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Conservatives against a war with Iraq

Wednesday, Oct 23 2002

Not all Americans concerned about the Bush administration’s headlong rush to war with Iraq are on the political left. Many conservatives and serious academic students of international politics are equally troubled. I am one of them.

This administration‘s Iraq policy is, simply, antithetical to American national interests. I come from the Realist school of foreign policy, which emphasizes the competitive, power-political nature of international politics. We Realists are by temperament calculators, not crusaders. We think in terms of national interest and the balance of power. We recognize that wise statesmen resist the temptation to use power promiscuously, and we stress the virtues of prudence, and self-restraint, in foreign policy.

Although we Realists get criticized a lot -- in part because self-styled “Realists” like Paul Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives give true Realists a bad name -- we tend to be cautious when it comes to using military power. Military power is a blunt instrument, and war often leads to unanticipated geopolitical fallout that negates the fruits of victory on the battlefield. So we ask hard questions. How real is the threat? If the U.S. uses military power, will we be better or worse off at the end of the day than if we had refrained from going to war? Are the interests at stake important enough to justify the human and economic costs, and political risks, of going to war?

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In this context, I and leading Realist scholars -- including, notably, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Barry Posen of MIT -- harbor grave doubts about the administration’s Iraq policy.

My political convictions also lead me to doubt the wisdom of Washington‘s Iraq policy. Although there are not many of us left, the Republican foreign-policy tradition represented by the late Ohio Senator Robert Taft has not entirely disappeared. In our tradition, we worry that a policy of foreign-policy excess -- to be blunt, a policy of imperial aspirations -- undermines important domestic political values that we conservatives hold dear (or, at least, used to hold dear before the so-called “national greatness” neocons hijacked American conservatism): a federal government of limited size and power (which, by the way, is a point with which civil libertarians on the left should agree), fiscal responsibility, moderate taxation and an emphasis on domestic needs over external ambitions.

Taft Republicans have never been “isolationists” and, indeed, always have understood that the U.S. needs robust military capabilities. But we also believe that America is fundamentally secure, that its interests are not served by grandiose foreign-policy ambitions, and that a bloated Pentagon comes with the pursuit of those ambitions. Taft Republicans entertain no desire to embark on crusades to democratize the world, or to impose American culture and values on the distant corners of the globe.

Given this background, I have the following doubts about the wisdom of the administration’s Iraq policy. To begin with, there is no threat to American national interests that justifies going to war at this time. Iraq does not have nuclear weapons, and is not likely to have them anytime soon. And with respect to chemical and biological weapons, Iraq lacks the capability to attack the United States. Iraq could only attack the U.S. with these weapons by turning them over to terrorists like al Qaeda and relying on them to do the job.

The Central Intelligence Agency has pulled the rug from beneath the administration‘s rationale for war. CIA analysts deem it extraordinarily unlikely that the secular Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein would arm radical Islamic terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. It is not in Iraq’s -- or Saddam Hussein‘s -- self-interest to do so. If Iraq supplied terrorists with weapons of mass destruction to attack the U.S., Washington would find out -- and American retaliation would be swift and terrible. Deterrence does work, even if the administration’s civilian armchair strategists like Wolfowitz & Company claim otherwise.

The CIA, however, has issued a caveat: If Saddam Hussein is convinced that the U.S. is going to use military might to remove him from power, all bets are off and Iraq may indeed use terrorists to strike at the United States with weapons of mass destruction. So, by pursuing “regime change” in Iraq, the administration‘s policy may bring about the very actions that it claims it is going to war to prevent.

Saddam Hussein has been successfully contained for 11 years. Iraq is less of a threat today than it was at the time of the Gulf War in 1991 -- its capabilities and economy degraded by years of sanctions. There has been no event or action undertaken by Iraq -- what diplomats call a casus belli -- that would suggest that containment now must give way to war. And here, it is important to note that it’s not just the CIA that believes the administration‘s war policy is mistaken. An impressive array of retired four-star generals -- including Wesley Clark, Joseph Hoar and Anthony Zinni -- all have counseled against abandoning the containment policy and attacking Iraq. From a national-security standpoint, there is no more reason to go to war today than there was on September 10, 2001. In truth, the administration’s hawks -- especially the Wolfowitz crowd -- were chomping at the bit to attack Iraq while the rubble of the World Trade Center was still warm. For them, 911 was a convenient pretext for settling the previous Bush administration‘s unfinished business with Saddam Hussein, not a real justification for going to war with Iraq.

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