March 11, 2003
the appalling people who rule us back and fill and improvise on
the winding road toward what now seems a virtually inevitable war,
it seems almost fruitless to try any more to dissuade our warbent
president. Perhaps the Russians or the French, for esoteric diplomatic
or power-politics reasons, can delay the introduction of long-planned
aggression as not just an occasional aspect of American foreign
policy about which officials are mildly embarrassed, but as the
proudly-proclaimed centerpiece of our posture in the world. But
the administration seems almost completely immune to complaints
or even second thoughts emanating from mere American citizens.
as war seems so likely, however, it is striking how weak the justification
for war seems to be. In an apparent effort to blunt complaints from
critics about how much the prospective war is likely to cost, Fox
News did a piece last week attempting to make at least slightly
concrete some aspects of the "costs of inaction" the president
and war advocates sometimes invoke. But the report compared speculative
apples to here-and-now oranges.
Critics have noted that the most conservative estimate
of a war with Iraq is around $100 billion, though former economic
guru Larry Lindsey offered a guesstimate of $200 billion in an unguarded
moment of candor (what the establishment calls a "gaffe")
last fall. Additional costs include more foreign aid for both Israel
and Egypt, whatever it costs to bribe Turkey to go along, perhaps
$8 billion in guarantees to Russia that it won't take the tank on
current deals going in Iraq, more bribes, whether money or infrastructure,
to Arab governments in the area, a percentage of the rising cost
of gasoline and heating oil, at least part of the equity lost in
the tanking stock market, plus the cost of occupation.
the administration has been way beyond lacking in candor about these
and other costs, it has been impossible to come up with a to-the-last-dollar
estimate of the cost of the war – to taxpayers directly and to economic
health indirectly. But there is little doubt that there will be
costs, and it is not unreasonable that what are now viewed as high-end
estimates will turn out to be lowball costs – and that we're unlikely
to find wealthy foreigners to subsidize the operation as was the
case in Gulf War I.
there is at least something to grab onto when we're estimating the
costs of action. What about the costs of inaction?
The authorities Fox contacted weren't able to come
up with much. Fox found a Brookings report that estimated that as
many as 10,000 people could perish in a successful attack on a U.S.
chemical or nuclear plant, or that a nuclear bomb detonated in a
major city could kill up to 100,000 people. Brookings also notes,
basing the estimate on the $42 million the government spent to deal
with 2 ounces of anthrax deployed against the House and Senate,
that a biological attack could cause $750 billion in economic damage.
That's all very interesting, but it slips and slides
over the more fundamental question: would an attack on Iraq make
a future terrorist attack more or less likely? That is at least
an open question, although even administration officials have recently
acknowledged that a war will intensify the immediate short-term
To try to weigh the costs of dealing with a terrorist
attack against the costs of military action would require the assumption
that attacking Iraq will bring the threat level down to zero while
failure to attack will bring it up to 100 percent. However one may
feel about how much more or less likely different courses of action
will make another terrorist attack – and I can see room for honest
disagreement based on something other than adamant defense of a
position held for ideological or power-politics reasons – that is
Peter Brooks of the conservative Heritage Foundation
was reduced to guessing that "an unrestrained Saddam Hussein
might get big ideas and that could mean trouble for the United States,"
as the Fox report put it. "He would most likely try to interject
himself into the free flow of oil. He would be a threat to Saudi
Arabia, he would be a threat to Kuwait, he would be a threat to
Jordan. He is bent on regional domination," Mr. Brooks insisted.
Again, this begs the question of the possibly destabilizing
consequences of going to war as opposed to "doing nothing,"
as war whoopers usually prefer to put it. It is quite possibly true
that, after all the build-up and threats, if the United States does
back away now, Saddam Hussein could feel invigorated, invincible
and pesky after surviving one more threat from the toothless America
(although that dynamic is the result of the American policy of threatening
and preparing for war rather than anything inherent in Saddam's
regime). So he might just do more to stir the pot in the Middle
East than he has over the last 12 years.
To try to compare the possible costs of a more troublesome
Saddam regime to the costs of waging war is once again to compare
apples to lugnuts. It assumes that "failure to act" will
inevitably cause him to renew his destabilizing activities while
defeating him will bring stability. Again, this is far from a settled
question. A strong case can be made that forced regime change will
do more to destabilize the region than anything the pipsqueak Saddam
So this effort, at least, to make concrete the costs
of inaction yields virtually nothing useful. There might be a way
to do a more subtle analysis of what it might cost – perhaps in
higher oil prices, perhaps in funding weapons inspectors who might
at best be able to disrupt or make more difficult Saddam's deployment
of nasty weapons, perhaps in higher military costs to protect oil
shipments, perhaps in higher military aid to neighbors – to decide
not to go to war just now. But the advocates of war have not even
attempted to perform such an analysis in anything approaching an
intellectually respectable fashion.
