The Case Against the Case Against War

Today in Slate, two of the political writers I admire most—Michael Kinsley and Joe Klein—make powerful arguments against the war that the Bush administration intends to wage in Iraq. Their combined show of logical and rhetoric force could crumple a far more coherent president. Nonetheless, I find myself in greater sympathy with Bush’s position than with theirs. Let me initiate the SlateIraq debate by attempting to explain why. 

Kinsley and Klein focus most of their energies on what are in effect process questions about how the country decides whether to go to war. Kinsley says Bush is being arrogant and anti-democratic (small d as well as large D) by claiming he doesn’t need Congress’ permission to invade Iraq. Klein says the Democrats are being craven and irresponsible by not standing up on the issue and resisting Bush’s rush to war. Sounds like a plausible compromise to me: Bush doesn’t want to ask, and the Democrats don’t want to tell.

But say we were having that great national debate—if Congress doesn’t want to, Slatemight as well. Kinsley and Klein both suggest (without ever quite saying so explicitly) that they’d be on the anti-war side. All year, I’ve been arguing that we don’t need to go to war with Saddam just yet. But now that the issue is coming to a head, I find that I’m essentially on Bush’s side (or at least on Tony Blair’s side).

My support for invading Iraq owes nothing to the way Bush has tried to lay the groundwork. What theory of international relations says you’re better off going to war with less support from other countries than you could obtain merely by asking for it? Bush 41’s finest hour as president was the way he assembled a U.N.-authorized, multinational coalition in the Gulf War. This conferred legitimacy, allowed for military assistance from Arab and European allies, and not incidentally allowed us to share the costs of the operation. Compared to that episode of diplomatic mastery, Bush 43’s buildup to the sequel looks like another expression of the ongoing filial theme: Eldest son doggedly follows in father’s footsteps yet tragically lacks father’s chops.

But if assembling the Gulf War coalition was 41’s finest hour, calling off the show after 100 hours was his darkest. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was the immediate provocation for our invasion, but it wasn’t our only motivation for wanting to depose Saddam. Our larger, largely unstated national interest was Iraq’s relentless drive to acquire chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons—and mounting evidence that Saddam expected to use them against Israel or some other ally. Our humanitarian motivation was Saddam’s record as a sadistic despot. In the case of Slobodan Milosevic, I seem to remember both Klein and Kinsley agreeing that preventing genocide was reason enough to justify American intervention, with or without the United Nations—and with a much weaker justification in terms of our own national security.

The notion that we could deal with the Saddam problem through a version of containment was always folly. Saddam resumed his genocidal policies against the Kurds and Shiites and his efforts to develop horrific unconventional weapons the minute we stopped shooting at him. Simply stated, inspections and sanctions have both failed as policies. They haven’t failed completely. The best evidence I’ve seen suggests that Saddam is unlikely to build a workable nuclear device in the next year or so. If we wait a while longer, we might get lucky in one way or another and avoid war altogether. But that’s a dangerous guessing game—and not one that civilians with no security clearance are well-equipped to play. At the end of the Gulf War, we discovered Saddam was only about six months away from having a Hiroshima-scale nuclear device. Imagine if he’d been rational enough to wait for it before invading Kuwait. Putting off the inevitable entails some risk, however small, that Saddam will score the uranium he needs on the black market and build a bomb faster than expected. In that case, we will have waited too long.

If it were up to me, I still might choose to gamble a bit longer—six months, a year, two years. But the real-world choice isn’t between going to war when I’d choose to go to war and when Bush chooses to go to war. To some extent, someone like me who shares the administration’s basic view about the eventual necessity of using force has to defer to the military planners and intelligence folks about timing. The practical choice isn’t between now and later. It’s between going to war in the next several months (the Bush position) and not going at all (the default position of the opposition).

How does war on Iraq advance our effort to combat terrorism? Not in the literal-minded sense that Saddam must be stopped from funding al-Qaida or harboring Osama Bin Laden. But merely to ask the question that way fosters a misunderstanding created by the war-on-terrorism metaphor. Sept. 11 was a catastrophic event of conventional terrorism. However, it woke the country up to a group of related security threats, including conventional terrorism, the potential use of unconventional weapons by rogue states, and the acquisition of such weapons by terrorists.

Saddam’s biological weapons—and his drive to acquire nuclear ones—look to me like the most pressing of those threats. This is a judgment that involves weighing both the likelihood that Saddam will use his WMD (or enable terrorists to use them) and the scale of potential devastation that would result from that happening. To be sure, Iraq isn’t the only rogue state that poses this kind of risk, but it’s by far the most dangerous at the moment. The idea that because we can’t fight them all, we shouldn’t fight any of them is illogical. By disarming Saddam, we’ll make ourselves safer in two ways: by incapacitating the most diabolical of the rogue states and by sending a strong signal to the runners-up.

A final point, one made well by Michael O’Hanlon and his colleagues: The only tolerable alternative to regime change in Iraq is true disarmament through an effective regime of inspection and confiscation. There’s only one possible way Saddam might accept that—if we prepare for war and look to all the world as if we mean it.