August 19, 2002

Look before you leap into the Iraqi quagmire

There is no doubt more than a grain of truth in Maureen Dowd’s thesis that the current foreign policy row over Iraq is essentially a family feud between George W. Bush and his father, and that the solution may have to be "family therapy." But surely this is a somewhat, er, one-dimensional view: leave it to a woman of Ms. Dowd's disposition to reduce a complex and actually quite interesting foreign policy debate to a matter of familial politics.

What’s so interesting is that the opposition to the President’s rush to war is not coming from the alleged "opposition" party, but from his fellow Republicans. And not just any old Republicans, but those most closely associated with the old-line GOP establishment. Brent Scowcroft, writing in the Wall Street Journal, crystallized the arguments of the Antiwar Party in Washington by making the irrefutable point that it represents a radical diversion: "An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken," he wrote. In making the vitally important distinction between the war on Saddam and the war on the perpetrators of the 9/11 atrocity, Scowcroft deftly pulls the rug out from under the war propagandists.

In the post-9/11 atmosphere, the War Party took full advantage of the anti-Arab backlash and tried desperately, almost comically, to divert popular anger from Osama to Saddam. There were all those vague stories about a meeting in Prague between Iraqi intelligence and Mohamed Atta, but none of them panned out. To show just how far these people are willing to go, we had Andrew Sullivan, the Boadicea of the War Party, advocate nuking Iraq the moment he heard about the anthrax letters. Bill Kristol’s little magazine keeps anthrax revisionism alive to this day, even as the BBC is reporting that the FBI has positively identified the anthrax terrorist is a "US defense insider" motivated by "misguided patriotism."

Other establishment critics of the War Party, such as Henry Kissinger, focus on the key question what do to after we’ve "won." The New York Times cites one administration official as saying:

"For those of us who don't see an invasion as an article of faith but as simply a policy option, there is a feeling that you need to give great consideration to what comes after, and that unless you're prepared to follow it through, then you shouldn't begin it."

"It" is empire-building. Do we really want a Middle East satrap, extending from Afghanistan to Iraq and Iran, and perhaps even southward to the Saudi oil fields? If so, then let’s debate it, let’s bring the real objectives of the War Party out in the open. While not ruling out intervention, Kissinger performs the invaluable service of helping to shift the terms of the debate, averring that American policy "will be judged by how the aftermath of the military operation is handled politically."

As the "President" of Afghanistan insists on being guarded by Americans, rather than his own countrymen, the viability of implanting Karzai clones in Iraq, Iran, and the Gulf states seems all the more delusional, and Kissinger’s words are a potent warning to the War Party: "Military intervention should be attempted only if we are willing to sustain such an effort for however long it is needed."

How the aftermath of the war will be handled politically in the US is really the question Kissinger and others are posing. Will Americans support a war of conquest, a battle to implant "democracy" from Riyadh to Islamabad, one that will drain the Treasury and cost us many more lives than it may be worth? Kissinger has good reason to believe that the answer is no.

The significance of this Republican revolt against the President’s policy cannot be overestimated: it represents a potent challenge to the War Party, one that must be defeated before the bombs can begin to fall.. The President’s response to all this was cautious, but there seemed to be an undertone of surliness, too, like a schoolboy who’s getting awfully tired of being publicly chastened.

"I am aware that some very intelligent people are expressing their opinions about Saddam Hussein and Iraq. I listen carefully to what they say. Listen it's a healthy debate for people to express their opinion.... But America needs to know, I'll be making up my mind based upon the latest intelligence and how best to protect our own country plus our friends and allies."

As to whether he meant "the latest intelligence" about the chances of his brother Jeb to pull it off in Florida is a matter of speculation. But the key concession here is that he hasn’t yet made up his mind – or, at least, he is forced to keep up the pretense of indecision for political reasons.

The domestic political pressures of various foreign policy lobbies are always, I submit, a key indicator of the root causes of any given war. There is value, naturally, in pointing out just who stands to profit from any given intervention, and there can be no objection to pointing out the usual suspects: Big Oil, the armaments industry, and certain financial firms with global commercial interests. But the way that anonymous administration insider counterposed his own pragmatic stance to the "war now" crowd, as cited in the Times, is enormously significant: "For those of us for whom an invasion is not a matter of faith…."

For the militants of the War Party, an all-out jihad against the Arab world is indeed a matter of faith. This is true for the Christian dispensationalists who believe Israel’s predicament means the "end times" are upon us, just as it is for fervent Zionists of the Jewish faith. The latter mostly retain their historical loyalty to the Democratic party, but are increasingly switching their allegiances in what GOP strategists hope is a realignment of sorts. Against the massed emotionalism of these fevered fanatics, the measured arguments of Brent Scowcroft, and the elegant formulations of Henry Kissinger, are so much whistling in the wind. The President is under considerable political pressure from these quarters, as underscored by the recent evolution of US policy on the Palestinian question. To America’s Likudniks, the news that Ariel Sharon wants war is all they need to know. Israel’s Prime Minister has gone so far as to declare, recently, that Iraq, and not Hamas, Hizbollah, or the PLO, is the greatest threat to Israel, and his amen corner in the US – although careful not to phrase the issue quite so nakedly – has naturally become the nexus of the War Party.

The last time the US was lured into a major intervention on the Asian landmass, the American elites were united in support of the venture. It was only later, when the futility of such a hopeless expedition became all too clear -- even to the original authors of the policy -- that withdrawal was even contemplated. This time around, however, if we go in, we go in seriously divided. This very visible dissent within establishment circles may not prevent war – but it could lead to the growth of a very broad antiwar movement once Bush gives the order to attack.

The lines are already being drawn, and the debate is getting acrimonious. Ultra-hawk Richard Perle avers that the failure to go to war will leave Bush without a shred of credibility:

"I think Brent [Scowcroft] just got it wrong. The failure to take on Saddam after what the president said would produce such a collapse of confidence in the president that it would set back the war on terrorism."

In response, Senator Chuck Hagel took up the theme, recently developed in this space, that the blood-curdling battle cries of our noisome war birds resemble nothing so much as an attack of the chicken-hawks:

"You can take the country into a war pretty fast, but you can't get out as quickly, and the public needs to know what the risks are. Maybe Mr. Perle would like to be in the first wave of those who go into Baghdad."

Hagel is right: put him right up there in the front lines, alongside Rich Lowry, Jonah Goldberg, Bill Kristol, and all the other little pasty-faced pundits who fight wars from the cushy safety of their subsidized thinktanks. The public does indeed need to know what the risks are – including that voluble minority of the public now demanding that we go to war no matter what the cost.

Scowcroft’s advice that "we need to think through this issue very carefully" pretty much encapsulates the essence of what might be called the Scowcroft Doctrine. Or, as Ms. Dowd would have it, it is the voice of the father speaking though his most trusted advisor: Look, George, before you leap.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.