HOSTILITY MUZZLE US?
question is likely to loom in the next few weeks. Perhaps, for the
sake of my blood pressure and ability to carry a scintilla of hope
for the future of American journalism I shouldn't ever watch Bill
O'Reilly, but I do it from time to time. I'll give him this; he
occasionally has a war critic on, though he seldom engages in a
serious conversation on the war. But lately he's pushing to silence
us once the shooting starts.
recently he had on former Sen. Gary Hart, who is a rather restrained
critic but at least a bit of a critic of the impending war. Toward
the end of the discussion, however, O'Reilly asked Hart, in that
rather pointed and almost accusatory way he has, whether he will
continue to be anti-war once the shooting starts.
Hart shuffled, though if I understood the drift of
the shuffle correctly he at least hinted that he wouldn't give up
the right to criticize. We'll see, what we're seeing, however, in
bluff fashion from the O'Reillys of the world and in a somewhat
more sophisticated manner from others, is a blatant attempt to muzzle
war critics once the shooting has started.
In fact, that's when it will be most important to
have critics willing to criticize. I'm not saying we need to be
impolite or rude; in fact we would do well to avoid rudeness. But
in a quiet, persistent, polite but unrelenting way, we should continue
to let our views be known, not only on whether the war was worth
waging in the first place, but on how it is being waged – what strategies
and tactics are being pursued.
(Incidentally, I've had a couple of letters in reference
to last week's column, saying that there are no contemporaneous
accounts of U.S. military people actually being spat upon by antiwar
people during the Vietnam conflict. I'm willing to stipulate to
that; I never witnessed it personally and it's quite feasible that
some hawks exaggerated some incidents to the point of making things
up. I do remember some incidents I witnessed personally, however,
in which U.S. servicepeople were called "babykillers"
and worse, to their faces. I hope we can avoid even that this time
around. Yes, you can argue that they volunteered for this rather
than being drafted. But they're not the ones making the policies.)
Those who don't make a habit of insulting servicepeople
personally will have no reason to have a moment of hesitation when
confronted with the question of whether they have an obligation
to support "our troops" once the shooting starts. It is
not personally insulting or undermining of the troop on the ground
to question the policies that put them where they are. Perhaps we
should be careful about resurrecting the old cliche, "The best
way I know to support the best interests of our troops is to bring
them home," but fellow-feeling for U.S. troops should not mean
that we are silenced during the war.
I can understand why most of the "isolationists"
in the bipartisan coalition called the America First Committee prior
to World War II chose to be silent once the actual war started.
The war was precipitated by an attack on U.S. assets (however much
the U.S. government might have done to stoke hostilities) and Hitler
really was a foul ruler, in control of a major advanced industrial
state, with ambitions that might eventually have included dominating
America. And it didn't take all that much government propaganda
to crank up the patriotic feelings of most Americans back then.
Nonetheless, I don't think that's the example we should
follow in this war. There's no reason to shout or scream obscenities
or even to call our leaders names, even if they sometimes deserve
opprobrium. There is every reason to continue to remind people that
this is a war of aggression against a country that doesn't remotely
pose a direct threat to the United States of America, that it changes
the character of the America we all grew up loving and thinking
we knew. Even an occasional "I told you so" when, as is
more than likely, complications ensue as we try to implant the Pentagon/State
Department/UN version of "democracy" in Iraq would not
be out of order.
I'm not going to predict disaster. For starters, I
don't know, and I also don't want to get caught in the position
of virtually guaranteeing that this or that policy will go wrong
in a specific way. But I will stick with my perception that the
likelihood of things going badly for the United States – at least
insofar as the United States can still be said to have anything
to do with personal freedom and political liberty – is higher with
war than without it. And I'm not above interpreting events that
some will try to spin as good news – say, a decision to subsidize
a new regime of dubious competence and/or character – as bad news
if I sincerely believe it to be so.
We don't have to worry much. This is government running
the war, after all, so you know there will missteps and problems
along the way. There will be plenty to criticize. We should be willing
to do so.
the same time, however, we should not be naive about the possible
costs and complications of continuing to be critics of war after
the war has begun. The Screen Actors Guild issued a statement last
week denouncing the attitudes of "some" who have suggested
that actors "who express 'unacceptable' views should be punished
by losing their right to work. ... Even a hint of a blacklist must
never again be tolerated in this nation."
Sorry, but that's trying to have your cake and eat
it too. I don't know if there will be a formal "blacklist"
or not, but those who have chosen to speak out about the war, on
either side, really should be adult about it and acknowledge that
there will be consequences. It's difficult to know how the consequences
will balance out, but there will be some.
Some producers might prefer to hire an actor with
antiwar credentials, while others might avoid them when it comes
time to make casting decisions. Them's the breaks. There is no "right
to work" as an actor. If you're so concerned about matters
of war and peace that you consider it important to speak out, you
need to know that there will be consequences and not all of them
will be pleasant. If you think you have some kind of right to have
convictions without consequences, it's difficult to believe you're
living in the real world.
It's time to grow up. We will need adults who are
willing to pay the price if we want to have any influence at all
in the years to come.
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