Politics & Policy

More of The Same Old Tired Arguments

Blah, blah, blah.

Yesterday’s column addressed some of the knee-jerk arguments used against a possible war with Iraq. Enough readers, particularly desperate college kids, wanted more for their campus battles. So here ya go…


Aside from being offensive, aside from being hilarious coming out of the mouths of people who think Clinton’s aspirin-factory bombing was an act of dispassionate statecraft, aside from the odd faith among people who think that putting the issue of war before the American people is somehow illegitimate in a democracy — the main problem with this argument is that it’s ahistorical. Right now, according to most polls, Bush’s ratings are the lowest they’ve been since September 11, even as he’s intensified his war talk. This probably has more to do with the economy than with the war, but it does highlight the fact that not only were Bush’s approval ratings higher before he started pressing regime change in Iraq, but that his public approval doesn’t actually correspond positively with his movements toward war.

Also, again, you can’t say “he’s just doing this because it’s popular!” without asking yourself why it’s popular. Are Americans fools? And if so, why are they only fools when they support things liberals don’t like? One of the basic ideas of a democracy is that elected leaders are supposed to do what’s popular. I’m not in love with that aspect of democracy myself, but that’s the case.

Besides, when was the last time you heard a liberal shut up after someone said, “He’s just supporting Head Start because it’s popular!”?


Ever since the al-Gore speech last week this has become the dominant Democratic argument against war (it is Paul Begala’s only talking point on Crossfire, for example). The beauty and brilliance of this argument is that it allows Democrats to sound hawkish while embracing the larger dovish position. Indeed, that’s why Gore actually used the word “avenge” when he said, “I don’t think that we should allow anything to diminish our focus on avenging the 3,000 Americans who were murdered and dismantling the network of terrorists who we know to be responsible for it.” I like vengeance as much as the next guy, if the next guy likes vengeance a whole lot, but generally vengeance is something enlightened liberal foreign-policy types pooh-pooh. Gore can get away with using the word because he’s employing it to make an antiwar argument, and pretty much any argument is acceptable on the left if it’s antiwar.

Anyway, this argument generally takes two forms. First, it is suggested that a war on Iraq would shatter the huge international coalition in the fight on terrorism. The second criticism is that it will drain our own resources in the war on terror.

The problem with the first point is that there’s simply no evidence that this is so. As The New Republic noted in its scathing editorial on Gore’s speech, Germany intensified its aid in the war on terror even as Gerhard Schroeder pulled his country completely out of the war on Iraq. There’s no reason to think that the same dynamic wouldn’t apply elsewhere. Taking America’s side in a war is a very public act; cooperating with America’s law and intelligence services is a very private affair. The ability to publicly snub America on Iraq while privately earning America’s gratitude in the war on terror may seem like a boon to many world leaders. Pakistan’s Musharaf would probably leap at the opportunity to denounce a war on a Muslim country — with a wink and a nod from the U.S. — while quietly rounding up members of al Qaeda and currying favor with America. Indeed, this is pretty much what Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Indonesia, Russia, and France have been doing for most of the last year — denouncing American belligerence toward Iraq while cooperating fully with the U.S. in the fight against al Qaeda.

Sure, if the U.S. went to war with Iraq, some nations might stop cooperating in the fight against al Qaeda. But you can’t simply assert that this is so. Because the counter-argument is at least as compelling.

As for the second leg of the argument, I just don’t get it. The war on terrorism/al Qaeda is not an intensively military war, at least outside Afghanistan. The numbers of military troops dedicated to the fight against al Qaeda inside Afghanistan is between four and five thousand. Roughly the same number of troops are spread out throughout the rest of the region, as well as in places like Yemen. The current military was built up on the assumption that the United States might have to wage and win two full-blown wars simultaneously, i.e., fight North Korea and Iraq at the same time. Now that the Taliban has been deposed, the war on terrorism doesn’t use many tanks, aircraft carriers, artillery batteries, etc. The idea that a war against Iraq would drain the war on terrorism is simply not true if you’re talking about materiel and troops.

Now, it is likely that a war on Iraq would divert some special forces and intelligence assets from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf. Fair enough. But do we really want to make the argument that we cannot go to war because a few hundred men are stretched thin? We have an active-duty military of about 1.4 million people, and you’re telling me they might as well stay in the barracks if a subgroup smaller than a softball league is busy? And if it’s a matter of too few spy drones and cruise missiles, the answer is pretty simple: Buy more.


