So, we’ve won, or just about. There is no quagmire. Saddam is dead, or as good as, along with his sons. It was all fairly painless—at least for most Americans sitting at home watching it on television. Those who opposed the war look like fools. They are thoroughly discredited and, if they happen to be Democratic presidential candidates (and who isn’t these days?), they might as well withdraw and nurse their shame somewhere off the public stage. The debate over Gulf War II is as over as the war itself soon will be, and the anti’s were defeated as thoroughly as Saddam Hussein.
Right? No, not at all.
To start with an obvious point that may get buried in the confetti of the victory parade, the debate was not about whether America would win a war against Iraq if we chose to start one. No sane person doubted that the mighty United States military machine could defeat and conquer a country with a tiny fraction of its population and an even tinier fraction of its wealth—a country suffering from over a decade of economic strangulation by the rest of the world.
Oh, sure, there was a tepid public discussion of how long victory might take to achieve, in which pro’s and anti’s were represented across the spectrum of opinion. And the first law of journalistic dynamics—The Story Has To Change—inevitably produced a couple of comic days last week when the media and their rent-a-generals were peddling the Q-word. No doubt there are some unreflective peaceniks still mentally trapped in Vietnam, or grasping at any available argument, who are still talking quagmire. But the serious case against this war was never that we might actually lose it militarily.
The serious case involved questions that are still unresolved. Factual questions: Is there a connection between Iraq and the perpetrators of 9/11? Is that connection really bigger than that of all the countries we’re not invading? Does Iraq really have or almost have weapons of mass destruction that threaten the United States? Predictive questions: What will toppling Saddam ultimately cost in dollars and in lives (American, Iraqi, others)? Will the result be a stable Iraq and a blossoming of democracy in the Middle East or something less attractive? How many young Muslims and others will be turned against the United States, and what will they do about it?
Political questions: Should we be doing this despite the opposition of most of our traditional allies? Without the approval of the United Nations? Moral questions: Is it justified to make “pre-emptive” war on nations that may threaten us in the future? When do internal human rights, or the lack of them, justify a war? Is there a policy about pre-emption and human rights that we are prepared to apply consistently? Does consistency matter? Even etiquette questions: Before Bush begins trying to create a civil society in Iraq, wouldn’t it be nice if he apologized to Bill Clinton and Al Gore for all the nasty, dismissive things he said about “nation-building” in the 2000 campaign?
Some of these questions will be answered shortly, and some will be debated forever. This doesn’t mean history will never render a judgment. History’s judgment doesn’t require unanimity or total certainty. But that judgment is not in yet. Supporters of this war who are in the mood for an ideological pogrom should chill out for a while, and opponents need not fold into permanent cringe position.
Of course opponents have been on the defensive since the day the fighting started, forced to repeat the mantra that we “oppose the war but support the troops.” Critics mock this formula as psychologically implausible if not outright dishonest, but it’s not even difficult or complicated. Most of the common reasons for opposing this war get more severe as the war grows longer. Above all is the cost in human lives, especially the lives of American soldiers. (And most American war opponents share with American war supporters—with most human beings, for that matter—an instinctively greater concern for the lives of fellow nationals, however illogical or deplorable that might be.) Unlike Vietnam, where opposition barely existed until the war had been going on for several years, this is a war in which calling for a pullout short of victory would be silly. So, once the war has started, no disingenuousness is required for opponents to hope for victory, the quicker the better.
What is an honest opponent of a war supposed to do? Since even the end of this war won’t settle most of the important arguments about it, dropping all opposition at the beginning of the war would surely be more intellectually suspicious than maintaining your doubts while sincerely hoping for victory. Inevitably, more than one supporter of this war has taunted its opponents with Orwell’s famous observation in 1942 that pacifists—the few who opposed a military response to Hitler—were “objectively pro-fascist.” The suggestion is that opposing this war makes you objectively pro-Saddam. In an oddly less famous passage two years later, Orwell recanted that “objectively” formula and called it “dishonest.” Which it is.
The psychological challenge of opposing a war like this after it has started isn’t supporting the American troops, but hoping to be proven wrong. That, though, is the burden of pessimism on all subjects. As a skeptic, at the least, about Gulf War II, I do hope to be proven wrong. But it hasn’t happened yet.