The Case Against the Case Against War, Again

Jake Weisberg called his post “The Case Against the Case Against War.” I’d describe my position the same way. I don’t buy most of the administration’s arguments, and when the question is reduced to whether war in Iraq is necessary right now, I have a hard time making the affirmative case. But I don’t think we can leave it at that. Vice President Cheney is right that we ought to scrutinize the non-war option as carefully as we scrutinize the war option. And the non-war option is every bit as dubious. 

In the spirit of Steve Chapman’s post, I’ll start by discarding the pro-war arguments I don’t buy. I’ve waited and waited for evidence to back up the administration’s theory that Saddam is in cahoots with al-Qaida (more so than Iran, Syria, or any other regime is). I haven’t seen it, and I’m certain that if the administration had it, we’d have heard it by now. Furthermore, Brent Scowcroft and Al Gore are correct that Iraq is a separate issue from the war on terror. If you pay close attention to the theory put forward by the administration—i.e., that Saddam will use nukes to keep us at bay so he can pursue the same regional aggression he pursued before the Gulf War—you’ll see that there’s no strategic parallel between Saddam and al-Qaida. And I agree with Steve that Saddam won’t use nukes against us the day he gets them.

That said, I see a few problems with Steve’s argument. He makes two distinctions that in my view aren’t nearly as clean as his policy requires. One is between the offensive and defensive use of nuclear blackmail. Steve asks: “But does anyone believe that if Pakistan invaded and seized Indian territory, India would let the conquest stand? Nuclear weapons are highly effective for defensive purposes—deterring an attack on one’s own territory. But they’re useless for offensive conquest.” The problem with this distinction is that Pakistan and India disagree precisely over what is or isn’t Indian territory, just as Iraq and Kuwait disagreed over what was or wasn’t Kuwaiti territory. History is littered with cases in which one regime attacked another in the name of defending or recapturing what it perceived as its own territory. Each of those cases is a case of failed deterrence.

The other suspect distinction is between strength and weakness. Steve thinks that because deterrence worked against Stalin and Mao, whom he views as strong, it should work against Saddam, whom he views as weak. But as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others in the administration have cogently argued, sometimes what looks like weakness is really strength. The less you have to defend, the more freedom you have to attack. That’s the particular strength of non-state actors such as al-Qaida. In Saddam’s case, the maxim would be slightly different: The less you have to lose, the more freedom you have to attack. Stalin and Mao were building vast empires. They had a lot to lose. Saddam has less. It might be enough to deter him. But the fact that deterrence worked against Stalin and Mao doesn’t prove that it will work against Saddam.

More broadly, are we willing to live in a world governed only by deterrence? Many people, myself included, wonder where an American policy of trigger-happy pre-emption will lead. But we ought to wonder as well where a policy of non-intervention in nuclear matters will lead. Steve is consistent about non-intervention: He’s against most gun control. But those of us who don’t think it’s OK to let people run around with guns until they shoot somebody should ask ourselves why it’s OK to let Saddam Hussein run around with nukes until he annihilates somebody.

If you think there’s a better way than war to stop Saddam’s nuclear program, I’m all ears. But to get to that discussion, you have to get past the idea that deterring the use of nukes is good enough.