If you were puzzled by the title and later reference in Christopher Hitchen’s Slate column the other day, it’s a reference to an old tale repeated in the introduction to John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara:
A certain merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the market to buy some provisions. A little while later, the servant returned looking white in the face. In a trembling voice he said, “Just now in the market place I was jostled by a man in the crowd, and when I turned I saw it was Mr. Death. He looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Please lend me your horse, because I want to go to Samara where Mr. Death will not be able to find me.”
The merchant agreed and lent the scared man his horse. The servant mounted the horse and rode away as fast as the animal could gallop. Later that day, the merchant went down to the market place and saw Mr. Death standing in the crowd. He approached him and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?”
“That was not a threatening gesture,” said Mr. Death. “It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samara.”
Hitchens’s point, of course, is that a confrontation between the United States and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was inevitable:
Iraq was in our future. The specter, not just of a failed state, but of a failed society, was already before us in what we saw from the consequences of sanctions and the consequences of aggressive Sunni fascism at the center of the state. Nobody has ever even tried to make a case for doing nothing about Iraq: Even those who foresaw sectarian strife were going by a road map that was already valid and had been traveled before. Thus it seems to me quite futile to be arguing about whether to blame the Iraqis—or indeed whether to blame the coalition.
I think there’s a kernel of truth in what Mr. Hitchens says. Iraq is not merely suffering from the collapse of an Arab dictator who, as 24 Steps to Liberty reminds us, rewarded his friends generously and punished his enemies cruelly. One of the many things we’re seeing in Iraq is the results of the collapse of a socialist state in which an enormous proportion of the people, especially educated people, were employees of the government.
I’ll make the case Mr. Hitchens is looking for: a successful outcome to an invasion of Iraq assumed the presence of political support and the will to see the project through and support it with both men and money, which were obviously not there. Skepticism over the prospects for containing Saddam assumes the opposite: a lack of political support and the will to see the project through and support it with both men and money. If support could have been built (which it wasn’t) for the invasion, surely support could have been built for containment.
With respect to the humanitarian argument for invading Iraq, proportion requires that such efforts be directed at the gravest such insult. If you must, tilt at giants, not ordinary men. Saddam was a horrible, cruel, repressive, violent dictator. He wasn’t the worst.