a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Iraq: what would we be fighting for?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 29th, 2001

Last Friday, I wrote about Victor Davis Hanson’s National Review article, “The Time is Now,” in which he argued that Iraq should be next in the fight against terrorism. I was critical of his reasoning, and said that unless Iraq is shown to be involved in the 9/11 attacks (I’ll now add the anthrax attacks to that), I was skeptical of going forward with a war against Hussein and Iraq.

I stand by that view. Yesterday, Steven Den Beste wrote a lengthy piece in which he argued that Europe’s attitude about a widening of the conflict can be ignored. As usual, Mr. Den Beste focuses on military capabilities. He’s right as far as that goes: Europe’s military contributions to the current conflict are trivial, and European help would not be necessary should we decide to attack and defeat Iraq; I’ll concede on Pakistan’s contribution as well.* But he’s wrong, in my opinion, in a more important sense.

Unless Iraq was directly involved in the recent attacks, we would be going to war for an entirely different reason than we are now. Rather than self-defense against a country or organization that has attacked us, the reason that appears to be rising to the top is indeed the pre-emptive “militant antiproliferation” doctrine I suggested last Friday. As Bjorn Staerk noted (without comment) yesterday, a warning has been issued to North Korea that appears to fit into this scheme as well. Let’s suppose the doctrine is narrower yet, and that the Bush administration were actually proposing a “militant antiproliferation” doctrine only for undemocratic regimes such as Iraq and North Korea. There would be good long term reasons to support this — but it leaves China, Pakistan, and arguably Iran on the list for starters. I’m not usually one to raise the “hypocrisy” charge — so I won’t. Instead, I’ll just say that defining the boundaries of international conduct for developing weapons of mass destruction, and identifying the countries who go beyond that pale, is almost by definition a matter for international agreement. By the same token, so are sanctions or military actions against violators of such conventions. Both discussions should be (re)initiated, quickly. Simply because the list of potential violator countries is so daunting, the support of all our allies would be crucial in preventing such a doctrine from simply causing a new arms race, where countries on the verge of acquiring deterrent levels of weapons of mass destruction, such as (possibly) Iran or Libya, could well accelerate their efforts.

There is a dreadful practical concern as well. If Iraq does not have weapons of mass destruction, we would presumably have no reason to attack them, unless they support terrorism against us. If they do have such weapons, note that these weapons have not been used — but we should not be surprised if they were used in a war. We might well provoke what we intend to prevent. A far saner course of action would be what we did with the Soviet Union: maintain vigilance, apply pressure, avoid war, and wait for the totalitarians to collapse.

Mr. Den Beste seems to have different war aims now than when he wrote the persuasive article “What are we fighting for?” shortly after 9/11. In it, he saw Islamic theocracy as the new totalitarian menace. There is a lot of truth in that. But whatever Iraq is, it’s not an Islamic theocracy like the Taliban or the “caliphate” dreams of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. I’m very pleased indeed, as are most Americans, at the successes we’ve seen in Afghanistan so far. I’m glad the “wind is at our back,” (again, via Staerk) but that wind is pushing us towards a victory against Al Qaeda and Bin Laden; we could be tacking against it by extending the war to Iraq. The camps and allies in Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the Al Qaeda network are fair game indeed; they’re populated with our proven adversaries. But we might do well to all of us step back for a minute, remember the smoking ruins at the Trade Center — and not dishonor those ruins by widening a war for justice to and safety from the villains who did 9/11 to a broader, more dangerous conflagration.

Comments are welcome, by all means, anonymous or otherwise: click the “comment” link immediately below. I’m not trying to be quarrelsome. I simply think that decisions about war should be made very deliberately and soberly. I’m also not holding flip-flops or inconsistencies against anyone; goodness knows I’m guilty of them as well.

* Although I think we might have had a costly fight across that country’s air space if Pakistan had wanted that; also, we would have had to keep their nuclear weapons in mind as we positioned our aircraft carriers.

One Response to “Iraq: what would we be fighting for?”

  1. » Blog Archive » This and that Says:

    […] Den Beste made this thoughtful response to my post “Iraq: What would we be fighting for?” I’ll pull this […]

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