One Way to Approach the War with Iraq

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Mr. Hahn is Associate Professor of History at Ohio State University and the Executive Director of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

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Following is the text of a lecture Mr. Hahn delivered at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians on April 5, 2003. He spoke at a panel devoted to the subject of the Iraq war.

I applaud the OAH for organizing this panel discussion. It is indeed appropriate for an organization whose members are the custodians of the American collective memory to provide time for discourse about current events that might form a major watershed in the history of the American people if not the global community. I feel privileged to have the chance to share my own reflections in this venue.

I will venture to suggest an interpretive paradigm that might inform our discussion of the war here today and perhaps offer you a means to lead discussions in your local communities and classrooms. Then I will make observations, raise questions, and think aloud about the momentous events of our day. Who knows? I might even "shock and awe" you.

I borrow my analytical construct from the historian Philip Gleason, who posited that all historical inquiry can be divided into three types of questions.(1) The first is the narrative or descriptive question: what happened? The second is the explanatory or causal query: why did it happen? And the third is the evaluative inquiry: should it have happened? Was it good or bad that it happened?

I believe that the progression from level 1 to level 3 often involves a progression from objectivity to subjectivity. As we evaluate at levels 2 and 3, we confront a tendency to interpret the evidence on the basis of our own cultural values, ethnicity, gender, nationalism, religion, and politics.

The basic, level 1 question "what happened?" is at the heart of what we professional historians do. Like detectives, we pride ourselves on probing the archives and assembling the evidence that tells the story or "proves" the "facts." Consensus usually prevails at this level of inquiry.

Yet the narrative provides only the building blocks of interpretation at level 2, where we encounter the challenge of causation. We try to make a case why something happened on the basis of evidence and reason. Yet academic disputes emerge at level 2 because subjective factors creep into our interpretations, as we privilege certain pieces of evidence and marginalize others.

In contrast to the academic disputes at level 2, analyses of the level 3 questions tend to be marked by more complex disagreements. Perhaps that is because level 3 evaluations are the most likely to be influenced by subjective factors. Perhaps it is because our level 3 evaluations correlate to our level 2 interpretations. On level 3 we pose the most interesting and perhaps the most important questions--but we also find the most divisive and heartfelt disputes.

With this three-level framework in mind, I turn to the task of reflecting on the war in Iraq. On level 1, the basic contours of the U.S. approach to war already seem clear. No one questions that Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990. No one disputes the evidence that on March 19, 2003, President Bush targeted Saddam Hussein's bunker in Baghdad and fired the shot heard--or at least watched--'round the world.

Future level 1 inquiries about the war will benefit from the enormous body of information already available about it. An information overload has resulted from two factors. First is the modern media, with its copious press coverage of the diplomatic phase, its hundreds of embedded journalists reporting in real time from the battlefield, its global network that goes after the story from many angles, its al-Jazeeras on the Internet. Such immediate and widespread access to information about a war has no precedent in history.

Second, U.S. diplomacy also appeared somewhat more transparent than usual. Bush's global diplomacy forced him to divulge the fundamentals of his policy to a worldwide audience. He was no James K. Polk, advancing the Army to the Rio Grande without consulting Congress in 1846. Nor was he FDR, secretly taunting the German navy on the North Atlantic in autumn 1941, out of sight of the American people. Bush laid his cards on the table. Well before we professional historians begin poring over memoirs and sifting through archives, we have a head start at assembling the basic narrative of diplomacy, war, and peace.

By contrast, deep and broad divisions have emerged in public discourse about the causes of the war. At level 2, we face the central question, why did Bush abandon diplomacy and escalate to hostilities?

Answers to this question are as diverse and numerous as the op-ed columnists and street demonstrators who rail against and for the war. Is it a case of blood for oil? Is it a legitimate defensive strike against a clear and present danger? Is it a manifestation of American arrogance and unilateralism? Is it machismo run amok? Is it an idealistic mission to improve the world or to remake the Middle East in the American image? Is it a war to finish Dad's work and polish his legacy? One question provokes many answers, because subjective factors begin to shape the way we interpret evidence.

The debate among professional historians is now underway-16 minutes and counting. If we look for models in the literature-say, on the origins of the Cold War, or even the origins of the War of 1812--we should expect this discussion to continue for many years. Perhaps our debate has been foreshadowed by the voices of dissent and support now audible outside of the ivory tower. But it will fall to us professionals to assemble the narrative and sustain the interpretations.

And now we consider the level 3 question: was U.S. policy in this conflict right or wrong? Like the questions at level 2, this query has provoked heated, impassioned debate. Virtually everyone--from the most expert scholar to the man or woman on the street--has a position on the justice of this war.

We scholars aspire to base our evaluations on a hard-headed analysis of the level 1 facts, reflection on level 2 causal explanations, and a dose of rational thought. Or so we think. Most people--and perhaps all of us-actually evaluate the war on the basis of values, interests, biases, and principles shaped by our own life experiences.

An attentive ear can discern several such convictions and ideologies in the current debate. Consider first the extremes. On one hand, we hear that war is always evil. Might does not make right. Bush stole the election and deserves to be brought low. At the other extreme, we hear God bless America. Rally round the flag. Let's roll.

At the messy intersection between the extremes, historians and others grapple with arguments and convictions that compete for our minds. Could might occasionally make right? Can a patriot celebrate the flag as a symbol of diplomacy rather than war, of liberty by example rather than coercion? Are there genuine national security interests that must be defended by force? Or does the fighting undermine national security? Does the end justify the means? Or must the means--including the casualty rates-figure in the calculus?

Further to complicate the situation, we historians also wrestle with historical precedents. Are we witnessing Munich or the Gulf of Tonkin? Pickett's charge or D-Day? Do the "lessons of the past" that we cite reveal some truth about today's situation, or do they reveal only our own predispositions?

An additional complication arises as current events move into the realm of the past. Future debates about today's war will no doubt turn in part on the outcome of the war, which we cannot possibly know at this moment. The ultimate verdict will depend on factors that remain shrouded in the fog of the future.

Imagine, for instance, that Bush's most optimistic dream comes true. Saddam's regime is eradicated with minimal casualties. We find that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and intended to use them except that his top generals finally heeded all those leaflets and turned on him.

Freed of their tormentor, the people of Baghdad dance in the streets. A new Iraq arises as a bastion of stability and democracy, triggering a "change in the neighborhood" of the Middle East. We see the domino effect in reverse--with autocratic regimes tumbling toward democracy, reminding us of Eastern Europe in 1989--and even the Israel-Palestine imbroglio is settled. Bush coasts to a second term by stuffing the ballot box with ticker tape, before heading to Oslo to accept the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Such an outcome would generate a crescendo of celebration--certainly in public discourse and perhaps even in our scholarship. We would ride a wave of triumphalism like the one that crested after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

At the other extreme, imagine that the U.S. crusade in Iraq turns sour and nasty. Hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis die in a televised urban war, like the film Black Hawk Down, only live and unfiltered by Hollywood. A stray Scud hits Tel Aviv, with toxins agents aboard. A sleeper cell strikes deep in the American heartland with catastrophic results. The economy sputters. A once audacious cowboy, his ten-gallon hat in tatters, rides off into a Texas sunset, four years ahead of plan.

Such an outcome would naturally trigger a generation of soul-searching, cynical second-guessing, finger-pointing, and humility in the American psyche. The spectre of Vietnam would rise from its grave.

I doubt that the war will turn out as clearly as either of these extremes. We might expect a partial victory, which by definition means a partial defeat. The outcome might be muddled rather than clear, shades of gray rather than a stark black and white. Even a declared military triumph will have Pyrrhic dimensions.

In that case, there will be little consensus on the key questions of why we went to war and whether we should have done so. The debate will go on and on, as intelligent people analyze evidence on the basis of varying standards of evaluation and come to different conclusions.

1. Philip Gleason, Keeping the Faith: American Catholicism Past and Present (Notre Dame: UND Press, 1987): 202-225.

© Peter L. Hahn 2003

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david inkey - 11/20/2003


by david inkey1

[1] Professor Albert Blaustein (1922-1994) Professor Emeritus, Rutger’s University, Constitutional Consultant and counsel to Russia, Bolivia, Canada, Poland, Nepal, Uganda, Niger, Peru, Brazil, and many more. Author of more than 25 books, among them "Constitutions of The World" 22 volumes, updated annually.

