A Hawk No More

I seem to be the only one in the club who’s changed his mind. In fact, a case could be made I shouldn’t be here at all because I changed my mind before the war began. My membership in the “I can’t believe I’m a hawk” club dated from Feb. 5, 2003, with Colin Powell’s (now utterly discredited) pitch to the U.N. Security Council and expired a month later when I realized that, whatever the merits for war (and I’m still ambivalent on that question), the Bush administration was incapable of pulling it off. Here is what I wrote on March 5:

If the administration lacks the acumen or persuasive power to deal with such familiar institutions as the U.N. Security Council or the established governments of France, Germany, Turkey, Russia, China—even Canada—then how is it going to handle Iraq’s feuding opposition groups, Kurdish separatists, and myriad ethno-religious factions, to say nothing of the turbulence throughout the region?

My case for multilateralism was, and still is, strictly pragmatic: The United States does not have the budgetary resources, the military manpower, the international legitimacy (especially in the region), or, I suspect, ultimately the political wherewithal to go this all the way to the finish line alone. (And, please, don’t talk to me about the crack Polish division.)

Saddam Hussein was clearly a nasty, evil dictator. So were Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. So, today, is Kim Jong-il. Does that mean we should have declared war on the U.S.S.R., China, and Cambodia? Does it mean we should declare war on North Korea now? I ask those who support the Iraq war on humanitarian grounds: Why not? Tom Friedman makes an admirably honest point: We went to war with Iraq because we could. But to extend this argument further, I want to ask Tom: Because we could what? Yes, we could invade the country, topple the regime, and occupy the capital. But winning wars is about accomplishing strategic objectives. If the strategic objective was to oust Saddam Hussein, we won, and maybe we should go home. Regardless of my views on the war, I do not believe we should go home (having wrecked the nation’s structure, we are obligated to ensure a new one is put in place); I assume no one else on this panel thinks we should either. So the strategic objective was something else, and the panel has cited several goals: democratization, regional stability, human rights, and so forth. If these were the strategic objectives, if this is what the war was about, then we haven’t yet won, and, in Tom’s terms, it is not yet clear that we could achieve them. I hope I’m wrong on this, by the way.

I am surprised how blithely many of you have waved off the growing—and by now all but incontrovertible—evidence that Saddam Hussein hasn’t had weapons of mass destruction for many years and wasn’t anywhere near the verge of building new ones. To you, WMD were never the real reason for war anyway. But to Congress and probably to the vast majority of the American people, they were the only reason (well, along with Iraq’s direct and explicit links to al-Qaida, another dubious proposition). Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld certainly knew this, which is why they were so hellbent on twisting intelligence to make the case. Even Wolfowitz said, in his famous Vanity Fair profile, that Saddam’s human-rights violations would not by themselves justify the sacrifice of American lives.

At the risk of sounding like a goo-goo, I invite someone to take up the question of going to war in a democracy. How frankly should an elected leader feel obligated to outline the true reasons for war? If the reasons fail to persuade, should he go to war anyway if he feels the cause is right?

If we are talking about creating something like a new world order, where tyrants and terrorists will not be tolerated, how important is it to persuade, cajole, and manipulate other countries to go along with us? If we cannot find very many others to join us—let alone, as was the case with Bush, if the president makes it clear he doesn’t care whether others join us—should we continue with this campaign anyway?

I guess my wording of the question hints at where I stand on the issue. Where do you stand? If we’re talking about the spread of democracy—or at least of a cooperative international community—is waging a preventive war, unilaterally, the best way to get the ball rolling?

Tom notes that NATO did not need the United Nations to go to war against Slobodan Milosevic on behalf of Kosovo. True, but the United States did need NATO. Clinton realized he needed to do this with some established international organization, and given that the Serbs were wilding in the heart of Europe, NATO was ideally suited. That war, as many neocons subsequently complained, was waged rather sloppily; a committee is not the most efficient vehicle for picking targets in a bombing campaign. Yet as Wesley Clark argues in his account of that war, it was the best—really, the only—way of conducting the war from the vantage point of achieving its strategic objectives. One of those strategic objectives was to demonstrate that the international community will not tolerate tyrannical enslavement in Europe. And today, U.N. peacekeepers are still in the country. The war would have been seen in a very different light—and it could have gone in a different direction—if it had been waged entirely by the United States Air Force and if American soldiers and Marines were still occupying the land.

There are other issues, but let me hurl these into the fray as a starter.