Can Bullets and Bombs Establish Justice in Iraq?

President George W. Bush has said on many occasions that he seeks to “bring to justice” those responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the United States. On September 20, 2001, he told a joint session of Congress: “Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.” Later, he associated the U.S. invasion of Iraq with that same quest for justice. Today, however, as violent resistance to the U.S. occupation increases throughout Iraq and as the Shiites as well as the Sunnis fight pitched battles with the occupation forces, the Bush administration’s devotion to justice stands clearly revealed as declaration without substance.

Although convincing evidence of alleged cooperation between the Iraqi government and the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks was never adduced, nobody doubts that Saddam Hussein’s regime reeked of injustice, and so the U.S. overthrow of that regime might appear to have been at least consistent with the establishment of justice. The trouble that arose at the very outset, however, reflected the choice of military means to attain the desired end. Notwithstanding all the claims made on behalf of precision weapons, modern warfare always spills over from the guilty to the innocent. Certainly it did so in Iraq, where tens of thousands of men, including many noncombatants, as well as thousands of women and children suffered death or injury as a result of U.S. military actions. Thus were new injustices committed in the process of overthrowing those responsible for old injustices. A net gain for justice?

For U.S. authorities the question never seemed to arise. On the rare occasions when they recognized that their invasion had entailed any evils at all, they always insisted that those evils amounted to only a small cost relative to the great benefits to be enjoyed by the liberated Iraqi people once the immediate turmoil of the fighting had ceased. All along, however, it was plain that many Iraqis held a different view. Indeed, many were so opposed to the U.S. presence in their country that they tossed not the ballyhooed welcoming flowers but rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells at their self-anointed liberators. Saddam Hussein’s regime was quickly dispatched, thereby accomplishing the declared U.S. goal, yet the U.S. forces then settled down for an indefinite stay, and many Iraqis continued to fight them tooth and nail at great risk to themselves and their places of residence. What had become of justice?

Listening to U.S. proconsul L. Paul Bremer tell the story, we might never suspect that anything deserves notice in Iraq besides the sweetness and light of the American “reconstruction” of the country’s shattered infrastructure and undemocratic institutions. Responding to questions about the recent widespread violence, Bremer declared: “I know if you just report on those few places, it does look chaotic. But if you travel around the country . . . what you find is a bustling economy, people opening businesses right and left, unemployment has dropped.” Maybe so, just as after September 11, 2001, almost everything in the United States (except the airlines) continued to operate much as it had before–”a few buildings knocked down here and there and four airliners lost out of a fleet of thousands didn’t amount, so to speak, to a hill of beans. One suspects, however, that Bremer and other leaders of the Bush administration would vehemently reject this analogous way of putting things into perspective. After all, they have steadfastly insisted that the events of 9/11 “changed everything.”

Speaking of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers have recently joined the fray in several cities, Bremer described the preacher as “a guy who has a fundamentally inappropriate view of the new Iraq.” This statement demands close examination. Here is the resident chief of a conquering power seemingly speaking as though he were entitled to say what is appropriate for Iraq. What has happened to government by the consent of the governed? Clearly, although al-Sadr may have little authority to speak for the Iraqi people, Bremer has none at all. Al-Sadr, declared Bremer, “believes that in the new Iraq, like in the old Iraq, power should be to the guy with guns. That is an unacceptable vision for Iraq.” It required a great deal of chutzpah for Bremer, who presides over Iraq solely by virtue of the massive firepower of U.S. forces there, to call into question the validity of power that flows from the barrel of a gun. Bremer has utterly no legitimacy as the kingpin of Iraq, and it would be far more becoming if he confined his declarations to topics such as repairs to the water and sewer systems.

In an April 7 press briefing, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld described the Iraqi resistance fighters as a few “thugs, gangs, and terrorists.” Minimizing the scope of the resistance, he characterized it as consisting of “a small number of terrorists and militias coupled with some protests.” (Rumsfeld routinely speaks of all Iraqis who oppose the U.S. occupation as terrorists.) Moreover, in the briefing, he and General Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referred repeatedly to al-Sadr as a murderer. Yet no legitimate court has convicted al-Sadr of murder. To be sure, a certain Iraqi count is said to have indicted him. What should we make of such an indictment? Who composes that court, and how did those persons gain their positions? Clearly, the court has no power to enforce any decision except with the approval and cooperation of U.S. occupation forces. One might have thought that the world had seen enough kangaroo courts during the days of Stalin and Hitler to have acquired some suspicion of judicial integrity in extraordinary circumstances. Yet U.S. authorities display no appreciation of what genuine justice requires for either its determination or its enforcement. There is absolutely no rule of law in Iraq; U.S. forces simply do as they please.

Further evidence of this disregard for justice comes from an anonymous source that the Wall Street Journal describes as a “senior Pentagon official.” Speaking of previous U.S. deliberations about how to deal with al-Sadr, this official stated, “We’ve always been really conflicted on how to deal with Sadr. Do you capture or kill him and make him a martyr, or do you ignore him and hope that the Shiites move away from him?” Well, if one seeks to establish justice, one treats him as the rules of justice require. If he is reasonably suspected of having committed a crime, he should be arrested and given a fair trial. In no event, however, is someone who dislikes his sermons or his political views entitled to kill him peremptorily–”evidently a live option in discussions among U.S. leaders, according to this nameless official. What sort of justice is it simply to kill an unpopular preacher? Indeed, such a killing would itself seem to be an act of murder that cries out for its perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Meanwhile, here in the tranquil confines of the United States, the dogs of war continue to howl in the mainstream media, and like the U.S. authorities in Iraq and Washington, D.C., they are howling for further bloodshed, not for justice. (As U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Ray Millen recently explained: “‘Hearts and minds’ is not applicable during a military campaign; that’s a long-term solution.”) Thus, the Wall Street Journal’s editors opined on April 6 that “what’s needed now is a reassertion of U.S. resolve. . . . Having let Mr. Sadr’s militia grow, the coalition now has no choice but to break it up.” Moreover, not content with prescribing bigger doses of U.S. violence in Iraq, the Journal’s editors used the occasion to shake their fists at Iran, too. “Iran’s mullahs fear a Muslim democracy in Iraq,” they asserted, “because it is a direct threat to their own rule. If warnings to Tehran from Washington don’t impress them, perhaps some cruise missiles aimed at the Bushehr nuclear site will concentrate their minds.”

No one can deny, of course, that incoming cruise missiles do concentrate the mind–”the airliners commandeered and turned into guided missiles on 9/11 certainly had that effect on leaders of the Bush administration. Cruise missiles, however, like the 500-pound bombs and M1-A1 tanks being employed to police Iraq today, are not effective instruments for the establishment of justice. There was no justice in the 9/11 attacks on New York City and precious little in the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq; nor is any in prospect should the Bush administration loose its firepower gratuitously on Iran. Such employment of indiscriminate force and violence can accomplish certain things–”widespread death and destruction above all–”but by its very nature it cannot establish justice. Indeed, its most visible effect is the encouragement of recurrent rounds of attack and counterattack. Does anyone really believe that the recent attacks in an arc that stretches from Bali to Istanbul to Madrid were anything but retaliation against people whose governments had cooperated with U.S. military actions in the Middle East? Until the leaders of the U.S. government come to recognize the distinction between waging war and establishing justice, the world will remain at risk of much unnecessary pain and grief.