Seyla Benhabib Response

Seyla Benhabib Response

Even those, like myself, who opposed the Iraq War from the start on moral, legal, and strategic grounds cannot rejoice at whatever confirmation of our judgment comes from the scene of carnage, political turpitude, and human misery presented by contemporary Iraq. The world is a more dangerous place than at any time after September 11, 2001; the Middle East is perched on a precipice; and the spectacle of a superpower, mightier then ever in military terms, but increasingly losing its legitimacy, prompts anxious analogies to doomed empires of the past.

The contest of narratives over who did what wrong, when, and how has begun. Despite the dangers of 20/20 hindsight, there is something salutary in proposing some other, hypothetical, narratives about roads not taken. Only by picking up the pieces of a past that is in fragments can we envisage a future for Iraq—if at all.

I propose to engage in two thought experiments about what could have been. Even an illegal war could have turned out otherwise, I would argue, if this administration had not projected its dogmatic beliefs in free markets, contempt for the rule of law, and utter disregard for deep human diversity onto Iraq. “Chickens come home to roost,” “dangerous entanglements abroad,” and transgressions against the republic at home go hand in hand.

Thought Experiment I: The War Never Started

We are back in the fall of 2002. The Afghan War against the Taliban is under way. UN inspectors have visited Iraq, and despite uncertainty about several tons of liquid chemicals with the potential to become weapons, weapons of mass destruction have not been found. The U.S. administration is playing its cards close to the vest. Saddam is restive and starts courting Islamicist militants and sympathizers throughout the Middle East by wearing a beard, attending Friday prayers, and using frequent references to the Koran in his speeches. He is concerned about a group called Ansar-el-Islam in the northeast corner of Iraq. These are al-Qaeda sympathizers and are busy attacking the Kurdish Pesh Merga; they may prove dangerous in the future.

Neighboring Iran is quiescent and watchful. Iran sees signs of implosion in the House of Saud; there is a lot of scratching of heads about how a member of the Saudi royal family, Osama bin Laden, could emerge as one of the most dangerous and charismatic leaders of the Islamic world. The old theological battles between itinerant Islamicist preachers and the more structured theological Islamic bureaucracy in cities like Iran’s Kum are brewing, with implications far into the future. Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza and Nasrallah in Lebanon are not strategic players at this stage; Hamas in particular is undecided between its Sunni and Shiite patrons.

March 19, 2003, comes and goes, and the United States and its allies do not invade Iraq. In the ensuing years, there is no terrorism in Madrid and L...