Who Wants This War?

And why don’t we find out before we start one?

Public enemy No. 1?
Public enemy No. 1?

It was amazing to read the Pentagon’s detailed plans for an invasion of Iraq in the New York Times last week. The general reaction of Americans to this news was even more amazing: Basically, there was no reaction. We seem to be distant observers of our own nation’s preparation for war, watching with horror or approval or indifference a process we have nothing to do with and cannot affect. Which is just about the case.

Who really wants this war? Polls show that a modest and shrinking majority of Americans will choose military action to remove Saddam Hussein when someone holding a clipboard confronts them with a list of options. But does anything like a majority of the citizenry hold this view with the informed intensity that a decision for war deserves? I doubt it. And how many of that pro-“military action” majority imagine that it will be nearly blood-free on our side, based on the experience of the Gulf War, which turned out that way precisely because President Bush’s father decided not to try to topple Saddam?

Abroad, nearly all of America’s major allies are against it. The Arab states surely dream about being rid of Saddam Hussein. But they won’t give public support or permission to use their land and airspace, which is not too much to ask if we’re going to save them from a threat as great as Saddam is said to be. Even the Kurdish opposition within Iraq apparently thinks that being liberated by Superpower America, while nice, would be more trouble than it’s worth. That’s trouble to them, not to us!

Ask around at work, or among your family: Is anyone truly gung-ho? It seems as if true enthusiasm for all-out war against Iraq is limited to the Bush administration and a subset of the Washington policy establishment. The Democratic leadership in Congress feigns enthusiasm, which amounts to the same thing in terms of responsibility for the consequences. You are what you pretend to be. The Democrats feign out of fear of seeming weak-kneed. Bush’s enthusiasm seems genuine and is therefore more mysterious. Crude Oedipal theories (triumphing where Dad failed) are tempting, but not as plausible as the simple possibility that he sincerely believes Saddam poses a danger big enough to justify risking massive bloodshed and his own political ruin. And maybe he’s right.

Or Bush may be bluffing. At his press conference Tuesday, he blamed the leak of those war plans on “somebody down there at level five flexing some ‘know-how’ muscle.” He may be right about that, too—depending on what on earth he means. Or he may be lying, and the leak may be part of an official strategy of threatening all-out war in the hope of avoiding it, by encouraging a coup or persuading Saddam to take early retirement or in some other way getting him gone without a massive invasion.

Trouble is, it is—or ought to be—very hard for a democracy to make a credible threat that it isn’t prepared to carry out. You can’t have a vigorous public debate over whether it’s worth going to war that reaches the conclusion: Let’s pretend we’re willing to go to war if necessary and see what happens. But on the issue of war and peace, the United States is no longer a democracy.

The eerie non-debate we’re having as vast preparations for battle are made before our eyes is a consequence of a long-running constitutional scandal: the withering away of the requirement of a congressional Declaration of War. Oh, the words are still there, of course, but presidents of both parties flagrantly ignore them—sometimes with fancy arguments that are remarkably unpersuasive, but mainly by now with shrugging indifference. The result is not just a power shift between the branches of government but a general smothering of debate about, or even interest in, the decision to go to war among citizens in general.

It’s often said that modern warfare has no place for an 18th century conceit like the declaration of war. (This is said, in fact, by people who usually insist quite strongly that the original intent of the constitution’s framers requires no concessions to modernity.) But despite the modern issues of terrorism and “weapons of mass destruction,” there is an old-fashioned quality to our confrontation with Iraq. It is about an imperial power demanding acquiescence from a rogue state. That doesn’t make the United States the bad guy. It does mean that events are proceeding in a deliberate, slow-motion way that leaves plenty of time for citizens to debate and decide—if that’s the way we want to do it.