Steve Sachs Duke


Friday, December 13, 2002


Clear thinking at Oxford. The Oxford University Student Union, the campus student government (not to be confused with the Oxford Union, a private debating society), recently passed a terribly confused resolution (scroll to bottom) on the war in Iraq. In general, opinion on campus has been almost uniformly anti-war, with positions running the gamut from complete pacifists to those who would support a war if fought under the aegis of the United Nations. There are a number of good arguments that could be marshaled for these positions individually--some of which I find quite persuasive, which is why I'm actually quite hesitant in my feelings about the war--but the resolution manages to avoid all of them. OUSU's claims (and my criticisms) may not be terribly original, but it's rare to have so many of the worst arguments all in one place. In particular, the student union resolved:

1. That the United States and United Kingdom's threat to ignore the United Nations if it does not agree with their viewpoints, and their efforts to put pressure on UN countries in order to ensure that it votes 'correctly', poses a real threat to the authority of the organisation.
2. That peace and common security will not be achieved by bombing already miserable peoples and imposing arbitrary regime change, but by a long-term process of strengthening the UN and examining our own role in reinforcing the root causes of war (for example, the continuing aid given to dictatorships across the globe).
3. That until the US and UK examine the contradictions at the heart of their own foreign policies, including their selective enforcement of UN resolutions and persistent failure to deal with their own weapons of mass destruction, they will have little right to lecture other nations about the rules of moral conduct.
4. That while Saddam Hussein is a brutal tyrant, a regime change within Iraq is a matter for the Iraqi people. Bombing Iraq is unlikely to kill Saddam Hussein, but is certain to kill thousands of Iraqis.

There's an awful lot of absurdity in this, which gives some perspective to the oft-described sophistication of political debate in Britain as compared to the U.S. But for the moment I'll only offer four quick points:

First, although propping up dictators is a terrible thing, who would have guessed that the "root causes of war" are best addressed by a reduction in the foreign aid budget? Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) would be proud.

Second, in what sense is regime change within Iraq "a matter for the Iraqi people"? This might be the case if, for example, the Iraqi people could choose their new leaders in free and open elections. But when those who try to change the regime have their tongues torn out, isn't this resolution just a call to abandon the powerless to their fate?

Third, does Oxford's student union really want the U.S. and U.K. to refrain from "lectur[ing] other nations about the rules of moral conduct" until their own houses are in order? That could take quite a while, and there's an awful lot of work to be done in the meantime. (Do Oxford student representatives really want an end to diplomatic or trade sanctions for Myanmar? No more criticism of China over Tibet? Not even any retrospective criticism of South Africa's apartheid government?) No responsible politics would ever discourage agents from acting morally. If the U.S. and U.K. have dirty hands, then they should clean them off, not sit on them.

Fourth and finally, there's a great deal that OUSU leaves unsaid, such as the fact that the "brutal tyrant" possesses a powerful and deadly arsenal which will only become more powerful and more deadly as time goes on. Well-reasoned opponents of the war argue either that (1) Hussein's weapons are not a real concern (at least when compared to the dangers posed by invasion), or (2) the dangers posed by Hussein and his weapons can be neutralized or contained without resorting to force. Statements from student governments on matters of foreign policy, no matter how strongly worded or effectively argued, are rarely taken seriously; given its failure to make either argument, one wonders whether OUSU even takes seriously its own resolutions.




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