Why is the United States at war with Iraq?footnote It is a lot easier to say what are not the reasons for us intervention in the Gulf than to provide a fully satisfactory account of its presence there. According to the Bush administration, the usa is fighting Iraq because Saddam Hussein is a ruthless tyrant who has carried out an unjust invasion of Kuwait. In the pompous rhetoric of the President’s State of the Union address, ‘What is at stake is. . .a new world order—where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind: peace and security, freedom and the rule of law. . .Saddam Hussein’s unprovoked invasion. . .will not stand.’ It is important to take the administration’s rhetoric seriously, because what might be called its empirical premisses are, in one respect, obviously correct. Saddam Hussein is a ruthless tyrant and his invasion of Kuwait must be condemned. Popular support in the usa for the administration’s war is based, to an important degree, on the perceived nature of the Iraqi regime and, above all, the injustice of his invasion. For this reason, the peace movement has the task of showing that, although the public’s perception and judgment of the Iraqi regime and its invasion is not in error, nevertheless the us intervention could not be more wrong. This is, most relevantly, because us action is in no way motivated by Saddam’s awful regime or his violation of democratic rights, and will only make things much worse for the people of the region and of the United States itself.

The war with Iraq is not at all like that with Vietnam. The Vietnamese were fighting for self-determination against us neocolonialism. That is obviously not the position of Iraq, which has sought to secure for itself something of a hegemonic position in the region. In general, the us Left must rid itself of the long-held but debilitating illusion that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. This could not be less true in the present case, for the Iraqi regime’s accomplishments include the systematic physical extermination of virtually the entire Iraqi Left.

More positively, if the us Left is to take advantage of the present conjuncture to begin to rebuild itself and acquire a mass base after more than a decade of precipitate decline, it must associate itself systematically and unambiguously with the defence of democratic rights. In the present case, this means opposing the forceful imposition of one regime on another people (which does not, of course, mean ignoring the repressive character of the Kuwaiti and Saudi regimes). The failure of much of the us Left to stand unambiguously for the right of self-determination has in too many cases allowed right-wing forces to assume to themselves the mantle of leadership in the struggle for national rights. The most recent case of this was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, about which much of the Left was ambiguous—or, worse, sided with the Soviet Union in the name of ‘progress’ against Islamic reaction. Unfortunately, of course, the Soviet invasion, as well as the apologies of much of the us Left for it, only helped solidify the association of national oppression with the Left, and the association of leadership in the struggle for national liberation with the Right, thereby strengthening the Islamic reactionaries throughout the region and discrediting the Left.

Of course, while conceding the odious nature of Saddam’s regime and its violation of democratic rights, the peace movement must go on to expose the extreme hypocrisy of the administration’s putatively moral justification for its war against Iraq. It can accomplish this by bringing out the sharp contrast between the Government’s ostensible concern with aggression and human rights in the case of Kuwait and the reality of its own past practice and that of its allies—especially toward Iraq itself. This is the way to begin to persuade a broader public of the systematically imperialist character of us foreign policy, and the unconcern of this policy for human rights where their assertion stands in the way of American interests.

That the us intervention has nothing to do with its stated aims of opposing tyranny and expansionism is most obvious from the very recent history of the usa’s relationship with Iraq itself. Right up to the day of its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq was a close ally of the United States. When Iraq first invaded Iran, the usa symptomatically failed to denounce its aggression, and simply called for negotiations to settle the outstanding differences between the parties. Somewhat later Ronald Reagan ordered the ‘tilt’ in the Middle East toward Iraq, and as a result the usa, as well as the other Western powers—along with the Soviet Union—gave Iraq massive material, especially military, aid throughout the 1980s. This aid was proffered despite the repressiveness of Saddam’s domestic rule, well-documented in the reports of international human-rights organizations. It was given, what’s more, despite the widely accepted fact that during this period the Iraqi regime was carrying out the mass murder of some 45,000 Kurds, a non-Arab national minority within its territory. Indeed, the us administration opposed the effort to pass an international resolution condemning Iraq for deploying chemical weapons against the Kurds, as well as against its external enemies. At the same time, the us State Department made sure to have Iraq removed from its list of ‘terrorist nations’.