Waiting on War

As the appalling people who rule us back and fill and improvise on the winding road toward what now seems a virtually inevitable war, it seems almost fruitless to try any more to dissuade our warbent president. Perhaps the Russians or the French, for esoteric diplomatic or power-politics reasons, can delay the introduction of long-planned aggression as not just an occasional aspect of American foreign policy about which officials are mildly embarrassed, but as the proudly-proclaimed centerpiece of our posture in the world. But the administration seems almost completely immune to complaints or even second thoughts emanating from mere American citizens.

Even as war seems so likely, however, it is striking how weak the justification for war seems to be. In an apparent effort to blunt complaints from critics about how much the prospective war is likely to cost, Fox News did a piece last week attempting to make at least slightly concrete some aspects of the "costs of inaction" the president and war advocates sometimes invoke. But the report compared speculative apples to here-and-now oranges.

Critics have noted that the most conservative estimate of a war with Iraq is around $100 billion, though former economic guru Larry Lindsey offered a guesstimate of $200 billion in an unguarded moment of candor (what the establishment calls a "gaffe") last fall. Additional costs include more foreign aid for both Israel and Egypt, whatever it costs to bribe Turkey to go along, perhaps $8 billion in guarantees to Russia that it won’t take the tank on current deals going in Iraq, more bribes, whether money or infrastructure, to Arab governments in the area, a percentage of the rising cost of gasoline and heating oil, at least part of the equity lost in the tanking stock market, plus the cost of occupation.

Because the administration has been way beyond lacking in candor about these and other costs, it has been impossible to come up with a to-the-last-dollar estimate of the cost of the war – to taxpayers directly and to economic health indirectly. But there is little doubt that there will be costs, and it is not unreasonable that what are now viewed as high-end estimates will turn out to be lowball costs – and that we’re unlikely to find wealthy foreigners to subsidize the operation as was the case in Gulf War I.


So there is at least something to grab onto when we’re estimating the costs of action. What about the costs of inaction?

The authorities Fox contacted weren’t able to come up with much. Fox found a Brookings report that estimated that as many as 10,000 people could perish in a successful attack on a U.S. chemical or nuclear plant, or that a nuclear bomb detonated in a major city could kill up to 100,000 people. Brookings also notes, basing the estimate on the $42 million the government spent to deal with 2 ounces of anthrax deployed against the House and Senate, that a biological attack could cause $750 billion in economic damage.

That’s all very interesting, but it slips and slides over the more fundamental question: would an attack on Iraq make a future terrorist attack more or less likely? That is at least an open question, although even administration officials have recently acknowledged that a war will intensify the immediate short-term threat.

To try to weigh the costs of dealing with a terrorist attack against the costs of military action would require the assumption that attacking Iraq will bring the threat level down to zero while failure to attack will bring it up to 100 percent. However one may feel about how much more or less likely different courses of action will make another terrorist attack – and I can see room for honest disagreement based on something other than adamant defense of a position held for ideological or power-politics reasons – that is patently absurd.

Peter Brooks of the conservative Heritage Foundation was reduced to guessing that "an unrestrained Saddam Hussein might get big ideas and that could mean trouble for the United States," as the Fox report put it. "He would most likely try to interject himself into the free flow of oil. He would be a threat to Saudi Arabia, he would be a threat to Kuwait, he would be a threat to Jordan. He is bent on regional domination," Mr. Brooks insisted.

Again, this begs the question of the possibly destabilizing consequences of going to war as opposed to "doing nothing," as war whoopers usually prefer to put it. It is quite possibly true that, after all the build-up and threats, if the United States does back away now, Saddam Hussein could feel invigorated, invincible and pesky after surviving one more threat from the toothless America (although that dynamic is the result of the American policy of threatening and preparing for war rather than anything inherent in Saddam’s regime). So he might just do more to stir the pot in the Middle East than he has over the last 12 years.

To try to compare the possible costs of a more troublesome Saddam regime to the costs of waging war is once again to compare apples to lugnuts. It assumes that "failure to act" will inevitably cause him to renew his destabilizing activities while defeating him will bring stability. Again, this is far from a settled question. A strong case can be made that forced regime change will do more to destabilize the region than anything the pipsqueak Saddam might do.

So this effort, at least, to make concrete the costs of inaction yields virtually nothing useful. There might be a way to do a more subtle analysis of what it might cost – perhaps in higher oil prices, perhaps in funding weapons inspectors who might at best be able to disrupt or make more difficult Saddam’s deployment of nasty weapons, perhaps in higher military costs to protect oil shipments, perhaps in higher military aid to neighbors – to decide not to go to war just now. But the advocates of war have not even attempted to perform such an analysis in anything approaching an intellectually respectable fashion.


