My mind, like the minds of many Americans, could easily be consumed with thoughts of attacking Iraq. There is no end of opinions, information and disinformation about why it should or should not happen. What’s interesting is that the more we learn about incremental Iraqi compliance and opposition at home and abroad to war at this time—and the more obvious it becomes that the greater threat lies in North Korea—the more obsessed the Bush administration becomes with Saddam Hussein. Every interview and discussion comes down to the question, Is war inevitable at this point? By the time this column appears, that question may be moot. But the fact is, to all but the most credulous observer, war against Iraq has been inevitable since long before hundreds of thousands of troops were put into the field, and long before Bush’s disingenuous speech to the United Nations last fall.
The question many of us keep returning to is, How did we go from the war on terrorism to the war on Iraq? The administration decided it, but when and how did it suddenly become the national presumption? The president’s post-9/11 vow to vanquish al Qaeda—i.e., to kill Osama bin Laden—was transmuted, before the World Trade Center cleanup was even near completion, into a campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. The real answer is that although the president and his inner circle find it unseemly to say so publicly, this act of aggression—draped in the righteous garb of liberation and national security—has been a fait accompli since Inauguration Day.
The trouble is that Mr. Bush uses the rhetoric of morality to define his actions toward Iraq. Like many Americans, I find myself being swayed by the moral strand in the hawkish argument. Look at what Saddam has done to his own people, the argument goes, and think of the lives we can save by waging a pre-emptive war and ridding the world of this evildoer. Casting all foreign policy decisions in starkly moral terms calls upon a fundamental feature of the American character: an instinctive sense that we are a special people—a nation with a moral duty to spread freedom. I do not doubt that ever since coming to global consciousness in the waning hours of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush has come to share this view, and I have no doubt that his desire to see good triumph over evil is genuine.
What I find unsatisfying and ultimately unsavory about the pre-emptive war argument is that it has paid lip service to the diplomatic and inspections process while moving abruptly and steadily toward military aggression. Is it moral to spend billions of taxpayer dollars and put hundreds of thousands of military personnel into harm’s way to attack and take over a country that our government cannot demonstrate to be an imminent threat to us? Is it moral to proclaim that war is a last resort when it so clearly has been the primary focus all along? Is it moral—or is it moral equivalence—to harness Americans’ moral outrage over the murder of thousands of innocent civilians in order to decimate a country and in the process sacrifice the lives of thousands of other innocent civilians—and then call it collateral damage?
President Bush’s optimism with regard to invading Iraq is nothing if not ambitious. The administration claims that this war’s lofty outcomes will not only liberate the Iraqi people and then make Iraq a model of democracy in the Middle East. Bush is also on record as believing that the war would bring about “real progress to peace in the Middle East [and] stability with oil-producing regions.” In assessing how much or how far we should share the president’s sanguine trust in the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, it may be useful to recall the image of a smiling Rumsfeld reaching out to shake hands with Saddam in 1983, when the brutal dictator’s use of chemical weapons evidently did not concern Mr. Rumsfeld (since Saddam was using them on America’s enemy, Iran).
In my view, doubters of every political stripe from nations around the world, including our own, can be excused for seeing the current situation as further evidence of the Bush administration’s apparent desire for an American Empire. The combination of our total military superiority and the “Bush doctrine” of waging pre-emptive, and if necessary unilateral, war against countries or regimes we deem intolerable not only contradicts the platform on which Bush ran for office, but more importantly alienates us from most of the civilized world. Moreover, every time the United Nations or NATO does not do what Bush wants, he calls them irrelevant. His certainty about cutting a swath through the world using moral fervor and military might signals a conflict of cultures that threatens to isolate us atop an extremely precarious heap.
I question the probity of an administration that patronizingly decides for all of us that genuine national debate is not in our national interest. What we are witnessing is a blunt failure in the very quality Bush seems to think he is displaying: leadership. Intelligent and thoughtful people who love this country are deeply concerned—with good reason. And whatever comes of the Iraqi situation, voices of doubt at home and abroad must not be shouted down. Walking deafly and carrying a big stick has built and destroyed many an empire.