In London Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair declared with fanfare that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, is ready to use them against other nations, and soon will have nukes as well. In Washington, a reporter asked President Bush why Blair offered no new evidence to explain his newfound conviction on these matters.
THE PRESIDENT: He explained why.
Q: Pardon me, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: Explained why he didn’t put new information—to protect sources.
That’s a good joke on journalists—”protecting sources” is our religion—and not a bad point on the merits. Much of what our leaders know about Iraq’s military capacities and intentions can’t be revealed, and how they know it must be secret as well. So, how is a citizen of a democracy supposed to decide the most important question any nation must decide: Should we go to war?
In this case the issues are mainly factual. That is not always so. In Vietnam, though there were factual disputes, the big disagreements were about moral and strategic issues on which the government’s policy had no home-team advantage. With Iraq, by contrast there would be almost no opposition to imposing what is being called, with comic delicacy, a “regime change” if Blair and Bush are right that Western nations are in imminent peril. But this turns on facts and analysis that ordinary citizens must take on trust.
The official U.S. government message on how citizens should decide about going to war is, “Don’t worry your pretty little heads about it.” Last week the White House issued a sort of Official Souvenir Guide to the Bush administration’s national security policy, and it is full of rhetoric about democracy. Yet that policy itself, including at least one likely war, has been imposed on the country entirely without benefit of democracy. George W.’s war on Iraq will be the reductio ad absurdum of America’s long, slow abandonment of any pretense that the people have any say in the question of whether their government will send some of them far away to kill and die.
Add it up. You may not agree that the Bush family actually stole the presidency for George W., but you cannot deny that the other guy got more votes. Once installed as president, Bush asserted (as they all do) the right to start any war he wants. Members of Congress can pass a resolution of support if they would like—in fact, he dares them not to—but the lack of one is not going to stop him. You may not agree that this is flagrantly unconstitutional, but you cannot deny that this makes any discussion of the pros and cons outside of the White House largely pointless. Finally, it’s already clear that Bush will copy his father’s innovation of rigorously controlling what journalists covering the war can see and report. You may not agree that the obvious purpose of this is to protect official propaganda and lies from exposure, but you cannot deny that such will be the convenient effect.
Democracy will be especially missed if “pre-emption”—the hot concept in Bush’s national security policy—takes off as his advisers hope. (The Bushies hail pre-emption as a brilliant innovation by The Man, except when they’re downplaying it as nothing new to worry about.) If the United States is going to feel free to attack any countries that might attack us, without the inconvenience of waiting to see if they actually do, then putting that decision in one individual’s power seems especially reckless. And most of the reasons people give to explain why the Constitution doesn’t really mean what it says about Congress having the power to declare war involve things like responding to surprise attacks. These concerns seem especially out of place if America’s future wars are going to be chosen off the a la carte menu and then stewed for months or years before they are actually served up.
But let’s pretend we actually do have some role in deciding whether our nation goes to war. How should we go about it when our leaders don’t come PR-ratified by democracy and when crucial information for an independent decision is unavailable to us? We aren’t capable of answering the actual questions at hand: Is Saddam Hussein an imminent threat to our national and personal security, and is a war to remove him from power the only way to end that threat? So, we must do with a surrogate question: Based on information we do have and issues we are capable of judging, should we trust the leaders who are urging war upon us?
The answer to that last one is easy. The Bush administration campaign for war against Iraq has been an extravaganza of disingenuousness. The arguments come and go. Allegations are taken up, held until discredited, and then replaced. All the entrances and exits are chronicled by leaks to the Washington Post. Two overarching concepts—”terrorism” and “weapons of mass destruction” (or “WMD” as the new national security document jauntily acronymizes)—are drained of whatever intellectual validity they may have had and put to work bridging huge gaps in evidence and logic.
The arguments have been so phony and so fleeting that it’s hard to know what Bush’s real motive is. The Freudian/Oedipal theorizing about finishing the job his father left undone is entertaining but silly. So is “Wag the Dog” speculation that Bush is staging a war for political reasons: The political risk of a bloody disaster surely outweighs any short-term patriotic boost. The lack of any obvious ulterior motive, in fact, is the strongest argument for taking Bush at his word.
But it’s not strong enough. A quick recap. Knocking off Saddam became a top priority shortly after 9/11. It was part of the “war on terror,” though the logical or factual connection between the events of 9/11 and Saddam’s depredations was never explained. The administration pounced on suggestions that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met with Iraqi agents in Prague—as if discovery of this one meeting retroactively justified the whole hoo-ha—then dropped the allegation (though not the rhetorical connection) when it turned out to be made up. Bush and aides continue to talk ominously about meetings and connections between Iraqis and al-Qaida, continue to supply no details, and continue their relative indifference to greater al-Qaida links with other countries.
According to the 2000 edition of the State Department’s annual “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report, issued in April 2001, Iraq has ties to various terrorist groups and does terrible things to dissidents, but, “The regime has not attempted an anti-Western terrorist attack since its failed plot to assassinate former President Bush in 1993 in Kuwait.” To be sure, for George W., that is a special case. But is it special enough to single out Iraq and ignore other nations that have actually committed successful terrorist acts against the West in the past decade? According to the 2001 State Department terrorism report, issued this past spring, the most enthusiastic state sponsor of terrorism is Iran—an enemy of Iraq that we’re now trying to patch things up with.
Iraq’s use of poison gas in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s is one example always offered to prove Iraq’s ability and willingness to use “weapons of mass destruction.” The other is the gassing of a Kurdish town called Halabja in 1988. The fact that these episodes happened years ago does not diminish their horror, and there is certainly no reason to think that Saddam has become kinder or gentler over the years. But it does raise the question why now, years later, they are suddenly a casus belli.
“Weapons of mass destruction,” like “terrorism,” is supposed to convey the idea that certain ways of fighting a war are illegitimate no matter how righteous the cause you are fighting for. It’s a problematic notion in any event. The weapons the United States used against Iraqi soldiers in the Gulf War were about as horrific as those Iraq used against Iran. What makes the pretense of moral outrage in 2002 especially dubious, though, is the American attitude while and right after these horrors occurred in 1982-1988.
There is controversy over whether the United States actually supplied ingredients for the gas, or merely supplied helicopters and other useful equipment, or did nothing more than smother the odd unfriendly U.N. resolution. But there is no question that we knew all about it and looked the other way. The administration of the time included some of the same people as the current administration, or their father. Any indignation on this subject that comes without a fairly abject apology is worthless.
But at the time, you see, Iran was our enemy, so we wanted to help Iraq. Now Iraq is the enemy, so we are nuzzling Iran a bit. All very Kissinger and geopolitical and neorealist (or is that a movie genre, not a foreign policy posture?), but hard to reconcile with high dudgeon about terror.
To be sure, the fatuous hypocrisy of the Bush case for war is no reason to let Saddam Hussein drop a nuclear bomb on your head. Iraq may be an imminent menace to the United States even though George W. Bush says it is. You would think that if honest and persuasive arguments were available, the administration would offer them. But maybe not.