Notwithstanding their characterization by opponents of the war in Iraq, arguments in favor of war were never as simplistic or one-dimensional as “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, imminent or otherwise, and never presumed any direct link between Iraq and the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Certainly Iraqi intransigence in accounting for their weapons programs under the terms imposed by the Security Council after the first Gulf War represented both an affront and challenge to the system of collective security proffered by the U.N., and a potential for long-term threat from an armed and belligerent nationalist Arab state. It seemed increasingly clear that the sanctions regime keeping the lid on Iraqi weapons programs — under pressure both from European economic interests (which appears, now, partially to have been purchased with illicit Iraqi oil revenue) and from the American Left, which had always blamed the sanctions rather than Saddam Hussein’s kleptrocracy for the humanitarian disaster within Iraq — would not hold together much longer; and it was clear that, with the sanctions gone, Saddam Hussein fully intended to push forward in developing chemical, biological, and, in particular, nuclear weapons. Further, although there was no evidence of a direct historical Iraqi link between Iraq and Al Quaeda, Saddam Hussein was clearly supporting terrorism in other ways — for instance, by rewarding the families of Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel with cash payments — and increasingly promoting the idea of Jihad against the West.
Thus, the interests of the fundamentally secular Iraq and the fundamentalist Islamic Al Quaeda seemed to be temporarily converging, despite their underlying animosities, and the threat of a horrific Iraqi weapon in the hands of Al Quaeda terrorists at some time in the future seemed all the more likely for it. The very persistence of the Iraqi regime, offering itself as a pillar of Arab nationalism (and increasingly of Islam) and defining itself and its moral authority within the Arab world primarily by its resistance to Imperial America, fomented Arab anger toward the West throughout the Arab world and made it increasingly likely that conflict between Iraq and the United States was inevitable.
And, of course, Saddam Hussein was a despot and a tyrant who held power through the routine torture and murder of thousands of Iraqi citizens and propped up the apparatus of his security state through the manipulation and redirection of humanitarian resources provided to Iraq by the rest of the world in the name of compassion. Thus, there were compelling humanitarian grounds for removing the Iraqi regime, even if those were not generally offered as primary justifications for a declaration of war.
All of that aligned perfectly with the growing strategic realization, promoted by “neoconservatives”, like Paul Wolfowitz, but also by ‘liberals’, like Thomas Friedman, that undermining expansionist Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorism it spawned would require nothing less than a radical political reformation of the Islamic (and particularly of the Arab) world, one that seemed unlikely to happen either spontaneously or soon. Iraqi intransigence and belligerence made Iraq the best — and a legitimate — candidate for an audacious and liberal experiment in foreign policy activism that had otherwise nothing specifically to do with Iraq: the forcible establishment of an Arab democracy in the heart of the Middle East from which such political reformation could proliferate throughout the Islamic world.
It was not obvious — and still is not — that such an outcome was possible nor that it would undermine Islamic militancy if it was. Further, the costs were uncertain and the experiment required a fundamental break with decades of foreign policy wisdom and practice. Hence, there were legitimate and compelling arguments against embarking on such a course, from the damage it could do to alliances, to the uncomfortable precedents it could set for future respect for national sovereignty, to the humanitarian costs of combat, to the high risks associated with failure. Ultimately, whether or not to pursue that experiment came down to judgment, not reason; it thus deserved and required an honest and clear-eyed debate of both the strategic aims and the potentially astronomical costs.
Unfortunately, that debate never really happened, at least in any broad public sense. Instead, the debate — or more appropriately the argument — was dominated by a fundamentally unresolvable spat over exactly how “imminent” the threat of Iraqi nuclear weapons was, and by a circus sideshow of media- and celebrity-driven “mass” protests by the reflexively anti-war (all war, not merely this one) left. Equally unfortunately, the circus came to town just as the United States was trying to convince Saddam Hussein that our threats were credible, and just as we were trying to convince allies around the world to align their own credibility with ours.
The following was prepared as a publicity piece for a web-site established to counter the false notion portrayed by the news media that the entire American populace was in the street protesting, that American threats and demands were mere bluffs because the American People would never permit their government to carry through on them. The message of the web-site was simple: the American people are more behind their government than the news reports would have you believe; and we who think this war is necessary and proper appreciate the support and sacrifice of those allies who are standing with us in this. The piece was submitted to the San Francisco Chronicle but was not published.
14 March 2003
Once again the shadow of war hangs over America, and in keeping with our traditions of democracy and liberty, as well as with at least a century of American history, protest movements are flourishing. Americans, bred to the idea of equality, are opinionated; they have never been content simply to acquiesce to authority. Moral conundrums, like the question of whether or not to wage war, amplify that antipathy. The resulting protests are not only a natural and inevitable part of our culture, they are also a beneficial one: they save our leaders and the rest of us from the tunnel-vision of certainty, forcing an honest assessment of the costs and the alternatives before committing ourselves to the darkness.
But a protest movement can also distort the debate rather than illuminate it. When the movement, rather than the protest, becomes the story of the day — when the rebellion against authority becomes itself an alternate authority — then debate devolves into name calling and moral and practical questions — should we go to war and why? — become secondary to questions of political power.
Historically, protests arose slowly, from the grass roots, and the transition from protest to power required a great deal of time and commitment from the protesters. Thus those, typically the majority, who agreed with authority rarely engaged in the debate. They had no need: since theirs was the position of authority, it was adequately represented without their participation.
But the world has changed. Technologies like e-mail and the world-wide web have made organizing mass protests relatively easy. Real-time news has allowed even small events to receive a global audience, making the earliest stages of a movement seem more significant than size, alone, might justify. And the American obsession with — and reward for — celebrity has freed the famous to indulge their political passions with vigor and to mass market their pet projects with little more resource than their faces and sympathetic (or star-struck) reporters. The result is the new phenomenon of instant mass protest movements, organized from the top-down and marketed to the public like a movie, with the appearance — and therefore with the political clout — of a popular uprising.
Thus the current anti-war movement. There is no doubt that at its core is a voice of protest that deserves notice in the debate over war with Iraq. Even those of us convinced war is necessary and justified would not deny there are moral issues with which we must grapple and on which there can be honest disagreement. But, at this point, the movement has become the story; and the movement merely proclaims:
No war, no matter the justification — because we say so.
If this were just a matter of domestic politics, we could leave it to our elected representatives — who are very good at seeing past appearances, if not to principle then at least to the votes beneath — to sort it out. Unfortunately, the magnified cultural appearance presented by the peace movement allows both the Iraqi government and potential allies abroad to doubt the reality of our political resolve — which decreases the chance that the Iraqi government will act to resolve the current impasse peacefully.
It is time for those who support the government in this — those who believe that Saddam Hussein does present a threat both to us and to his own people sufficient to justify military action — to speak out, to counter the unchallenged image marketed by the anti-war establishment. Write to your congressman, or to your local newspaper. Object when anti-war protesters hijack local government meetings or public school classrooms. And support others trying to get the message out.
One such group is www.StopSaddamNow.org, where people can sign an open letter expressing their support for the immediate and unequivocal disarmament of the Iraqi regime and thanking our allies abroad who stand with us in this endeavor.
If you are one of the quiet majority, don’t relinquish the public square to a manufactured movement. Declare yourself.
© Copyright 2003, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell