n the theater of totalitarianism, Saddam Hussein's Iraq is Grand Guignol. The testimony of victims who have lived to talk is replete with accounts of prisoners hung by the arms until their muscles rip, raw voltage applied to genitalia, suspects slowly dipped in vats of acid. When the jailers tire of tormenting the body they go after the soul. They will bring in a wife or daughter and rape her again and again before your eyes. They will bring in your little girl and methodically crush the bones in her feet. They will behead a mother in front of her children. And let us not forget the thousands of Iraqis gassed like insects for the crime of being Kurds, or the countless victims who have simply vanished forever.
What does any of this have to do with whether we go to war?
That question causes no end of anguish among the people who labor to expose abuses in places like Iraq. Officials at Amnesty International, long a prime source of these repellant accounts, grow indignant when they hear their exposés repeated by George Bush or Tony Blair, men whose motives they regard as impure.
"This selective attention to human rights is nothing but a cold and calculated manipulation of the work of human rights activists," declared Irene Kahn, the secretary general of Amnesty, among whose worldwide membership humanism coexists with a considerable pacifism.
This high-minded quandary reached a sort of apotheosis in a Time magazine interview with Scott Ritter, the former weapons inspector turned antiwar crusader. Mr. Ritter, one of the few outsiders to have visited a notorious children's prison in Iraq, was asked what he had seen. "Actually I'm not going to describe what I saw there," he said, "because what I saw was so horrible that it can be used by those who would want to promote war with Iraq, and right now I'm waging peace." Ah.
Not all humanitarians are so squeamish. Horrified by Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda, some human rights advocates have come slowly and grudgingly to the use of force. While Amnesty International has never favored military intervention, American-based Human Rights Watch will support it to stop a slaughter in progress — a standard established amid great internal strife after Serbian massacres in Bosnia. The group's position on invading Iraq now is hardly pacifist. "We don't object to people using military force to go after very bad guys," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director. "We just don't advocate it."
You would, however, find among the group's activists and supporters a powerful mistrust of President Bush's motivation when he talks about systematic torture and Saddam's chemical attacks on his own people.
Officially, formally, Saddam's depravity is not relevant to the question of whether America will lead a military effort to oust him. The question of invasion — officially, formally — is all about ridding Iraq of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and the means to deliver them.
But the barbarity of the regime is subtext to everything. It animates the moralist faction within the administration, apparently including Mr. Bush, whose revulsion at the misery of Iraq seems genuine enough to me. Saddam's cruelties also touch a little on two central questions about any exercise against Iraq: What's the evidence that Saddam is a real threat? (Any leader who encourages the torture of children as a mechanism of control is probably never going to become a good neighbor.) How will Iraqis react to an invasion? (Many of them with an outpouring of relief, wouldn't you think?)
Saddam's mistreatment of his people is an important factor, too, because it has helped confound liberals who otherwise have doubts about the war. As George Packer pointed out in this paper's magazine last Sunday, the sheer awfulness of Saddam makes it hard to muster an antiwar movement. Caution on Iraq puts liberals in the "unsettling position of defending a status quo they despise."
One liberal who has settled this dilemma in favor of war is Bob Kerrey, the former senator and current president of the New School University. Mr. Kerrey, citing not Iraq's arsenal but its atrocities, has signed up with a committee of neoconservatives who support the liberation of Iraq. His argument is actually more complicated than I can do justice to here, but it is explicitly driven by the impulse to do good rather than the impulse to defend ourselves. He is a humanitarian hawk. Naturally Mr. Kerrey's stance has roused the doctrinaire claque in his traditionally leftist student body to demand he resign.
I don't entirely buy Mr. Kerrey's argument. The view I've expressed in this space is that Saddam's appetite for a nuclear weapon makes him a grave danger, that containment is ultimately a sucker's game, and that Mr. Bush is right to prepare for war — purposefully but patiently, hoping it will be unnecessary, and aiming to act as part of an aggrieved world rather than a posse of one. To my mind the sadistic practices of the Iraqi police state, and the more genocidal impulses — now successfully held in check by American and British air patrols — may be ample cause to indict Saddam as a war criminal, but they are not in themselves enough to launch an invasion. Nonetheless, Mr. Kerrey should be applauded for the valor of his convictions, which is at least as rare among college presidents as it is among elected officials.
Why, aside from their roots in the Vietnam antiwar movement, are human rights activists not more open to the idea that America can use its unmatched muscle for good? In large part because Republican administrations — in truth, Democratic ones as well — have paid human rights little more than lip service, and little even of that.
Samantha Power, who documented America's long indifference to the most extreme form of abuse — genocide — in her harrowing book "A Problem From Hell," points out that Presidents Reagan and Bush Senior were worse than silent when Saddam was at his most genocidal. During the so-called Anfal campaign of 1987-88, when tens of thousands of Kurds were slaughtered in mass executions or fumigated with lethal gases, the U.S. regarded Iraq as a bulwark against Iran. Even after the gas attacks were documented the U.S. continued to ladle out credits for Iraq to buy American grain and manufactured goods. Ms. Power's reporting turned up one State Department document that concluded, with spine-tingling diplomatic detachment, "Human rights and chemical weapons use aside, in many respects our political and economic interests run parallel with those of Iraq." Human rights activists know their cause has perennially been "aside."
The Bush administration's enthusiasm for human rights would be more believable if it were less selectively applied. That does not mean we should ostracize countries whose cooperation we need in the war on terror — Pakistan, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and others — for their flagrant violations of basic human liberty. Despite what the purists say, engagement is sometimes a more effective weapon than sanctions. The critical thing is that fostering civilized behavior should be a priority up front in the design of our foreign policy, not an afterthought, a sop to bleeding hearts, or a pretext for something else.
If the time comes when we attempt to overthrow the ruling order in Iraq, the administration could allay the misgivings of humanitarians by demonstrating some sensitivity in how we do it. Even Iraqis who secretly yearn for our help must worry about civilian casualties, about vicious factional reprisals and about a new regime staffed by some of the very thugs who have participated in Saddam's chamber of horrors. In Afghanistan, a demonstration project in building democracy is endangered because we have abandoned much of the country to the warlords.
One big reason for the credibility gap is that promoting human rights, even more than promoting American security, depends on the cooperation of those bothersome multinational institutions this administration seems to loathe. Here's a test case to watch. The administration says it wants Saddam charged for his crimes by an ad hoc international tribunal. Good idea. If — as Human Rights Watch proposes — such a court has broad jurisdiction over atrocities committed in Iraq, not just license to try Saddam Hussein, it will send a strong message to opposition forces to forgo bloody reprisals during a coming war. Few expect such sophistication from an administration that recoils from the very idea of international justice — but let's see.
Finally, promoting freedom abroad will ring a little false as long as the administration is so often, so instinctively, scornful of freedom at home. The automatic recourse to preventive lockup, the lack of confidence in the criminal justice system, the casual regard for privacy and presumption of innocence, the obsessive secrecy — you don't have to be a libertarian to wonder how dearly this administration cherishes the values it promises to export.