Politics & Policy

Unbridled Critics

These are indeed rough days for the Bush administration, but critics have a difficult time harmonizing their arguments with history and common sense. The central question for Mr. Bush–more so even than the fate of Harriet Miers–has of course to do with Iraq, and the debate seems to be hardening on the underlying question: Can one country reasonably set out to democratize another country? Critics of the Iraq operation are leaning hard on theoretical arguments, as for instance General Brent Scowcroft. He was speaking to Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker and seemed eager to depict, and perhaps even to dramatize, his differences with the Bush administration, all the more difficult because, historically, Bush GHW is Scowcroft’s closest friend, and the object of current dissatisfaction is Bush GW.

Scowcroft has had no exchanges with Condoleezza Rice, he says, since a dinner nearly two years ago. They argued about Iraq. “She says we’re going to democratize Iraq, and I said, ‘Condi, you’re not going to democratize Iraq,’ and she said, ‘You know, you’re just stuck in the old days,’ and she comes back to this thing that we’ve tolerated an autocratic Middle East for fifty years and so on and so forth.” Goldberg reports, “Then a barely perceptible note of satisfaction entered his voice, and he said, ‘But we’ve had fifty years of peace.’”

A White House spokesman, called to comment on this assertion, said it was “odd.” “If you consider a) America’s 1991 war against Iraq (which General Scowcroft favored); b) the Iraq-Iran war (in which there were a million casualties); c) the conflict in the early 1970s between Jordan and the Palestinians; d) the civil war in Lebanon; e) the four wars between Iraq and Arab nations; and f) the attacks of September 11, 2001 (which were carried out by Islamic radicals who emerged from the broader Middle East)”—that’s something less than fifty years of peace.

General Scowcroft uses intemperate language. You don’t have to believe that Iraq is ready to pass Good Housekeeping tests of political and civic virtue, but we should weigh that some changes have simply been made. Saddam Hussein is not sitting in one of his 170 palaces, he is being tried in a little courtroom for his life. The transition was effected without mammoth effort–what was difficult came later. But critics generalize, and General Scowcroft advised that “the bad guys” always win out. That gloomy assessment provoked from the White House dissenter a calm demurral, and a little banner of historical hope for the democratic forces. “In fact in many elections, in Spain and Portugal, Nicaragua and El Salvador, the Czech Republic and Romania, South Africa and the Philippines, Indonesia and Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Iraq,” progress would appear to have been made toward freedom.

The critics face also a problem which goes widely unnoticed, and to which so much is traceable. Consider the furor over our agent in Niger.

The vice president is informed that agents of Saddam Hussein are looking in Niger for “yellowcake” useful in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

We need to brace ourselves to follow the critical narrative here. a) An investigation proves there was no uranium mischief going on. b) This grievously disappoints the Cheney go-to-war clique, so much so that they disrobe the lady diplomat, revealing that she was really an agent of the CIA. c) Which in fact proves–nothing, and is interpreted as bureaucratic retaliation to the carrier of unwelcome news. d) But the no-yellowcake news does not arrest the rhetorical momentum. The president and his ideological establishment are (the critics insist) determined to find a casus belli to move militarily against Iraq.

What is unexplained is–why? Why should it be the ultimate ambition of the president and his team to go to war in Iraq? The evil of Saddam Hussein could, after all, have been bottled up in greater Mesopotamia. Messrs. Bush and Cheney did believe that Iraq was acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and they did plead this position in getting congressional and public sanction for the war.

Let us feel free to be angry and resentful at the misinformation from our intelligence agencies. But what is it that caused them to generate charges about the military menace of Iraq? When the U.N. detachments and then the invading forces looked about behind the apple trees for evidence of weapons of mass destruction, was that search purely cynical? Did they know that they were looking for things that weren’t there? How do you explain that? Because they were so anxious to prove that Iraq was a regional menace?

But again–why set out to prove the unprovable?

The critics need to submit to the discipline of reasonable logic.

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