Tuesday, March 09, 2004

SANCTIONS AGAINST SADDAM: A PROGRESSIVE INTELLECTUAL TRADITION BETRAYED?
I am certainly to the left of the political center, at least here in the United States. I have many friends and acquaintances who are left of center. But sometimes, they profoundly confuse me.


For example, people on the left of center tend to hold the following positions on human rights:

-Human rights is a good thing, is universal and should not be made subservient to economic considerations. Progressives like to think of themselves as being in the forefront in the fight for human rights, in contrast to those amoral pro-business types.

-Human rights must be defended aggressively. Declarations on pieces of paper mean nothing if they’re not enforced. Human rights violators should be punished in some way.


They also tend or tended to hold the following positions on Iraq:

-Saddam had a horrific human rights’ record dating back to the 1980s when he was chummy with the Reagan administration.

-Sanctions against the Saddam regime during the 1990s was bad. Some called it genocidal and claimed that western leaders “were responsible” for the deaths of every Iraqi who ceased living during that period.

-Foreign-sponsored ‘regime change’ against the Saddam regime was a bad idea. America should never be in the regime change business as it inevitably has counterproductive effects.

-Invading Iraq to remove Saddam was illegal, immoral and done solely for oil. In short, a horrendous idea with horrendous consequences.



This is what leaves me confused. Sanctions against Saddam’s regime were bad. Regime change was bad. Invasion was bad. Then what COULD the international community do to express its disapproval of the way Saddam flagrantly violated both Iraqi domestic law and international law?

Isolationists would say “Nothing.” They contend that it’s not our business to solve everyone else’s problems. This is perfectly logical in following with the isolationist tradition. They are being intellectually consistent.

But for a progressive to say “we shouldn’t do anything” is antithetical to the progressive tradition on human rights that I noted above. If progressives believe human rights is universal and must be defended aggressively, then saying “tough luck Iraqis brutalized by Saddam” is not an option.

Neo-conservative imperialists seized on this intellectual paralysis by insisting, “Well since Saddam’s evil and sanctions are supposedly bad, then we must ‘liberate’ Iraqis by invasion.” Progressives were unable to offer a pro-active alternative to sanctions, invasion or laissez-faire.

Two interesting things about sanctions. First off, it was Democratic legislators (the slightly left of center party in the US) who lead efforts to impose sanctions on the Saddam regime during the late 80s after its genocide against the Kurds.

Second, a great many of the people who called 1990s sanctions against Iraq a “crime against humanity” were the same as those who insisted that 1980s sanctions against South Africa were indispensible in bringing down the apartheid regime.

What’s the difference? American and British conservatives generally opposed sanctions against apartheid in South Africa and supported 1990s sanctions against Saddam. Many progressives are reflexively opposed to anything advocated by conservatives.

Frankly, if the Occupation regime in Iraq were to decree equal rights for women, universal health care and mandatory public and secular education, I'm sure many on the American and European left would still find a way to criticize it.

This is how sanctions against a monster became a bad thing in the eyes of many progressives. Intellectual tradition be damned.

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