechnya. The US doesn’t dispute his legitimacy. In fact, the world is strewn with despots, many of them our allies. The US has no veto power over the leadership of countries in far corners of the world, much less the right to kidnap and try them. Yes, many Iraqis hated Saddam, but the US had no business deciding on its own to unseat him. That should be left to the Iraqi people.

He will return to slaughter his enemies. In fact, he might well return anxious to disprove all the claims made against him. Under the eye of human rights organizations, the press, and the UN, he will have every incentive to behave in a humanitarian way. Even as head of state, he would face pressure to be liberally minded. His rule would be shaky at best; if it turns out to be short-lived, that’s fine too, because the revolution would be from within.

The US will lose credibility. Actually, the US has already lost credibility. A reversal on this scale is the only way to bring it back. It is also the last thing that al Qaeda wants, because it would remove a main source of its case for recruiting new terrorists. If the US turns on a dime to become reasonable, humanitarian, and peacefully minded, the terrorists lose rationale for a campaign of vengeance. And the US gains credibility by admitting the truth, and by undertaking a dramatic gesture to right history.

This would reward despotism. It’s hard to see how being released from captivity after having your sons slaughtered and your entire life destroyed is a reward for despotism. All it does is grant some small measure of international justice in an impossibly grotesque environment. Also, we must think about the message that keeping Saddam in prison sends. It says that the end justifies the means, and powerful states with WMDs like the US can get away with anything. That is not a good message for the world. The US will continue to pay for this disastrous war so long as it holds Saddam.

This would reverse the one decent accomplishment of the war. And so long as Saddam is in prison, the US will be free to claim that all the bloodshed and the bloody taxes at least accomplished this one great thing. The US government must be denied this prize. The Muslim world cannot continue to think that the US is self-satisfied or that the Bush administration got what it wanted in the end. If the US were required to return Saddam and pull out of Iraq, it would say to the world: aggression will not be rewarded.

Yes, there are a thousand other issues to sort out. What about the billions in damage and theft? Who will compensate the families of the dead? What other actions can the US take that will encourage reconciliation? All these issues must be faced squarely and truthfully. It will be painful. But we must remember that this war has been ghastly, and that a future without justice will be more painful still.

How will George Bush explain to the families of dead US soldiers why he is having to restore the status quo ante? He should begin with the tenth-century prayer said first by the powerful, who sought forgiveness for their sins:

Confiteor Deo omnipotenti… quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

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