The Dueling Orthodoxies of American Doves

Chatterbox proposes a new synthesis.

American doves have lately been spouting two conflicting orthodoxies. The first is that the United States is not at war. The second is that the United States can’t go to war with Iraq because that will interfere with the war on terrorism. The logical inconsistency of these two propositions is bound sooner or later to attract notice from the hawks. To repel this attack, and to clarify and define what Chatterbox considers the sensible muscular-dovish position, it’s necessary to acknowledge that the first orthodoxy isn’t true while the second, though mostly true, is in need of some tweaking.

Susan Sontag makes the “America isn’t at war” argument in the Sept. 10 New York Times. Sontag writes that America’s war against terrorism is a metaphorical war. Sontag, who previously wrote a book quarrelling with the use of illness as a metaphor, thinks that war makes a bad metaphor, too. Like previous wars on cancer, poverty, and drugs, a war on terrorism by definition can never end because cancer, poverty, drugs, and terrorism will always be with us. (Digression: Sontag is probably wrong to include cancer in this litany.) Real wars, Sontag argues, do end—even the war between Israel and the Palestinians will end one day, though obviously not soon. That’s what justifies the havoc that war wreaks at home and abroad. Metaphorical wars, on the other hand, never end, which makes them unjustifiable. A war on terrorism that never ends fuels the Bush administration’s propensity to label domestic dissent as beyond the pale and to spurn international alliances.

Sontag is right to be wary of “war” as a metaphor (though even she would probably carve out an exception for William James’ famous essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” which makes a stirring plea for civic commitment; less effectively, the phrase was later appropriated by President Jimmy Carter as an energy-crisis slogan). A war that never ends really isn’t justifiable. But what’s metaphoric about the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? Although initial expectations were (thankfully) dashed that 9/11 would eclipse Antietam’s 9/17 as the bloodiest day in American history, 9/11 remains the single deadliest massacre ever committed on American soil. The entity that committed that massacre wasn’t a nation, but it controlled one (Afghanistan) at the time, and it continues to behave like a nation, with a leadership structure that’s now scattered but still, presumably, in command. To review: Among those still unaccounted for are al-Qaida’s leader, Osama Bin Laden; his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri; his chief of operations, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed; and his security chief, Saif al-Adel. (Military commander Muhammed Atef is believed dead, and operations chief Abu Zubaydah is in captivity.) According to U.S. News & World Report, the Pentagon believes one-third of al-Qaida’s top 30 leaders have been captured or killed, but that’s just another way of saying that two-thirds of al-Qaida’s top leaders remain at large, presumably concentrated in Pakistan, vast areas of which al-Qaida controls today. James Risen and Dexter Filkins report in the Sept. 10 Times that small groups of al-Qaida fighters are starting to drift back into Afghanistan, which, like Pakistan, stands on the brink of anarchy. While U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies will no doubt be helpful in addressing all these problems, the U.S. military will be indispensable. We are, and will remain for some time, at war. To believe anything else is merely wishful thinking.

Once you acknowledge that the United States is at war, it’s a simple matter to conclude (as have Brent Scowcroft and other officials from the first Bush administration) that this isn’t the best time to launch a full-scale war with Iraq. Yes, Iraq is a menace to its Arab neighbors, but none of those neighbors will support a U.S. war against Iraq—not even Kuwait!—which means that whatever Arab cooperation we’re getting in our pursuit of al-Qaida would evaporate. Yes, Saddam Hussein’s possession of biological and chemical weapons, some of which he’s used before against fellow Iraqis, is alarming, but the threat from these weapons mustn’t be confused with that from nuclear weapons. (See Chatterbox’s Aug. 27 column, “Saddam Does Not Have ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction.’  ”) And yes, the prospect that Saddam will get a nuclear warhead is worrisome, but not as worrisome as the prospect that al-Qaida will get one (as would occur, for instance, if it were to seize control of Pakistan).

The only part of Orthodoxy No. 2 that Chatterbox would quarrel with is the phrase “war on terrorism.” As Nicholas Lemann observes in the Sept. 16 New Yorker, “the idea that declaring and waging war on terror was not the sole, inevitable, logical consequence of the attacks just isn’t in circulation.” (He means in Washington policy circles, which exclude Susan Sontag.) But it should be. We aren’t in a war against terrorism. We’re in a war against al-Qaida, a formulation that, strangely, even the “realist” and on-the-outs political scientists celebrated in Lemann’s article decline to state flatly. They agree that we were in a war against al-Qaida, but insist that now “the pursuit of Al Qaida will be an intelligence and police operation, not a military one.” Tell it to the Marines!

In sum: We are at war against al-Qaida, a virtual nation that remains a serious threat to the United States. (Indeed, the Bush administration raised the threat level  today to “high” for the first time since last Sept. 11.) A new regime in Iraq would be wonderful, but going to war right now to achieve it would interfere with our ongoing war against al-Qaida. While we fight this war, civil liberties will be compromised and blood will be shed—hopefully, not to excess. But this war will end.