This is a similar argument to the above in that it once again uses al Qaeda as the cudgel to beat back any other conflict. The implication is that if Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 assault (still an “if,” by the way) then attacking Iraq makes as much sense as attacking Belize. To the extent this is a sincere argument — it surely isn’t most of the time — it represents a profound failure of the imagination.

When terrible things happen, politicians and pundits say things like “something like this must never happen again,” and the rest of us nod a lot. After 9/11 the near-unanimous consensus was that America should do everything it could to prevent something similar from happening ever again. Now, if you believe that al Qaeda, and only al Qaeda, is capable of committing such a crime ever again, you are on safe intellectual ground. But no reasonable person actually believes this.

If a scorpion sneaks into your house and bites your child, you kill the scorpion. That’s a no-brainer. But if you believe “something like this must never happen again” then you also go out in the yard and kill the other scorpions. You also kill rattlesnakes and black widow spiders, and maybe you even get a new alarm system and a child safety seat for your car. In other words, you do every reasonable thing you can. Imagine telling your wife, “Honey, I know there’s that huge scorpion nest out in the yard, but I killed the scorpion responsible. Can you prove that the other scorpions had anything to do with the one that bit little Timmy?”

Right now the intelligence community is being raked over the coals for failing to “connect the dots” leading to September 11. Fair enough. Does anyone honestly believe that if Saddam Hussein orchestrated an attack on the US tomorrow or next year we wouldn’t look back in retrospect and say, “Why didn’t we connect the dots?” After all, Bill Clinton and Tom Daschle called for regime change in 1998. The dots are there. They do not constitute the only argument for toppling Saddam, but if you subscribe to the “this must never happen again” argument they should be enough. But speaking of those other arguments…


I have no idea how popular this one is outside the rarefied realm of my own e-mail box. But every day I hear from someone who says that because I believe toppling Saddam would be good for all sorts of reasons, I’m being a hypocrite or applying double standards because I don’t want to do the same thing with China. Aside from being stupid, it’s a fair point. As a purely moral matter, I would very much like to liberate China. The problem is that China has over a billion people, possesses nuclear weapons, and is not a foreseeable threat to the United States (despite what the guys at The Weekly Standard seem to think). The moral argument against China is strong, sure. The strategic and pragmatic argument for invading China is very, very, very, very weak.

The moral argument against Iraq is also very strong — but so are a bunch of other arguments. For example, unlike China, Iraq doesn’t have nuclear weapons — yet. Indeed, one of the main reasons to go after Saddam is to keep him from getting nukes which would both make any U.S. intervention in the future next to impossible and make it possible for Saddam to blow up, hmm, let’s say, Cleveland. Often, those who ask “Why Iraq?” — and not Iran or Syria or North Korea or China — are being intellectually dishonest, because they don’t actually think any of those places should be attacked either. They see the world through a child’s eyes, in the sense that they think it’s wrong to punish one person if another person isn’t being punished for doing the same things. Kids always use this logic: “It’s not fair my friend Tommy cheated on the test and he’s not being grounded!” But if this rule guided us in the real world, we wouldn’t throw anybody in jail unless we could be sure all the criminals would be caught. Yes, it’s in some sense unfair that China gets away with murder — literally — but Iraq doesn’t. But no serious person would argue that Iraq should get away scot-free because China does. Ultimately, you do what you can, where you can.

In other words, it’s a checklist, not an on/off switch. And in the end that’s the response to all of these alleged silver-bullet antiwar arguments. No one argument is sufficient, pro or con. You need to look at a long list of criteria and make a decision. Some pro-war arguments are very strong, some less so. But you have to add them all up together and look at the final tally.

So: Is Iraq a brutal totalitarian regime? Check! Is it a proven threat to its neighbors? Check! Is it a proven threat to its own people? Check! Is it a proven threat to our allies? Check! Is it willing to export terrorism abroad? Check! Is it likely that if it got weapons of mass destruction, it would use them recklessly? Check! Is it working very hard to get weapons of mass destruction? Check! Would Saddam’s people be better off without him? Check! Would we and our allies be better off without him? Check! Do we have the power and capabilities to get rid of him without paying too high a cost? Check! And, would getting rid of him make it less likely that another September 11 would “happen again”? Check.


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