AUTHORIZING …….. late in my career in international civil service, about the time my friend and former student, shah dev, his majesty birendra bir bikram shah dev, was being “constitutionalized” in the kingdom of nepal, putting an end to eons of absolute monarchism in that kingdom in the clouds, albert p. blaustin, entereded my office in unicef headquarters, where i was unesco advisor to unicef and wished to explore with me what might be my guruizing thoughts for nepal. albert had been asked to work on the constititution for the kingdom’s move to constitutionality… where and how he learned of my nepali connections, i never learned or learned and have forgotten… i was quite impressed by what albert told me about himself and his works… tonight, just past the ides of october, what with the security council of the united nations being considerably, yea—unanimously-- constrained by the events in iraq since march 2003, what with the passage of a resolution that “sovereignty” needs to be returned to the people of iraq and that iraq needs a constitution, i decided maybe i had to do something in a constitutional way to assist… after all, I had helped shah dev, while he was crown prince, to democratize parts of the educational system of Nepal and in that nation i was vvip…a very very important person. and I am president of antarctica university, a.u. = AWE if awe cannot help awe-inspire constitutionality, awe might not be as great as believe it to be…

amongst my papers i have the obit page of the nyt of august august 23, 1994 where albert p, blaustein is memorialized… in an interview in 1983, albert said, “A constitution is more than a structure and framework for government. it is in many senses a nation’s frontispiece. It should be used as a rallying point for the people’s ideals and aspirations, as well as a message to the outside world as to what the country stands for.”

i have sizable problems with “sovereignty…” while modern sovereignty may have been born in 1648 in some distant place called Westphalia, some 8 years after the founding of Greenwich, Connecticut—which on march 2, 1946 declined to become UNOVILLE, the “capital” of the new United Nations Organization, greenwichians claiming victory in THE BATTLE OF UNOVILLE, i believe sovereignty died, died, died on april 5, 1991 in the security council when “we” were given permission to beat on saddam for threatening the kurds… to my hyped analysis the then united states ambassador to the united nations replied, “david, let us just say that sovereignty has been moribund for some time…

ergo, de facto, ipso facto, de juris and procrastinating… I, aye, david inkey have decided that since the security council unanimously grants its members, as fragmented and as frustrated as they may be, until december 15, 2003, to arrange an agenda on constitutionalizing, electioneering, and generally getting something more orderly organized in iraq, I, too, should have till 12/15/03 to prepare a constitution… I propose that the new york times and ALL the newspapers and other media of the world open, OPEN, OPEN, a CCC, constitutional composition crusade… on december 16th I will be busy, busy, busy celebrating and commemorating my 72nd cycle around our solar station as well as observing beethoven’s birthday, Margaret mead’s natal day, and the boston tea party’s fling of 1763…

later in december I will have to “spare” a day, don my customary work clothes and serve as unicef’s santa to bring joy to some waffling waifs cruelly neglected by biological parents in nyc AND TO COLLECTIVIZE THE CLAUSES… surely, by the feast of that roman deity, janus, i will be ready to anthroprop some constitutional clauses… we must work with due respect to being in the decade of the culture of peace, the human rights decade, the international year for freshwater, and among numerous millennial challenges outlined and spell in, in kofi and company’s compilation the millennial development goals… of course, de facto, I also very much wish to change the preamble of the united nations charter from WE THE PEOPLES to we the people….

join my puns, program of united nations study, david inkey, un philosopher@aol.com


Iraq - Interim Constitution -----pulled from google goggles...


{ Adopted in: 1990 }
{ ICL Document Status: 1990 }
Chapter I The Republic of Iraq

Article 1 [State Form]
Iraq is a Sovereign People's Democratic Republic. Its basic objective is the realization of one Arab State and the build-up of the socialist system.
Article 2 [Authority]
The people are the source of authority and its legitimacy.
Article 3 [Sovereignty, Territory]

(a) The sovereignty of Iraq is an indivisible entity.
(b) The territory of Iraq is an indivisible entity of which no part can be ceded.
Article 4 [State Religion]
Islam is the religion of the State.


Let us state, unequivocably, that there should be freedom of Faith.

Article 5 [Nationalities]


(b) The Iraqi People are composed of two principal nationalisms: the Arab Nationalism and the Kurdish Nationalism.
(c) This Constitution acknowledges the national rights of the Kurdish People and the legitimate rights of all minorities within the Iraqi unity.
Article 6 [Iraqi Nationality]
The Iraqi nationality is regulated by the law.
Article 7 [Languages]

(a) Arabic is the official language.
(b) The Kurdish language is official, besides Arabic, in the Kurdish Region.
Article 8 [Capital, Decentralization]

(a) Baghdad is the Capital of the Iraqi Republic, and it can be transferred by law.
(b) The Iraqi Republic is divided into administrative units and is organized on the basis of decentralization.
Article 9 [Flag, Emblem]
The Flag of the Iraqi Republic, its Emblem, and stipulations concerning the two, are regulated by law.
Chapter II Social and Economic Foundations of the Iraqi Republic

