"We cannot ignore history. We must not ignore reality."
—George Bush, pumping up support for war against Iraq, Oct. 5, 2002
As I read the tea leaves, there really doesn’t seem to be any question any longer that we are going to attack Iraq. It’s a done deal. The only question seems to be when (January seems the most logical guess) and whether we are going to bother to try very hard to get any other nations besides Tony Blair’s Britain to join us.
But we seem certain to have a war. Naturally, nobody feels like asking the real question, namely, “Then what?” Everyone has suddenly discovered that Saddam Hussein is a very bad man, something the literate have known at least since 1990.
Today, with a very few exceptions, the Democrats seem reduced to saying the equivalent of “Please look both ways before we cross the street,” or “Don’t you think we could wait till after the elections to talk about this some more?”
Fat chance. Clichés stick around because many are largely true, and one of the truest is that generals, armchair and otherwise, always fight the last war. What we don’t know is which “last war” this will be. For many years, our foreign policy was haunted and shaped by the world’s failure to take on Adolf Hitler until it was almost too late. That lasted until Vietnam. That war, which shaped my generation, was the wrong war for the wrong reasons with wrong assumptions. For years afterward, Americans wanted no part of foreign military adventures, period.
Then Ronald Reagan and his successors cleverly weaned us off the new pacifism with a series of mini-wars (Grenada, Panama, Kosovo), which lasted about five minutes, resulted in stunning victories, and in which only a handful of Americans died. The 1991 Persian Gulf War was the ultimate triumph. We bombed ’em for six weeks before starting the ground combat phase, which lasted exactly four days.
Tens of thousands of the bad guys are thought to have died; we lost a mere 148. We restored the Kuwaiti royal family’s solid-gold toilet fixtures (true) and declared victory, leaving Saddam in place. Various and contradictory reasons were given for this.
Now, yippie-ki-yay, we are going to take care of him at last. Or try to. What if he uses his poison gas and biological weapons on us — and we still can’t find him? We haven’t been able to catch either Mullah Omar or Osama bin Laden. What if other angry Arab countries resort to an oil embargo?
What if we do win fairly easily? How long do we leave how many thousands of our troops in place, protecting whatever quasi-puppet regime we install? How does that government gain any credibility? Dubya is, after all, the man who once sneered that he wasn’t interested in “nation-building.”
Well, the best-case scenario is that he’s going to have to do a lot of it, for a long time. Incidentally, this war is, in fact, unlikely to resemble any other war. Real wars never do. They also have a way of leading to consequences nobody foresees. Everyone in all the countries involved thought that World War I would be a short, glorious affair lasting six weeks. Instead it lasted four years, murdered millions, caused the Bolshevik Revolution, and made Hitler and another world war inevitable.
This is not to say there may not be a case for attacking Iraq. Only that one hasn’t been made, and that neither journalists nor the Congress are doing much of anything to hold the government accountable.
Frankly, the peace movement hasn’t done that well either, partly because it has largely failed to differentiate among foes. In retrospect, it is clear that Washington ought to have taken out Osama and his followers a long time ago, and it is time for progressives in this country to face that fact.
Some time ago, a kid got into hot water at Wayne State University for writing a column called “Islam Sucks” in the school newspaper. The column was in bad taste, but the truth is that intolerant, pseudofundamentalist Islam does, well, suck. The Osamas are, like the Nazis, a genuine and serious threat to civilization.
But that doesn’t justify attacking anyone we don’t like. Saddam has the theology of a buzzard. He has happily murdered many thousands of fellow Muslims, and likes some of the trappings of the decadent West just fine.
“We must do everything we can to disarm this man before he hurts one single American,” Bush said. That sounds nice, but show us the evidence. Saddam seems to like being alive. He knows damn well that if any “weapon of mass destruction” were unleashed that could be traced to him, we would blow him off the face of the earth.
And if we do have to wage war on him, let’s do it the proper way. Let’s declare war, something that would require a full vote of Congress. That may sound quaint, but that is how our Constitution says it is supposed to be done.
We are supposed to have co-equal branches of government, not a supreme executive and a weakly compliant legislature. This is how war always was declared, right on through World War II. Then, however, too much power passed to the Oval Office, and the arrogance of that power gave us Vietnam.
If he really wants a war, the President needs to make the case for war, and we deserve a debate from our elected representatives, and a vote. We abandoned that tradition in the nuclear age, fearing our enemy could wipe us out while we were still dithering. There is no danger of that here. There may be a danger of leaving the decision all up to one man. That seems to be the problem in Baghdad.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org