Another question is likely to loom in the next few weeks. Perhaps, for the sake of my blood pressure and ability to carry a scintilla of hope for the future of American journalism I shouldn’t ever watch Bill O’Reilly, but I do it from time to time. I’ll give him this; he occasionally has a war critic on, though he seldom engages in a serious conversation on the war. But lately he’s pushing to silence us once the shooting starts.

Sometime recently he had on former Sen. Gary Hart, who is a rather restrained critic but at least a bit of a critic of the impending war. Toward the end of the discussion, however, O’Reilly asked Hart, in that rather pointed and almost accusatory way he has, whether he will continue to be anti-war once the shooting starts.

Hart shuffled, though if I understood the drift of the shuffle correctly he at least hinted that he wouldn’t give up the right to criticize. We’ll see, what we’re seeing, however, in bluff fashion from the O’Reillys of the world and in a somewhat more sophisticated manner from others, is a blatant attempt to muzzle war critics once the shooting has started.

In fact, that’s when it will be most important to have critics willing to criticize. I’m not saying we need to be impolite or rude; in fact we would do well to avoid rudeness. But in a quiet, persistent, polite but unrelenting way, we should continue to let our views be known, not only on whether the war was worth waging in the first place, but on how it is being waged – what strategies and tactics are being pursued.

(Incidentally, I’ve had a couple of letters in reference to last week’s column, saying that there are no contemporaneous accounts of U.S. military people actually being spat upon by antiwar people during the Vietnam conflict. I’m willing to stipulate to that; I never witnessed it personally and it’s quite feasible that some hawks exaggerated some incidents to the point of making things up. I do remember some incidents I witnessed personally, however, in which U.S. servicepeople were called "babykillers" and worse, to their faces. I hope we can avoid even that this time around. Yes, you can argue that they volunteered for this rather than being drafted. But they’re not the ones making the policies.)

Those who don’t make a habit of insulting servicepeople personally will have no reason to have a moment of hesitation when confronted with the question of whether they have an obligation to support "our troops" once the shooting starts. It is not personally insulting or undermining of the troop on the ground to question the policies that put them where they are. Perhaps we should be careful about resurrecting the old cliche, "The best way I know to support the best interests of our troops is to bring them home," but fellow-feeling for U.S. troops should not mean that we are silenced during the war.

I can understand why most of the "isolationists" in the bipartisan coalition called the America First Committee prior to World War II chose to be silent once the actual war started. The war was precipitated by an attack on U.S. assets (however much the U.S. government might have done to stoke hostilities) and Hitler really was a foul ruler, in control of a major advanced industrial state, with ambitions that might eventually have included dominating America. And it didn’t take all that much government propaganda to crank up the patriotic feelings of most Americans back then.

Nonetheless, I don’t think that’s the example we should follow in this war. There’s no reason to shout or scream obscenities or even to call our leaders names, even if they sometimes deserve opprobrium. There is every reason to continue to remind people that this is a war of aggression against a country that doesn’t remotely pose a direct threat to the United States of America, that it changes the character of the America we all grew up loving and thinking we knew. Even an occasional "I told you so" when, as is more than likely, complications ensue as we try to implant the Pentagon/State Department/UN version of "democracy" in Iraq would not be out of order.

I’m not going to predict disaster. For starters, I don’t know, and I also don’t want to get caught in the position of virtually guaranteeing that this or that policy will go wrong in a specific way. But I will stick with my perception that the likelihood of things going badly for the United States – at least insofar as the United States can still be said to have anything to do with personal freedom and political liberty – is higher with war than without it. And I’m not above interpreting events that some will try to spin as good news – say, a decision to subsidize a new regime of dubious competence and/or character – as bad news if I sincerely believe it to be so.

We don’t have to worry much. This is government running the war, after all, so you know there will missteps and problems along the way. There will be plenty to criticize. We should be willing to do so.


At the same time, however, we should not be naive about the possible costs and complications of continuing to be critics of war after the war has begun. The Screen Actors Guild issued a statement last week denouncing the attitudes of "some" who have suggested that actors "who express ‘unacceptable’ views should be punished by losing their right to work. … Even a hint of a blacklist must never again be tolerated in this nation."

Sorry, but that’s trying to have your cake and eat it too. I don’t know if there will be a formal "blacklist" or not, but those who have chosen to speak out about the war, on either side, really should be adult about it and acknowledge that there will be consequences. It’s difficult to know how the consequences will balance out, but there will be some.

Some producers might prefer to hire an actor with antiwar credentials, while others might avoid them when it comes time to make casting decisions. Them’s the breaks. There is no "right to work" as an actor. If you’re so concerned about matters of war and peace that you consider it important to speak out, you need to know that there will be consequences and not all of them will be pleasant. If you think you have some kind of right to have convictions without consequences, it’s difficult to believe you’re living in the real world.

It’s time to grow up. We will need adults who are willing to pay the price if we want to have any influence at all in the years to come.

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).