Article 10 [Social Solidarity]
The social solidarity is the first foundation for the Society. Its essence is that every citizen accomplishes his duty in full, and that the Society guarantees the citizen's rights and liberties in full.
Article 11 [Family, Mothers, Children]
The family is the nucleus of the Society. The State secures its protection and support, and ensures maternal and child care.
Article 12 [Economy, Arab Unity]
The State assumes the responsibility for planning, directing and steering the national economy for the purpose of:
(a) Establishing the socialist system on scientific and
revolutionary foundations.
(b) Realizing the economic Arab unity.
Article 13 [Public Property and Planning]
National resources and basic means of production are owned by the People. They are directly invested by the Central Authority in the Iraqi Republic, according to exigencies of the general planning of the national economy.
Article 14 [Cooperation]
The State secures, encourages, and supports all types of cooperation in production, distribution, and consumption.
Article 15 [Public Property]
Public ownership and properties of the Public Sector are inviolable. The State and all People are responsible for safeguarding, securing, and protecting it. Any sabotage to it or aggression against it, is considered as sabotage and aggression against the entity of the Society.
Article 16 [Ownership, Private Property]

(a) Ownership is a social function, to be exercised within the objectives of the Society and the plans of the State, according to stipulations of the law.
(b) Private ownership and economic individual liberty are guaranteed according to the law, and on the basis of not exercising them in a manner incompatible with the economic and general planning.
(c) Private property is not expropriated except for considerations of public interest and for just compensation in accordance with the law.
(d) The maximum limit of agricultural property is prescribed by the law; the surplus is owned by the People.
Article 17 [Inheritance]
Inheritance is a guaranteed right, regulated by the law.
Article 18 [Foreigners' Property]
Immobile ownership is prohibited for non-Iraqi, except otherwise mentioned by a law.
Chapter III Fundamental Rights and Duties

Article 19 [Equality]

(a) Citizens are equal before the law, without discrimination because of sex, blood, language, social origin, or religion.
(b) Equal opportunities are guaranteed to all citizens, according to the law.
Article 20 [Criminal Trial]

(a) An accused is presumed to be innocent, until proved guilty at a legal trial.
(b) The right of defense is sacred, in all stages of proceedings and prosecution.
(c) Courts sessions are public, unless it becomes secret by a court's decision.
Article 21 [Penalty, Punishment]

(a) Penalty is personal.
(b) There can be no crime, nor punishment, except in conformity with the law. No penalty shall be imposed, except for acts punishable by the law, while they are committed. A severer penalty than that prescribed by the law, when the act was committed, cannot be inflicted.
Article 22 [Dignity, Personal Integrity, Arrest, Home]

(a) The dignity of man (READ ALL PERSONS) is safeguarded. It is inadmissible to cause any physical or psychological harm.

Dave Thomas - 5/25/2003

War is only legal for the winners. What a silly conjecture anyway, "The UN charter says we can't do it so you're in big trouble now." That logic is almost as compelling as "Liar,liar, pants on fire." Why didn't we use that on Saddam. Slaveowners used the "Law" to perpetuate slavery Howard. Saddam used the "UN charter" to perpetuate mass murder. What does the UN charter say about mass murder Howard. Get a grip. Might makes right no matter how civilized we think we are. Thank goodness we choose to use out might to do something right.

Howard N Meyer - 5/4/2003

The subject states the question -- which of course doubles as a comment and expression of regret.

Howard N Meyer - 4/25/2003

Dr Hahn's study does not even mention the United Nations, its Charter, the norms for the use of force established by the Charter-- which is a Treaty within the meaning of Article VI
of the United States Constitution.
"There IS a Law of Nations" dear Professors one and all, and see the essay in HNS (Will Bush Treat the U N Charter as a scrap of paper?," also published in HNN.
An academic study is needed on the subject
Whether you like it or not, the LAW OF NATIONS IS given attention
and respect in our Constitution and on that point I suggest a
glance at the late Senator Moynihan's ON THE LAW OF NATIONS,
a book that would be history teachers should read -- and be tested on. Moynihan's is more general in scope than my
THE WORLD COURT IN ACTION, (2002) and I shall presume to say that reading it would also be of benefit to American Historians.
[there has been a fierce debate in ASIL's 'listserve', 80-85% of the contributors agreeing that Bush & Co violated International
Law with the first bomb. (Anybody know what ASIL stands for ?)
Let me know at meyerlang@msn.com )

Bill Berman - 4/16/2003

Peter Hahn's piece is an important reminder of the complexity involved on several levels for future historians facing the daunting task of seeking to reconstruct the history of the Iraq war. Given the current din created by hawks and doves alike,I found his thoughtful statement about that challenge refreshing as well as a stimulating read.