Holding Out for Hope?

Perhaps it’s being pleasantly surprised at just how large the antiwar demonstrations around the world were last weekend. Perhaps it’s the stubborn conviction that sooner or later enough people will figure out, and communicate to the administration, that the odds are strongly in favor of almost every problem a war is supposed to address being made worse by a war than made better. But I can’t help believing that it is still possible that the war on Iraq will not occur as a military conflict.

I’m probably wrong to have even that glimmer of hope, of course. A president who already sees foreign relations from a troublingly personal perspective – remember how he thought he could read Russian president Vladimir Putin’s soul after meeting him? – has a substantial personal investment in this war. Troops and equipment have been moved into the region, each phase of the UN consultation and inspection process has been read as further buttressing (if sometimes temporarily delaying) the case for war. If he stands down or backs off now, the president is likely to be seen in many quarters, and perhaps most importantly in his own mind, as indecisive and a bit wimpy.

William Saletan on slate.com has said that by standing firm Friday rather than raising the bar for hostilities, the antiwar Security Council members have made a divorce between the UN and the United States inevitable. The U.S. will proceed now, with its "coalition of the willing" and leave the Security Council to sputter or cheer as it chooses. I suspect the conviction that the administration is resolved to go ahead with the attack whatever anyone says is behind the New York Times‘ recent tilt toward tough talk aimed at Saddam Hussein.


But there were those protests, moving beyond the fringes into something resembling the mainstream in a number of countries. Even though administration spokespeople sluffed them off, however, the protests were, by most news accounts, larger than most organizers had expected and in some cases the largest in living memory.

To be sure, as Australian Prime Minister John Howard noted, "you can’t measure public opinion just by the number of people that turn up at demonstrations." And it would be unwise to accept any estimate of the number of people who demonstrated against a war with Iraq over the weekend – organizers in Rome estimated 3 million while police said 650,000, London organizers said 2 million while police said 750,000, and so on, around the world. However many turned out, the numbers were impressive. Perhaps – perhaps almost certainly – it wasn’t as many as the 30 million worldwide (6 million in Europe) that the Guardian in London estimated in its lead. But in Germany both police and organizers agreed that they were probably the largest demonstrations since the Federal Republic was formed 50 years ago. The first all-woman demonstration in Oman, at the southern end of the Gulf, attracted 200 peace demonstraters. Some 70 city councils in the United States have passed anti-war resolutions.


Why so many? On the one hand there’s no real war yet, no bodybags returning from foreign lands, no draft. There’s a general impression extant that the antiwar movement was a pervasive part of the Sixties, but in fact it was almost non-existent during the first few years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam – and declined rather sharply after former president Nixon ended the draft and the immediate vulnerability of tens of thousands of college students.

On the other hand we have the Internet, with established sites – like antiwar.com, as well as sites like commondreams.org, moveon.org and unitedforpeace.org. These sites can not only communicate instantly with potential protestors, they can and in some cases do raise money for expenses; the Washington Times said United for Peace and Justice raised much of its money through the Net. (This site, while providing links to organizers, does not actively organize itself, focusing more on news and information, and can always use money. Let your conscience write your check.)

At this point many protesters are clearly on the fringes, eager to use the war as a way to draw attention to Mumia Abu Jamal, globalization, George Dubya’s alleged intellectual shortcomings and a host of dubious leftist causes. But it does look – I’ll wait for more firsthand accounts from a variety of sources before settling in on a more settled impression – as if these protests this weekend demonstrated a certain broadening of the movement. One lady at church with whom I talked Sunday went to the protest in San Diego with her clergyman husband and came away impressed with a turnout of 5,000 diverse and peaceful demonstrators in what is still to a great extent a Navy town. It will be fascinating to see how this movement develops, if it does.


Potentially the most desirable outcome would be for waves of second thoughts to hit middle-class Americans and politicians of the great middle over whether this is the issue over which the United States embraces the idea of a preventive war – not a pre-emptive war, for the threat is potential and speculative however alarming the worst-case scenario – whenever it decides it is appropriate to do so. Do we want to become the aggressor against a third-rate tinpot dictator, however distasteful or even abominable he may be?

