The national debate we should have had over the last two years before plunging headlong and solo into this war in Iraq was finally held in the compressed form of two hours this past weekend at the Wiltern Theater. Unfortunately, only 1,500 people could partake, instead of 280 million. (You can thank Democratic pipsqueaks from Daschle to Gephardt to Kerry for the absence of that national conversation, by the way.)
In pondering the basis for the war before the rapt Wiltern crowd, Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff mused that “what might be justified may not be wise.” Arguing the pro-war case along with Christopher Hitchens, Ignatieff eventually answered his own doubts by saying this war was, indeed, not only the necessary but also the right thing to do.
I found Hitchens and Ignatieff’s indictment of Saddam Hussein compelling and convincing. The Iraqi dictator is the jailer and torturer of his 23 million subjects. His brand of fascism is inherently warlike and threatening. And it is difficult to imagine that whatever regime is in store for the Iraqis won’t be an improvement.
But while I can understand the justification for this war — at least as argued by Ignatieff and Hitchens — I cannot find this war to be wise. On the contrary, this war poses a much greater threat to our own national security than does a boxed-in Saddam Hussein. It threatens the entire post-WWII international framework and undermines the very principles of our republic.
I might support this war if Hitchens and Ignatieff — whose sincerity in aiding the liberation of the Iraqi people is beyond question — were our secretaries of state and defense. Instead we are saddled with an administration riddled with imperial ideologues who wish to invade Iraq not as an act of freeing its people, but as a first step in reordering the world into a Pax Americana.
I agree with Hitchens and Ignatieff that the “dirty hands” argument is an empty one. The long record of U.S. foreign-policy sins in no way makes it impossible for America to be on the right side of this conflict. But some of the key policymakers on Iraq are those who have sinned the most and shown no remorse. Rumsfeld was the U.S. envoy sent to butter up Saddam at the same time he was gassing the Kurds. Elliot Abrams, who heads the Middle East crew on the National Security Council, made public lying an art form when he was helping to run the Iran-contra scheme of the 1980s. Arguing the anti-war side in Saturday’s debate, columnist Robert Scheer concluded: “You can make an argument for intervening, but can you trust the people doing the intervening? No.”
I might support this war if its cost of $100 billion or $200 billion or three times that amount had been clearly presented to the American people as soon as the White House began threatening military action. I might support the war if the wealthy were told to sacrifice by accepting a stiff, progressive war tax instead of instructed to celebrate a $1.3 trillion bounty of hand-backs and handouts.
I might support the war if working people were clearly told that they too will have to sacrifice, that the cost of this conflict will freeze out social spending for a decade or more to come.
I might support this war if, as a recent poll revealed, anywhere from a third to a half of the television-bleary American people didn’t falsely believe (as they do) that Saddam had “personal” involvement in the World Trade Center attacks. (As a general rule of thumb, I think it wise that you at least know the real reasons why your son or daughter may kill or be killed on a foreign battlefield.) Finally, I might support this war launched, ostensibly, to enforce a resolution of the U.N., if the U.N. agreed that war was the best solution. But it doesn’t.
Nevertheless, by the time you read this, the bombs will most likely already be falling. And those of us who have opposed the war will be faced with crucial choices. The instinct of the peace movement will be to react with outrage, and that will be unfortunate. Public tantrums and shrieks of “Genocide!” will accomplish nothing at this point.
The responsibilities of the peace movement are far too weighty to be squandered in sputtering and ultimately politically irrelevant feel-good acts of blocking traffic or ripping down fences at military bases. As war breaks out, the peace movement must engage even more deeply, not marginalize itself. It must exert what influence it can muster to limit and constrain the exercise of American military power and to do all possible to prevent this conflict from becoming a prelude to endless war. But even more immediately, it’s the peace movement that must actually hold the Bush administration to its promises of liberating Iraq. The peace movement should take an active role in debating and trying to shape the post-Saddam outcome by fighting, first of all, for a thorough roll-up of the Ba’ath regime, for indictment and prosecution of Hussein and his gang, for the fullest democracy possible, respect for the Shiahs and Kurds, for a postwar government that respects human rights. That formula includes an authentic U.S. and international commitment to fund reconstruction and development. And let’s not forget the Bush-Blair promise to finally get serious about the Palestinians.
At the time of the O.J. trial, I wrote that resentful white Westside Yuppies would have actually been disappointed if Simpson had been convicted, as that would rob them of their self-righteous indignation. Let’s do a reality check. If you’re in the peace movement and your secret hope is that an arrogant George W. Bush will get his comeuppance in Iraq, that the war will go awry and that it will sink into a bloody I-told-you-so quagmire, then you better have a long, soul-searching meeting with yourself. This is not Vietnam, where the U.S. intervened to support a tinpot dictatorship against an indigenous revolution. This time the U.S. is intervening — perhaps for all the wrong reasons — against a dictatorial regime a dozen times worse than that of Nguyen Thieu’s. As American tanks roll into southern Iraq, we should hope that they will, in fact, be met with rice and roses and then go right on to Baghdad to finish off Saddam. To the Iraqi people who must now cower under our bombs and missiles and pray to God to be spared, we owe them at least that perk — and much, much more.