War For Frivolous Reasons

This is being written before President Bush’s address to the nation Monday night, but news reports say he doesn’t expect to deliver any startling new evidence beyond what has already been widely reported. He seems to think that what is already known about Saddam Hussein – that he is a thoroughly nasty dictator who has attacked his neighbors in the past and has weapons of mass destruction – is plenty of reason to attack him, or at least to insist that he submit to US and UN demands.

Are those reasons – and a few others that will be detailed – sufficient? One hopes it is still worthwhile to discuss the question seriously.

Just for my own sanity I prefer to take President Bush at his word, that he hasn’t yet decided on military action – although there’s evidence to the contrary and if he hasn’t it seems curious that he would be demanding that Congress give him authority to undertake it. So I continue to hope that discussion and debate have at least some chance of at least altering the course on which so many war-whoopers would have us embark: an invasion of Iraq as soon as possible followed by a search for other targets of opportunity.

It is at least mildly encouraging to see demonstrations against a war with Iraq in major American cities, although it would be nice to see slogans geared toward invoking solidarity with ordinary middle-class Americans rather than demonstrating breast-beating radicalism and disdain for the United States as a country. Most Americans understand that it is possible – and in the United States something of a tradition – to love the country and despise the government currently inhabiting Washington. When war protestors slip into outright and even virulent anti-Americanism, I suspect they do the cause more harm than good.

On the other hand, it’s generally the case that in the early stages of a foreign conflict most Americans will not be inclined to become activists until the conflict is well under way, body bags are coming home in significant numbers, and/or they or their sons and daughters are in imminent peril of being drafted to serve against their will. It’s easy to forget that there was very little antiwar activism during the early stages of the Vietnam War, and that most media and politicians supported the adventure almost uncritically until about 1967.

Those willing to go out and demonstrate before a war has begun (depending on how you define "war" and "begun," of course, which are questions worth pursuing in the current circumstances but not in this article) are likely to be either the most stubbornly principled or the most flamboyantly radical. That’s just part of the politico-social dynamic.

The early protestors, then, might do some things that will embarrass other critics of war or intervention, but it’s still nice to see them out there. And because much of the media are populated by people who are sorry they missed out on the 1960s, they are likely to get at least superficially sympathetic treatment – at least until the first incident of unjustified violence, which is probably inevitable though I hope it never happens.


Going to war, which means asking other peoples’ sons and daughters to be prepared to kill and be killed and unleashing death and destruction on human beings and various structures and assets (including, in this case, clues to the very birth of human civilization) is a serious business.

Despite attempts by some political leaders, to some extent with the acquiescence of most of the media, to suggest otherwise, it is not a video game. Real people and real resources will be destroyed. It should therefore be entered into, if it is to be done, with a certain amount of solemnity and seriousness – and only if it is fully justified by the circumstances.

I know all this sounds terribly obvious, like an introduction to a political science course at the 101 level. But I’m afraid these admonitions bear repeating. During the eight years I spent in Washington, DC, including several years as a congressional staffer, some of it during the latter stages of the Vietnam war, I met very few decision-makers who had actually been to war. And very few of those making decisions today (with exceptions) have actually experienced the stench of death on the battlefield.

I’m not going to fall into the trap of saying that only those with combat experience (which, I’ll admit, I lack) are qualified to make decisions about war and peace. But it should be helpful to have at least some people with that kind of experience in positions of authority or influence. In Washington it is very easy to view the virtual backstabbing (which can in fact be rather devastating to those who are victimized) and daily power-mongering game-playing that is the daily fare in the Imperial City as the essence of real conflict. It can be easy to forget that one’s decisions in the rarefied air there have real consequences for real people outside the parochial confines of the capital.

So what kind of criteria would justify going to war? Obviously, an outright attack on US soil would provide a justification, perhaps even a mandate. Although I would contend that the United States ought to bring most of its troops home from their imperial outposts, assuming that won’t happen, an attack on US troops overseas would be tantamount to a declaration of war and would demand a response.

What about an attack by Iraq on one of its neighbors? Iraq did invade and occupy Kuwait in 1990 (most likely after getting a wink-and-nod from the US that we would look the other way, but leave that aside for now) and the United States, after being beseeched by the Emir and his family and friends, went to war to rectify the situation. Was that war justifiable? I wasn’t in favor of it at the time, but I will concede that it followed a demonstration that the Iraqi regime was capable, in a very concrete way, of being a threat to the neighborhood.


