a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

When in doubt

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 3rd, 2002

I posted a great number of Iraq-war-skeptic pieces in the months after 9/11.* I advanced a number of arguments; in retrospect, I see that I was not sure where I’d “touch bottom” with them, that is, which of them was paramount to me, and how they interconnected. In fact, I’m still not sure.

I’ll list the arguments against seeking a shooting war to disarm and unseat Hussein, and give the best counterargument I’ve run across, or the best one that I can think of. Usually, I do my best to attribute or link arguments to their authors right away. This time, I’ll be making those edits later, and compiling them in a comment.**

Anti-war Pro-war
Iraq was not directly involved in 9/11; let’s finish off Al Qaeda first. Iraq is a distraction from our real enemy. We can’t wait that long: Hussein will have nuclear weapons soon — ones he could share with that “real” enemy.
Hussein is a secular leader with next to nothing in common with Al Qaeda. He’d never cooperate with them. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If Al Qaeda uses a nuclear weapon on an American city, we’ll never know for sure how they got it, so deterrence won’t work. Hussein would benefit by having a weaker and likely demoralized enemy.
It’s a bad precedent: other countries could do the same kind of “pre-emptive self defense”, where does it all end? This is not being justified as pre-emptive self-defense, it’s simply strengthening and enforcing UN resolutions imposed on one particular, dangerous, recalcitrant regime. We can have a debate about Bush’s new pre-emption doctrine some other time.
The United States is undermining multilateral institutions. Multilateralism is not a “good” in and of itself. Moreover, if Hussein acquires nuclear weapons “despite” the UN Security Council, you’d have to question whether the UN was worth anything at all. Let’s not let France and Russia destroy the best world institution we’ve ever had!
Unless you want a kind of super 1990s Afghanistan, you’re in for major nationbuilding even if you win. OK, we’re in for major nationbuilding if we win; the costs can be paid at least in part with Iraqi oil, since sanctions will be over. We may draw down forces in areas where they are not needed or are not as critical to our national security: Kosovo, Germany.
Hussein owning WMD, especially nuclear ones, is no threat: he’s deterrable and rational, the 90s prove it. Hussein isn’t flat-out crazy; but the evidence suggests he *is* reckless: he’s invaded two neighbors, costing his country hundreds of thousands dead. Also, Iraq has no institutions that check Hussein’s whims and gambles; the Soviet Union had well developed command and control of their nuclear weapons, and competing sources of political power (KGB, Army, Politburo, oligarchs).
Hussein owning WMD, especially nuclear ones, is no threat to the United States per se. We would destroy him and his country. We won’t extend our deterrence of an Iraqi nuclear strike to more plausible regional targets, though. Which regional targets are you willing to write off once he has a nuclear weapon? Kuwait? Israel?
Saddam will use any WMD he’s got, on our troops, our country, or on Israel, if he’s got nothing to lose at the end of a war. Right! So strike hard and soon; the longer you wait, the more WMD he’ll have — including nuclear (within 3 years, the German intelligence agency estimates)
The Arab street will rise up in anger, and overthrow supportive regimes. Didn’t happen about the Gulf War or about Afghanistan last year.
Get ready for urban warfare: Stalingrad II — covered by Al Jasira. Even if/when the US wins, the occupation/reconstruction will be plagued by guerilla resistance. Answer A) Who knows. Alternative plausible script: Soon after the bombing escalates or by the time the 2d US soldier is on the ground, Hussein will be shot by his own people, who will compete to surrender. Then dancing in the streets, with holdout die-hard Baathists and “Tikriti clique” people swinging from lampposts.
Answer B): Come what may. We don’t want a future where Hussein could hold an American city hostage.
“Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Hussein is not immortal, and he’s not the only person in Iraq. Let’s let sanctions, no-fly zone pressure, and covert operations, and time work for us. Hussein’s son is more vicious than he is, by all accounts. They and their Baath party are in the saddle for good, barring direct outside intervention. And they will have nuclear weapons sooner or later.
Whatever you say, this is a pre-emptive war. I don’t want my country starting a war, it’s not what I believe the United States is about. We’re treaty bound (via agreeing to the UN charter) to only engage in war in self-defense. Answer A) We’re not starting a war, we’re finishing one where the cease-fire has been violated.
Answer B) No one is happy about it. But the points you raise are debatable, and no Supreme Court is going to rule that treaty obligations should be read to supersede “providing for the common defense” in a case as plausible as this one.
Between Al Qaeda and this, we’re going to be on a war footing for the foreseeable future, at least the next 5 years, likely decades. In one year alone, civil rights have been pummeled badly. It will only get worse. The republic has survived worse: the Civil War, World War II. Many pro-war advocates will stand with you against infringements of your constitutional rights.
This conflict is just about oil. Answer A) How many times do you need to hear the words “nuclear weapons”?
Answer B) Right: France and Russia just oppose this because they have oil contracts with Iraq.
There are too many arguments being made for this war; which one is Bush’s true argument, and why doesn’t he tell us that single most important reason? That argument applies to opponents as well: which of their objections is the most serious?
When in doubt, opt for peace. When in doubt, kill the guy threatening your daughter.

I lean towards “when in doubt, opt for peace.” But obviously only barely. So sue me. It seems to me that this comes down to your core beliefs more than particular facts or arguments. I won’t impugn yours if you won’t impugn mine.

I’ve supported most prior U.S military actions in the past decade. The difference is that those wars combatted tangible, visible, actual crimes, not potential ones. I guess I won’t be out on the streets demonstrating against this, but I’ll feel plenty of uncertainty and doubt, and to be honest a twinge of fear.

I especially don’t like how many supporters of this policy (e.g., Andrew Sullivan, Bill Quick) have proceeded, painting those who dare disagree as knaves, or worse. There is nothing disloyal about even flying to Baghdad and saying you don’t believe everything Bush says. As citizens, our allegiance is to our country, not to our president, no matter how aggrandized he becomes. And I remain concerned about the modus operandi of the Bush administration: a kind of permanent “Florida whatever-works campaign,” featuring hard-knuckled accusations of disloyalty or worse, disrespect for Congressional oversight …whatever works. And no, Chris Hitchens, I don’t think Ashcroft is worse than Bin Laden — he doesn’t need to be to still be pretty damned bad. I really hate the no-fly blacklist story I mentioned on Monday; and I blame Ashcroft, Bush, and whatever twink they’ve put in charge of the TSA.


* Those interested can check some of the “selected posts” in the archive section.

** Among the sources for some of the above arguments are bloggers Kinen, Yglesias, Barlow, Den Beste, Henley, Jeanne D’Arc (all but Kinen are currently featured links on the left margin), and media bigfoots (bigfeet?) Kinsley, Weisberg, and Saletan of Slate. If you feel left out, let me know by e-mail.

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