Politics & Policy

Last Prewar G-File

Retiring the same old tired arguments.

The same week the government of Cameroon was being besieged by the United States and France to vote their respective ways on the U.N. Security Council, the Cameroonian government caved on another front. It announced to its citizens that they should stop drinking their own urine. I have no brief against Cameroon. Everything I’ve read says the Cameroonians are good and decent folk. But I think this highlights that maybe our two societies aren’t on the same page. And, maybe, just maybe, getting their approval for toppling Saddam matters as much to the United States as my approval matters to my dog about when he can lick himself.

Sorry, if that’s a bit indelicate. But, come on, we’ve all heard this before. The arguments have been made and responded to so many times, CNN and Fox could save millions by simply replaying old tapes from last month or last year. Sunday, Jacques Chiraq tried to put lipstick on the pig one more time. He said that if the United States would give Saddam just 30 more days, at which time — if Hans Blix said it was okay — the United States could go to war. With the exception of perhaps the pope in medieval times, it’s hard to find an example of someone seriously suggesting that a major power should put the decision of war in the hands of someone outside its own borders and government. And at least the pope was, well, the pope. Hans Blix — nice guy, good dancer, sexy, sexy fella — is an obscure Swedish diplomat selected by the French and the Russians precisely because they know he can be trusted to choose more talk over any other conceivable option.

I only got about this far in this column when the word broke that the U.S. had taken its marbles from the Security Council (unexpectedly, I’m pulling single-parent duty this morning, so each sentence is punctuated by various unmentionable necessities).

But the fact that it’s finally official, doesn’t really change anything. This is the last day for arguments for or against war. All future arguments will be about whether we should stop or continue the war. Or whether the war was worth it. Or what kind of government Iraq should have. Or whether Janeane Garafolo should ever show her face in public again. So, like old currency the day before the new scrip comes in, I’d like to unload the remaining arguments I have in my safe before they’re useless (feel free to add them to my “Same Old Tired Arguments for War” columns here and here). I’ll be quick because their shelf-life is pretty limited as the assembled forces of righteous whup-ass align on the Iraqi border.


A day doesn’t go by where we don’t hear someone say something to the effect of “containment worked during the Cold War, why can’t it work now?” I heard Robert Scheer make that argument on C-SPAN just last night, and I’ve heard it from countless other old lefties who never much liked containment when we were actually containing the Soviets. So forgive me if I’m not bowled when people wax nostalgic for a policy they considered paranoid and illogical at the time it was implemented. Here’s the important point about containment: It was an immoral policy. It consigned hundreds of millions of people to tyranny for two generations. In the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, people grew old and died in moral and physical poverty because of containment.

The United States suffered, too. Our best died in Korea and Vietnam because of containment. Moreover, we dedicated trillions of dollars in one way or another to enforcing containment. Who knows what cures that money could have bought? Who knows what scientific or humanitarian triumphs could have been purchased with the money we spent keeping the Soviets at bay for decades. Nobody knows. But the next time you hear a liberal (foolishly) say that the war on poverty failed because it was under-funded, remind him that it was containment — the policy they champion for Iraq — which largely sucked up those extra dollars. Psychologically, the West had to endure five decades of fear, worrying that the Earth could be incinerated. Indeed, the new champions of containment used to call this arrangement an immoral “Balance of Terror” and yet, today, they consider a balance of terror to be the moral course.

The only sense in which containment can be considered a “good” policy is that it was better than the alternative. A war to topple the Soviet Union, complete with an exchange of nuclear weapons, would have cost too many American and allied lives. But — and here’s the important point — if we could have toppled the Soviets with a small sacrifice of blood and treasure, not only would we have leapt at the opportunity, it would have been the infinitely superior course of action morally and strategically. Indeed, many at National Review believed that toppling the Soviets was worth doing even at a high cost. Hence, National Review intellectuals championed “rollback” over mere containment (so much for those who claim the authentic heritage of NR is more dovish than hawkish).

Containment of Saddam is an immoral policy because, as Walter Russell Meade has noted, it costs more lives than war would. According to — no doubt inflated — U.N. and Iraqi numbers, 60,000 babies and children die every year because of containment. Yes, a war with Saddam would cost innocent Iraqi lives, but containment costs more. And containment punishes civilians. War primarily punishes those willing to defend the regime and the privileges it provides, while it rewards civilians with liberty, prosperity, and hope.

Meanwhile, containment is a strategically flawed policy because it doesn’t work (we have been trying it for 12 years, you know?). The French, the Germans and numerous other nations — who now champion containment — have been undermining it for the last decade. And, in the case of Iraq, it depends entirely on the predictability of a madman who hopes to go down in history as a Saladin.

The bottom-line argument for war over containment is that, unlike the old Soviet Union, we don’t have to resort to containment.


Just Sunday on Meet the Press, Tim Russert asked Dick Cheney, “What do you think is the most important rationale for going to war with Iraq?” It’s a perfectly fine question in and of itself, but it underscores the media’s preoccupation with bumper-sticker arguments and the administration’s desire to provide them. Time and again interviewers ask “what is the best argument for war?”

Well, why should there be only one argument? There’s not a single major decision we make in our own lives that we base on a single variable. If you’re trying to decide on a college, you weigh geography, cost, academics, social life, proximity to reliable keg distributor — all of the important stuff. If you’re buying a car, you consider everything from the price-tag to the MPG to the color. But, because of the sound-bite nature of public debate and the media-culture’s obsession with consistency in all things, we demand a single all-encompassing rationale. (Which is why the administration should have dropped the argument that there was a direct 9/11-Saddam link a long time ago).

The reality is that this war is justified because of a long checklist of justifications. Iraq has defied 17 U.N. resolutions. Saddam would rather starve his people under containment than abide by them. September 11 shattered confidence in deterrence. America’s prestige and credibility require following through on our threats. Saddam tried to assassinate the first President Bush. We condemned tens of thousands of Iraqis to death on the false promise that we were going to liberate them the first time. And so on. You may think some of these arguments are irrelevant or even outrageous. Others you may think are essential and persuasive.

And, some may seem good but hypocritical because we are not applying them to, say, China or North Korea or Iran. So sure, it’s true that an equally powerful moral case can be made against North Korea but a war with them would have a higher cost. And so, as with the old Soviet Union, the cost of war forces us to adopt an immoral foreign policy which condemns millions to starvation in a gulag state. But to say that the Bush administration is being hypocritical for not opting for war with Iran or North Korea because they are tyrannical states too is like saying you’re a hypocrite for not buying the red Porsche and the red Mercedes because you bought the red Honda.


The “chicken hawk” argument is a fine debating point as far as it goes, but as a matter of substance it’s pretty dumb. If taken literally, only those who’ve served in uniform can ever speak authoritatively about foreign policy, which is not exactly what the founders had in mind when they devised civilian control of the armed forces. Just as advocating tough anti-crime policies puts more policemen in harm’s way, I see no reason why I should be soft on crime because I’ve never been a cop.

Nevertheless, not a day goes by where I don’t receive an e-mail saying something to the effect of “What do you have to say to the brave men and women risking their lives for a war you wanted? This is the easiest answer of them all. To the brave men and women who’ve voluntarily decided to defend the United States of America and risk their lives in the process, I say in all sincerity: Thank you, you make me proud and I am grateful. Thank you, a thousand times, thank you.


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