Politics & Policy

Waiting For The All-Clear

Defusing bombs is dangerous work.

“Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons, I believe we were right to go into Iraq,” President Bush said this week. “America is safer today because we did.”

On this I agree with the Bush bashers: I don’t think it’s true that we’re safer today.

Now, it might be true. Bush’s critics insist that if we hadn’t gone to war with Saddam, he would still be “in his box” and we would have declared an unrelenting, “undistracted” war against al Qaeda, with the full and complete support of this magical, wonderful, all-powerful entity called “the international community” whose mystical fairy dust can make French soldiers willing to take bullets for American ones.

The same fairy dust, alas, seems to induce forgetfulness on those who would wield it, insofar as they seem to imagine that if the United States had simply stayed the pre-9/11 course after the towers fell no bad or inconvenient things could possibly have developed. Maybe it’s not fairy dust so much as Parmenides’ dust. In any case, they forget that Saddam’s regime was the only one in the world to celebrate the 9/11 attacks, and that Saddam’s “box” was falling apart like a Haitian barge made out of supermarket cartons of Charmin–and was about as airtight. They wax amnesiac about the fact that the tyrant made billions of dollars under the table and bribed so many “international community” aristocrats that if they all got together for a group photo they’d look like a re-staging of the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover with better suits.

We also now know that Saddam really did look for uranium from Africa and that the half-life of the “Bush lied” nonsense nonsense has rundown to where it is safe to talk to Bush-bashers without a hazmat suit.

Still, I think critics such as Richard Cohen are right when they say that we aren’t in fact safer today than we would have been had we left Saddam in his box to murder and torture his own people. If we found the weapons of mass destruction, then I think the “we’re safer” argument would be a “slam dunk,” as it were. But we didn’t. Then again, if we found the WMDs then we’d no doubt be hearing some other complaint from the irreducible, unappeasable cadre of Bush haters (of whom I don’t think Cohen is one, by the way).

So, we aren’t safer today than we would have been had we left Saddam there to continue subsidizing the suicide bombers who blow up Israelis. (Though I do love how those who say we can’t solve our problems in the Middle East until we get peace between Israelis and Palestinians also say that things were better when Saddam was buying suicide bombers by the six pack. Great peace plan, fellas.) And yep, we aren’t safer today because we are making good on a promise delayed to the millions of Shia we betrayed after the first Gulf War. We aren’t safer today now that the “Marsh Arabs” have seen their lands restored and the ecological devastation there ameliorated. We aren’t safer today because we’re building hospitals, schools, and soccer fields in Iraq.

So yes, all of the “root causes” liberals–who claim poverty, oppression, and hopelessness explain every problem in the world–are right when they say we’d be safer today if we didn’t embrace the policy of “state-building” these same liberals told us was essential in such places as Yugoslavia and Somalia. In places where there’s no strategic threat to the United States, they care about attacking root causes. But in the Middle East they don’t want us to do anything risky. I guess all of that argy-bargy about “intergenerational conflict” and “cycles of violence” was just jibber-jabber when stacked up against the benefits of doing nothing for another few decades as the Middle Eastern “demographic time bomb” we’ve heard so much about ticked away.

But I am curious about a few things.

First of all, since when are we supposed to be “safer” according to the timetables of the presidential-election cycle? I mean seriously, how is that supposed to work? It’s dumb enough to expect a constantly churning continental economy to time its peaks and valleys to coincide with every fourth November, stretching back to 1845. Now presidents are supposed to wrap up the war on terror–or this chapter of it–like a feel-good network mini-series by election day?

In fact, who declared that 17 months after toppling one dictator in an unprecedented multi-front war on terrorism we’re supposed to be safer? Is that in a rulebook I don’t know about?

I don’t mean to be overly dismissive. Dismissive, yes. Just not overly. I really do think George W. Bush is making a mistake by declaring we’re safer today. Sure, it’s true we haven’t been attacked once inside the United States since 9/11–something everyone considered a sure thing for at least the first year after that fateful day. It may be an old argument but having the U.S. Army and Marines fight terrorists in Fallujah is still preferable to having civilian passengers in trains, planes, and automobiles fight them in Cleveland.

Nevertheless, the world is a mess, and only a fool would think it wouldn’t be after we created more havoc in the Middle East than that region has seen for a generation. One of the main strategic arguments about getting rid of Saddam and fixing Iraq was to set the Middle East on a new course. I’m referring to precisely all of those things the root-causes crowd has bitched and moaned about for decades. Of course, poverty, ignorance, tyranny, sexism, religious fanaticism, and all the rest on the do-gooder bugaboo list do help create terrorists. But in the past, terrorists didn’t matter that much. Oceans and the lack of technology prevented terrorists from being more than murderous nuisances. Today, things are more complicated. Terrorists can get their hands on weapons that were once the exclusive provenance of states. States, as a rule, can be intimidated or, shall we say, educated to their self-interests. Terrorists–particularly ones who believe they’re going to belly-up to a bar of 72 virgins–cannot be so educated. So do you fix the problem at the source or do you use our tallest buildings, greatest monuments, and most populated cities as bug-zappers for jihadists. I vote: Go to the source.

It’s silly to expect us to be safer when there’s so much work left to do. And the whole rationale for extending the Bush presidency is that there’s work left to be done that John Kerry has no interest in doing. Commanders-in-chief who run on the premise that we shouldn’t change horses in midstream don’t talk about how we’re safer–they talk about the progress we’ve made and how their opponents will go in the wrong direction. John Kerry says Bush has bad values because of the way he runs the war. He’s free to make that argument, though I think it’s a silly line of attack. Regardless, I say John Kerry has bad values because he thinks “keeping our alliances strong” is more important than achieving what those alliances were intended for in the first place, which is just a “sophisticated” way of saying he cares more about popularity than principle. Indeed, he says this isn’t a war on terror, it’s a law-enforcement issue. He says it’s more important to be an environment, education, health-care, and jobs president than to be war president. He says it’s better to be safer now than for America to be safer for our children. But he thinks it’s outrageous that we run up deficits during a war. In other words, he’s outraged that our grandkids might be stuck with higher interest rates or fewer entitlements but not that they might have to face a Middle East chock-a-block with nuclear-armed Saddams and Osamas. Those strike me as pretty poor values.

Of course we’re not safer in those respects now–the job isn’t done yet. I don’t know jack about bomb disposal but from every movie I’ve seen with all that fretting about whether you should first cut the blue wire or the red wire tells me that defusing bombs is usually more difficult and more dangerous in the short term than just letting them tick. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to defuse them when you can. Safer? That’s nice. But I’d rather wait for the all-clear, and we’re a long way from that.

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