There are plenty of other reasons to pay attention and think twice. It is almost certain – these are complex events and I have no crystal ball but reasonable projections are worth considering – that going ahead with a war will make many of the problems put forward as justification for war, including expanded terrorism, the threat of the use of "weapons of mass destruction," and the destabilization of the region.


Whether the Osama bin Laden tapes released last week were bona fide or not, despite the way the U.S. government chose to spin them, they did not demonstrate an alliance between Iraq and al Qaida. Indeed, the tape speaker went out of his way to denounce the Ba’athist regime and declare that it too will pass come the Islamic apocalypse, even as he declared a marriage of sorts of convenience against the evil U.S. of A. The tapes mainly showed that Osama (or the tape releaser) is an opportunist. It was the U.S. insistence that Iraq is the next enemy who requires regime change that gave him the opportunity to use a possible U.S. invasion as a recruiting tool.

Likewise, CIA director George Tenet has still not backed away entirely from his assessment made last fall that Saddam is more likely to use chemical and biological weapons if there is a war than if there is not. If the war goes well for the U.S. from a strictly military perspective, Saddam could decide he’s a goner anyway and he might as well arrange for some excruciating American deaths. Outright terrorists might be able to capture nasty weapons during the chaos of war, or lower-level Iraqi officers might decide to pass some out to terrorists before their final defeat.

The threat of the use of chemical and biological weapons is admittedly larger than zero without a war (depending on how long and how aggressively inspections continue, or on other factors I’m in no position to know), but it seems simply commonsensical that the threat increases during a war.

Finally, even in the fondest regimes of neoconservative ideologues – democracy imposed after a swift defeat is so successful in Iraq that the other countries go for the democratic gold on their own without threats or military action from the U.S. – there will be a certain degree of destabilization. Indeed, many are open about the fact that the real goal is to change the entire region drastically.

Now I have no fondness for autocratic despotisms that are the rule in the Middle East, and would shed few tears if they all fell. But in addition to having mostly contemptible regimes, the region also has virtually no history of democratic rule or even for much demand for democratic rule. To move in that direction will be inherently destabilizing – destabilizing in a good way, the Michael Ledeens and Victor Hansons and Charles Krauthammers would no doubt argue, but destabilization nonetheless.

A region undergoing profound destabilizing change is always subject to surprises and unintended, unanticipated consequences. And if it doesn’t happen smoothly – if a thirst for quasi-democratic reform occurs in conjunction with a renewed determination of the existing regime to prevent such unwelcome developments – it could all get quite bloody. Furthermore, if genuinely democratic societies did ensue, there is the far-from-infeasible possibility that some of the countries would get Islamic fundamentalist regimes through the ballot box rather than the bullet, giving some unregenerate terrorists direct access to state resources rather than requiring them to use subterfuge, guerrilla violence or deception to acquire various ways and means.

And we haven’t even talked about the cost of the war in money and American and Iraqi blood, let alone the cost of occupation.

I’m not saying that the rosy scenario of swift victory, democratization, regional democratization, reconciliation with Israel and ensuing peace and prosperity is impossible. But it doesn’t seem the most likely scenario. It is almost certain to be messier, and the results more ambiguous, than the most optimistic hawks anticipate. And I think an increasing number of Americans, perhaps including a few in the administration, might come to similar assessments.

It is the hope that somebody, perhaps the broad and apparent consensus of the American people, comes to similar conclusions and gets to people in the administration before the die is cast irrevocably that gives me a small glimmer of optimism. Perhaps a graceful way can be found for Dubya to back down, or to be able to say that he achieved his goals without resorting to war and isn’t he wise as well as resolute. I can think of a few possibilities, but I’m not sure what, if anything, would convince President Bush and other key players.

Surely some people in the nation’s capital can grasp the possibillity that a war will make many aspects of the Middle East situation worse rather than better for the U.S. Perhaps they can help to find a face-saving compromise. Sorry I can’t claim to have a ready-made solution guaranteed to work (depending on one’s objectives, of course), but I’m not a utopian. I simply believe war is quite possibly the worst approach.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).