What Bush Isn’t Saying About Iraq

President Bush won’t discuss two big reasons he wants to invade Iraq.

So, why exactly is Iraq different from North Korea? Both are founding members of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” and both deserve that honor. North Korea has now admitted to a nuclear weapons development program on about the same timeline as what we only suspect about Iraq. So, why are we barely complaining in one case and off to war in the other?

Bush addressed this conundrum the other day. “Saddam Hussein is unique,” he explained. “He has thumbed his nose at the world for 11 years … and for 11 years he has said, ‘No, I refuse to disarm.’ ” The North Koreans, by contrast, said, “Yes, we will disarm”—they promised to stop building nukes in exchange for help in developing peaceful nuclear power—and then they didn’t do it. I guess that’s a difference, but it sounds as if we’re punishing Saddam for his honesty.

Bush’s public case for going to war against Iraq is full of logical inconsistencies, exaggerations, and outright lies. It reeks of ex-post-facto: First came the desire, and then came the reasons. But this raises a troubling question, especially for opponents of Bush’s policy: If his ostensible reasons are unpersuasive even to him, what are his real reasons? There must be some: Nobody starts a war as a lark. It would be easier to dismiss the whole exercise if there were an obvious ulterior motive. Without one, you are left wondering, “Am I missing something?”

Tariq Aziz has a theory. Saddam Hussein’s deputy told the New York Times this week, “The reason for this warmongering policy toward Iraq is oil and Israel.” Although no one wishes to agree with Tariq Aziz, he has put succinctly what many people in Washington apparently believe. They do not think the concern over potential use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons is negligible or insincere, but they do think that “oil and Israel” is a pretty good summary of what, for President Bush, makes Iraq different from your run-of-the-mill evil dictatorship. Yet this presumption about Bush, and these issues themselves, barely appear in the flood of speculation and argument about Bush War II.

“President Bush” is, of course, a metaphor. Much Washington political commentary and analysis is basically a discussion of what or whom the term “President Bush” is a metaphor for. Is it Karl Rove? Is it still Karen Hughes, although she has decamped? Even more than most presidents, Bush is regarded as the sum total of his advisers. Regarding Iraq, the advisers themselves are also used as metaphors, often in plural to signify a stereotype. “The Cheneys and the Rumsfelds” evokes a retro world of confident white CEOs in suits, oil barons, and the military industrial complex. “The Wolfowitzes and the Richard Perles” evokes—well, you know what it evokes.

The idea that oil is a factor in official thinking about Iraq shouldn’t even be controversial. Protecting oil supplies from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait was an explicit—though disingenuously underemphasized—reason for Bush War I. After all, we couldn’t claim to be fighting to restore democracy to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, let alone Iraq. This time around, the fact that Bush and Cheney are both oil men is suggestive, but the implication is not clear. A war to topple Saddam will raise oil prices in the short run but probably lower them in the longer run by stabilizing the supply. An oil man could have sincerely mixed feelings about these prospects. Surely, though, even a sensible opponent of the war ought to register a steady oil supply as one of the better reasons for it.

The lack of public discussion about the role of Israel in the thinking of “President Bush” is easier to understand, but weird nevertheless. It is the proverbial elephant in the room: Everybody sees it, no one mentions it. The reason is obvious and admirable: Neither supporters nor opponents of a war against Iraq wish to evoke the classic anti-Semitic image of the king’s Jewish advisers whispering poison into his ear and betraying the country to foreign interests. But the consequence of this massive “Shhhhhhhhh!” is to make a perfectly valid American concern for a democratic ally in a region of nutty theocracies, rotting monarchies, and worse seem furtive and suspicious.

Having brought this up, I hasten to add a few self-protective points. The president’s advisors, Jewish and non-Jewish, are patriotic Americans who sincerely believe that the interests of America and Israel coincide. What’s more, they are right about that, though they may be wrong about where that shared interest lies. Among Jewish Americans, including me, there are people who hold every conceivable opinion about war with Iraq with every variation of intensity, including passionate opposition and complete indifference. Jews are undoubtedly overrepresented in what little organized antiwar movement there may be (thus feeding another variant of the anti-Semitic stereotype).

Why and whether an American war against Iraq would be good for Israel is far from clear and is the subject of vigorous debate in Israel itself—but not in America. Theories range from the mundane to the exotic to the paranoid: Clearing out a neighborhood troublemaker before he gets the bomb is reason enough. Or, deposing Saddam will set off a complex regional chain reaction that will somehow turn the Arab nations into peaceful bourgeois societies. Or, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon actually wants a huge regional conflagration that he can use as an excuse and cover for expelling the Palestinians from the West Bank. In any event, the downside risk for Israel—of carnage, military and civilian—is like America’s, only far greater.

But we’d better not talk about it.