The first thought that came to mind when I learned Jane Fonda was planning a cross-country bus tour to demand an end to American military operations in Iraq was that the antiwar movement had finally hit intellectual rock bottom. But then I remembered that we still hadn’t heard from the banjo-strumming kid from Deliverance or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
The more I thought about it, however, the prospect of Fonda carrying forth the banner of “peace in our time” makes perfect sense. Opposition to the war in Iraq has evolved into the least serious enterprise, from an intellectual standpoint, ever to emerge from the American Left. Who better to serve as its poster child than Barbarella?
I don’t mean to suggest that opposition to the war in Iraq is inherently unserious. Indeed, a sober, well-reasoned argument against the invasion is altogether imaginable. Such a case would begin by acknowledging that, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush had no choice but to oust the Taliban government in Afghanistan once it refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. (This requirement immediately disqualifies the Left’s tin-foil-hat contingent and much of the professoriate.) It would continue by acknowledging that, following the downfall of the Taliban, the question of what to do about Saddam was a difficult one, fraught with dire consequences regardless of what Bush decided, but then point out that toppling Saddam would likely, in the short term, strengthen the hand of the wall-eyed mullahs in Iran, would likely also inflame anti-American sentiment and might therefore destabilize the kleptocratic but marginally cooperative Islamic governments in the region, and might even provide an incentive for rogue regimes to seek WMDs as a deterrence to a future American invasion.
Such a case, in other words, would not question the Bush’s intelligence or good intentions, but would argue, based on a cost-benefit analysis, that going to war against Iraq was an error in judgment.
That case, of course, is almost never heard on the left. The antiwar movement, instead, organizes its rhetoric around two central axioms: 1) President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was stupid; 2) President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was corrupt.
To glimpse the foolishness of such axioms, it’s worth revisiting the months prior to the invasion and, based on information now public, imagining yourself in the president’s shoes.
Suppose, therefore, it’s late 2002, and you’re the president of the United States.
Three thousand civilians have been murdered in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania by Islamic terrorists, and you’ve responded by toppling the government in Afghanistan which hosted the terrorists’ sponsor, Osama bin Laden. But along the way, you’ve inadvertently, though unavoidably, sent a perilous message to the rest of the world. Since the end of World War II, America’s national security has largely rested on the belief that an outright attack on the United States would be answered by unspeakable retaliation. That belief, you’ve now demonstrated, was false. Osama called our collective bluff. He hit us in a horrific way, and you didn’t lash out. You investigated, determined who was behind the attack . . . and even once you knew it was Osama, and that he was operating out of Afghanistan, you didn’t incinerate Kabul. Rather, you only demanded that the Taliban hand him over “dead or alive.” In doing so, you provided our international enemies with an easy-to-follow formula for waging war against the United States: Just work your mayhem through non-state surrogates and, after the next 9/11, if America again connects the dots, hand over a few corpses to satisfy Washington’s demand for justice.
All right, you’re the president. The Taliban is gone, but so too is the great measure of America’s deterrence. Meanwhile, Islamic terrorism remains a very real threat. As you survey the festering political landscape of the Muslim world, you must now ask yourself which dictatorial thug is most likely to capitalize on that formula for waging war against the United States?
Saddam Hussein in Iraq is a strong candidate. He also happens to be in violation of United Nations Resolution #687, the ceasefire agreement that ended the first Gulf War in 1991, which allowed him to remain in power on the condition that he provide full and accurate disclosure of all long-range missiles and WMDs–so that U.N. inspectors could verify Iraq’s disarmament. Saddam has never lived up to the terms of the cease fire; indeed, he’s repeatedly kicked out the inspectors and ignored a dozen subsequent U.N. resolutions demanding that he come into compliance. In short, there’s a solid legal basis for toppling Saddam.
So do you go after him or not?
Now consider the information at your disposal:
1) You’ve got a sealed indictment of Osama from the Clinton administration, written in 1998, which reads in part: “Al Qaeda reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the government of Iraq.”
2) You’ve got a personal warning from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s in a position to know, that Saddam is planning terrorist strikes against the United States.
3) You’ve got a British intelligence report that Saddam recently sought to buy uranium from Niger.
4) You’ve got the head of the C.I.A. telling you emphatically that Saddam possesses WMDs.
5) You’ve got pretty much every other intelligence agency on the planet concurring that Saddam possesses WMDs.
6) You’ve got documented evidence of Saddam’s willingness to use WMDs on foreign enemies and even on his own people.
7) You’ve got a decade of Saddam jerking around weapons inspectors, thwarting their inquiries, and intermittently kicking them out–thereby incurring further U.N. sanctions–which makes little sense unless he’s hiding WMDs.
8) You’ve got a 1996 report from the World Health Organization claiming that 4,500 Iraqi children under the age of five are dying each month as a consequence of the U.N. sanctions. You know the statistic is a grotesque exaggeration, a Chomsky-esque figure based on data provided by the oxymoronic Iraqi ministry of heath. But even if the actual figure is one tenth of the WHO number, that’s still 450 children perishing each month. (Side note: It’s worth keeping the WHO number in mind whenever Democratic politicians whine, “The sanctions were working!”)
9) You’ve got a theory, espoused by several prominent members of your administration, that standing up a liberal democracy in the heart of the Islamic world will encourage Enlightenment values of rational skepticism and religious tolerance among Muslims and thus blunt the homicidal/suicidal edge of radical Islam; it’s just a theory, but it represents a hopeful alternative to an endless cycle of terrorism and ad hoc measures culminating, seemingly inevitably, in a massive WMD attack and a necessarily disproportionate response.
Are there dissenting voices? Yes, to be sure. Hans Blix, chief U.N. weapons inspector, is telling whoever will listen that Iraq has no WMDs. But his history of evaluating Iraq’s WMD capacity is checkered; as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency during the 1980s, he repeatedly praised Iraqi cooperation with inspections–at the very moment Saddam was building up his WMD arsenal to its highest levels. Secretary of State Colin Powell is sounding alarms over the potential hardships of a postwar occupation of Iraq; “You break it, you bought it,” he is saying.
But you’ve also got a copy of the Presidential Daily Briefing from August 6, 2001 sitting on your desk titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” The intelligence it contains is sketchy–sketchier by far than the intelligence you now possess about Saddam’s intentions–but the title haunts you nevertheless. If only you had acted preemptively in August 2001, if only you had taken out bin Laden. . .
So what do you do about Iraq?
None of the foregoing demonstrates that the decision to oust Saddam was the correct decision–that judgment belongs to history, and it remains many years in the future. What the foregoing does demonstrate is that the decision to oust Saddam was a rational one, a responsible one, a defensible one. Until the antiwar movement comes to grips with the reality that the invasion of Iraq was a difficult call on which reasonable, well-intentioned people can disagree, until the protestors and chanters recognize that President Bush made a determination based on what he perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the best interests of the American people, they will deserve the likes of Jane Fonda and Michael Moore as their spokespersons.