October 8, 2002
For Frivolous Reasons
is being written before President Bushís address to the nation Monday
night, but news reports say he doesnít expect to deliver any startling
new evidence beyond what has already been widely reported. He seems
to think that what is already known about Saddam Hussein
that he is a thoroughly nasty dictator who has attacked his neighbors
in the past and has weapons of mass destruction is plenty
of reason to attack him, or at least to insist that he submit to
US and UN demands.
those reasons and a few others that will be detailed sufficient?
One hopes it is still worthwhile to discuss the question seriously.
for my own sanity I prefer to take President Bush at his word, that
he hasnít yet decided on military action although thereís evidence
to the contrary and if he hasnít it seems curious that he would
be demanding that Congress give him authority to undertake it. So
I continue to hope that discussion and debate have at least some
chance of at least altering the course on which so many war-whoopers
would have us embark: an invasion of Iraq as soon as possible followed
by a search for other targets of opportunity.
is at least mildly encouraging to see demonstrations against a war
with Iraq in major American cities, although it would be nice to
see slogans geared toward invoking solidarity with ordinary middle-class
Americans rather than demonstrating breast-beating radicalism and
disdain for the United States as a country. Most Americans understand
that it is possible and in the United States something of a tradition
to love the country and despise the government currently inhabiting
Washington. When war protestors slip into outright and even virulent
anti-Americanism, I suspect they do the cause more harm than good.
the other hand, itís generally the case that in the early stages
of a foreign conflict most Americans will not be inclined to become
activists until the conflict is well under way, body bags are coming
home in significant numbers, and/or they or their sons and daughters
are in imminent peril of being drafted to serve against their will.
Itís easy to forget
that there was very little antiwar activism during the early stages
of the Vietnam War, and that most media and politicians supported
the adventure almost uncritically until about 1967.
willing to go out and demonstrate before a war has begun (depending
on how you define "war" and "begun," of course,
which are questions worth pursuing in the current circumstances
but not in this article) are likely to be either the most stubbornly
principled or the most flamboyantly radical. Thatís just part of
the politico-social dynamic.
early protestors, then, might do some things that will embarrass
other critics of war or intervention, but itís still nice to see
them out there. And because much of the media are populated by people
who are sorry they missed out on the 1960s, they are likely to get
at least superficially sympathetic treatment at least until the
first incident of unjustified violence, which is probably inevitable
though I hope it never happens.
to war, which means asking other peoplesí sons and daughters to
be prepared to kill and be killed and unleashing death and destruction
on human beings and various structures and assets (including, in
this case, clues to the very birth of human civilization) is a serious
attempts by some political leaders, to some extent with the acquiescence
of most of the media, to suggest otherwise, it is not a video game.
Real people and real resources will be destroyed. It should therefore
be entered into, if it is to be done, with a certain amount of solemnity
and seriousness and only if it is fully justified by the circumstances.
know all this sounds terribly obvious, like an introduction to a
political science course at the 101 level. But Iím afraid these
admonitions bear repeating. During the eight years I spent in Washington,
DC, including several years as a congressional staffer, some of
it during the latter stages of the Vietnam war, I met very few decision-makers
who had actually been to war. And very few of those making decisions
today (with exceptions) have actually experienced the stench of
death on the battlefield.
not going to fall into the trap of saying that only those with combat
experience (which, Iíll admit, I lack) are qualified to make decisions
about war and peace. But it should be helpful to have at least some
people with that kind of experience in positions of authority or
influence. In Washington it is very easy to view the virtual backstabbing
can in fact be rather devastating to those who are victimized) and
daily power-mongering game-playing that is the daily fare in the
Imperial City as the essence of real conflict. It can be easy to
forget that oneís decisions in the rarefied air there have real
consequences for real people outside the parochial confines of the
what kind of criteria would justify going to war? Obviously, an
outright attack on US soil would provide a justification, perhaps
even a mandate. Although I would contend that the United States
ought to bring most of its troops home from their imperial outposts,
assuming that wonít happen, an attack on US troops overseas would
be tantamount to a declaration of war and would demand a response.
about an attack by Iraq on one of its neighbors? Iraq did invade
and occupy Kuwait in 1990 (most likely after getting a wink-and-nod
from the US that we would look the other way, but leave that aside
for now) and the United States, after being beseeched by the Emir
and his family and friends, went to war to rectify the situation.