Has the Iraqi regime demonstrated since then that it is much of a threat? No doubt it has resisted the mandates and sanctions imposed on it by various UN resolutions, although as I have noted previously, those resolutions, by their very nature and by the nature of the UN, are nowhere near so unambiguous and definite as the president and his cohorts would like to suggest. They have ambiguities and wiggle-room, as almost all diplomatic instruments do.

That may well be why the administration is pushing so hard to get a new resolution from the UN that will involve further demands on Saddam Hussein and his regime. The old resolutions – whose ambiguities have been exploited without getting the "international community" into much of a tizzy for 11 years – simply aren’t as specific as what the current administration would like to demand of Saddam – utterly unfettered access, inspectors backed by troops on the ground, the right to blow up anything that even has the potential to be used to build a weapon sometime in the future.

The previous resolutions, at least as interpreted by the US and Great Britain, did impose a more stringent regime of inspection and control on Iraq than has ever been imposed on any defeated enemy in modern times, certainly more than was required of Japan or Germany after World War II.

But it still wasn’t as much control as the current administration would like to demand over Saddam. Are those demands a pretext for a war that is already in the works? The possibility is certainly open.

The inconvenient facts remain. Over the last 11 years Saddam, while undoubtedly still thoroughly nasty to the Iraqis, has not attacked his neighbors. He is almost certainly weaker than he was 11 years ago militarily. Despite a year of full-court press activity by US and British intelligence to develop some trace of evidence, there seems to be no connection between Saddam and the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon – and despite an occasional outwardly friendly meeting, the secular regime of Saddam and the militant Islamists have different goals in the world and are generally suspicious of one another.

Saddam may well hate the United States and grit his teeth nightly wishing there were some way he could destroy us and all we stand for. But as a genuine threat to the United States – or even to his neighbors, except for the possibility of lobbing a few missiles at Israel, which would be more likely if the US invaded than if it didn’t – he makes a pretty pitiful enemy. Based on his history, there’s even some question as to whether he has a real ambition to rule the Middle East.

No doubt he would like to be more influential in the region, and it is quite possible that he would do more nasty things in other countries if he thought he could pull them off without effective opposition. But in fact he is reasonably well boxed in. The evidence that he is becoming more dangerous is scant at best.


Let me restate what I discussed more thoroughly in a previous column. There is a difference between a pre-emptive and a preventive war. A pre-emptive war – long justified in international relations theory (I’m not sure it’s reasonable to speak of "international law" as something real) – can be undertaken in response to an imminent and obvious threat, such as a neighbor who has been making threats massing troops on your border and jamming your military communications channels.

When the threat, in short, is something almost certain to be perpetrated in a matter of hours or days – weeks at the most – it is possible to talk of a pre-emptive war or attack. And few would question the justification of a country that undertook to strike first, if it could, when aware of that kind of immediate threat.

The most "imminent" threat I have heard about regarding Iraq is that if he can obtain fissile material (which most authorities don’t think he has now but which might well be available for a high price on the international black market) he might be able to develop a nuclear weapon that just might, if all the circumstances were just right, be available to blackmail his neighbors or threaten the United States, in a year. Even in that scenario there are a lot of "what ifs," along with the likelihood that US intelligence (even though it hasn’t exactly displayed the highest levels of competence lately) would become aware of it before it was imminent. A raid like the Israeli raid of the early 1980s could probably then eliminate or delay it for years. And there are hundreds of ways even a determined Iraqi regime could slip up, even if we were sure it was working assiduously to acquire nuclear weapons, which we can’t be sure is the case.

That is a potential threat. A war to neutralize a potential threat – one based on conjecture and worst-case scenarios rather than justified by solid knowledge of an imminent threat – is a preventive war. A preventive war is not the kind of thing a civilized country in a regime of co-equal sovereign states does. It is the kind of thing an empire does to keep a rebellious or fitful colony or dependent in line – whether or not the relationship is formal or the dependency it acknowledged on both sides.

Unless he surprises me, that is the kind of war President Bush will be touting. I prefer to believe such a war is not inevitable, because it would change the United States of America, a country whose traditions and stated ideals I love, into a country I would not recognize.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).