Was that war justifiable? I wasnít in favor of it at the time, but
I will concede that it followed a demonstration that the Iraqi regime
was capable, in a very concrete way, of being a threat to the neighborhood.
ON POTENTIAL THREATS
the Iraqi regime demonstrated since then that it is much of a threat?
No doubt it has resisted the mandates and sanctions imposed on it
by various UN resolutions, although as I have noted previously,
those resolutions, by their very nature and by the nature of the
UN, are nowhere near so unambiguous and definite as the president
and his cohorts would like to suggest. They have ambiguities and
wiggle-room, as almost all diplomatic instruments do.
may well be why the administration is pushing so hard to get a new
resolution from the UN that will involve further demands on Saddam
Hussein and his regime. The old resolutions whose ambiguities
have been exploited without getting the "international community"
into much of a tizzy for 11 years simply arenít as specific
as what the current administration would like to demand of Saddam
utterly unfettered access, inspectors backed by troops on
the ground, the right to blow up anything that even has the potential
to be used to build a weapon sometime in the future.
previous resolutions, at least as interpreted by the US and Great
Britain, did impose a more stringent regime of inspection and control
on Iraq than has ever been imposed on any defeated enemy in modern
times, certainly more than was required of Japan or Germany after
World War II.
it still wasnít as much control as the current administration would
like to demand over Saddam. Are those demands a pretext for a war
that is already in the works? The possibility is certainly open.
inconvenient facts remain. Over the last 11 years Saddam, while
undoubtedly still thoroughly nasty to the Iraqis, has not attacked
his neighbors. He is almost certainly weaker than he was 11 years
ago militarily. Despite a year of full-court press activity by US
and British intelligence to develop some trace of evidence, there
seems to be no connection between Saddam and the terrorists who
attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and despite
an occasional outwardly friendly meeting, the secular regime of
Saddam and the militant Islamists have different
goals in the world and are generally suspicious of one another.
may well hate the United States and grit his teeth nightly wishing
there were some way he could destroy us and all we stand for. But
as a genuine threat to the United States or even to his neighbors,
except for the possibility of lobbing a few missiles at Israel,
which would be more likely if the US invaded than if it didnít
he makes a pretty pitiful enemy. Based on his history, thereís even
some question as to whether he has a real ambition to rule the Middle
doubt he would like to be more influential in the region, and it
is quite possible that he would do more nasty things in other countries
if he thought he could pull them off without effective opposition.
But in fact he
is reasonably well boxed in. The evidence that he is becoming more
dangerous is scant at best.
me restate what I discussed more thoroughly in
a previous column. There is a difference between a pre-emptive
and a preventive war. A pre-emptive war long justified in
international relations theory (Iím not sure itís reasonable to
speak of "international law" as something real)
can be undertaken in response to an imminent and obvious threat,
such as a neighbor who has been making threats massing troops on
your border and jamming your military communications channels.
the threat, in short, is something almost certain to be perpetrated
in a matter of hours or days weeks at the most it is possible
to talk of a pre-emptive war or attack. And few would question the
justification of a country that undertook to strike first, if it
could, when aware of that kind of immediate threat.
most "imminent" threat I have heard about regarding Iraq
is that if he can obtain fissile material (which most authorities
donít think he has now but which might well be available for a high
price on the international black market) he might be able to develop
a nuclear weapon that just might, if all the circumstances were
just right, be available to blackmail his neighbors or threaten
the United States, in a year. Even in that scenario there are a
lot of "what ifs," along with the likelihood that US intelligence
(even though it hasnít exactly displayed the highest levels of
competence lately) would become aware of it before it was imminent.
A raid like the Israeli raid of the early 1980s could probably then
eliminate or delay it for years. And there are hundreds of ways
even a determined Iraqi
regime could slip up, even if we were sure it was working assiduously
to acquire nuclear weapons, which we canít be sure is the case.
is a potential threat. A war to neutralize a potential threat
one based on conjecture and worst-case scenarios rather than justified
by solid knowledge of an imminent threat is a preventive war.
A preventive war is not the kind of thing a civilized country in
a regime of co-equal sovereign states does. It is the kind of thing
an empire does to keep a rebellious or fitful colony or dependent
in line whether or not the relationship is formal or the dependency
it acknowledged on both sides.
he surprises me, that is the kind of war President Bush will be
touting. I prefer to believe such a war is not inevitable, because
it would change the United States of America, a country whose traditions
and stated ideals I love, into a country I would not recognize.
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