I write before President Bush’s address, on the assumption that it will offer an ultimatum that will trigger war within days, without offering justifications that persuade me this war is necessary, justifiable or constitutional. So what do we do once the war begins?
Polemicists like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, of course, argue that once the troops are engaged it is time for all Americans inclined to be critical to shut their mouths lest Mr. O’Reilly and his legion of fans dub them "bad Americans." If those are the choices, I guess I’m just going to have to be bad, but I hope we can be bad in ways that lay some groundwork for the future rather than just making people angry.
At this point and events will surely occur that might modify the judgment it strikes me that our best hope for the near future is to use the war as an occasion to widen the discussion to a more comprehensive discussion of American foreign policy and America’s posture in the world in general. I suspect although maybe it’s more pure hope than I’m willing to admit to myself that even people who backed this war, especially those who sincerely believed that Saddam Hussein was (is) a uniquely vicious ruler who had to be taken out might be amenable to a discussion of how the likelihood of future conflicts might be reduced.
OUT IN THE FIELD
I managed to get out a little last week to meet with people other than those I work with or talk to on the phone. The Young Executives Association had an Orange County meeting at which Cato Institute and Club for Growth economist Steve Moore was the principal speaker, and they asked me to talk about war for a few minutes. A fairly lively discussion ensued during which I found more antiwar sentiment than I had initially expected from this group of mostly conservative, aggressively market-oriented groups of businesspeople.
What struck me in particular was one man who disagreed with me on almost every particular of the case I made against going to war with Iraq. He said he had been in intelligence work in the military and he was convinced there was a great deal more available to those making the decisions documenting Saddam Hussein’s links with al Qaida and efforts to make or acquire weapons of mass destruction.
As he came to the close of his statement, however, he said very forcefully that once the world has been rid of Saddam Hussein, it would definitely be time to reconsider the number of places where the United States has military installations and long-term commitments. I had talked briefly about our network of commitments in my talk but hadn’t made it the focal point. With a little prodding, however, our hawk of the evening agreed that although some forward commitments may be necessary, every one of them creates a certain amount of friction with the local populace, and provides the kind of raw material radical or anti-American groups like al Qaida can use to recruit adherents.
BUILDING ON QUESTIONS
This war appears to have the support of most Americans, and the first impulse of most Americans will be to gather ’round the president once war begins. Even so, there are doubts and questions out there on which we should be able to work.
I’m still convinced that however cheerfully they may permit themselves to be maneuvered into a fine hatred of Saddam Hussein it probably helped that he really is despicable most Americans still have little desire to preside over an empire. Apart from a few ideologists of "benevolent hegemony," how many Americans really want the United States to be a party in virtually every dispute in a chronically troubled world?
We still have plenty of time to publicize further the plans and ambitions of the "neoconservative" crowd (along with some others) that has seen hegemony and empire as an open and ongoing goal. However this war proceeds, there is a lot of work to do, despite some yeoman work from Andrew Bacevich, Pat Buchanan, Ivan Eland and others, in analyzing and critiquing the new National Security posture announced last September, in teasing out the implications of that arrestingly Wilsonian (and sometimes breathtakingly naive) document.
If the war is short and apparently successful, it will be especially important to focus both constructive and critical attention on the process of trying to build democracy in a country that has no experience of it. It will not be enough to be cynical, however. We should pay attention to how the occupiers operate, what policies they put in place, how compatible those policies are with a free society the kind of work Gary Dempsey and Roger Fontaine did in their book, Fool’s Errands, which critiqued nation-building in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.
It’s hard work. It takes hard digging sometimes to get to the truth behind the cheerful press releases. We must be willing to do it, and not just to embarrass the American and perhaps UN administrators, but to keep them from betraying the people of Iraq too badly. They really do deserve better than Saddam Hussein, but the American record at giving people better is hardly reassuring.
The run-up to the war has already created some questions about overarching American strategy that should be welcome. There’s increasing sentiment among Americans that it’s time to reconsider the policy of keeping U.S. troops in Europe and in "old Europe," in countries that actively resisted American policies to boot. I don’t think it’s legitimate to play too much on American jingoism, but if there’s sentiment there we should be able and ready to put arguments more substantial than mere resentment into the mix. Discussion of whether U.S. troops should be in Europe should also give us opportunities to discuss the overall policies of forward military commitments and whether that policy as a whole should not be reconsidered as well.
Likewise with Korea. I don’t know whether Don Rumsfeld was carelessly running his mouth or carefully releasing a trial balloon when he let drop the idea that maybe it’s time to pull U.S. troops out of the Korean peninsula. But whatever he was up to, he has widened what was already a fairly substantial opening for discussion of the U.S. role in Korea.
Has the U.S. presence outlived whatever usefulness it might once have had? Has the United States become an irritant rather than a source of stability? Would we be better off if we put Japan, South Korea, China, and maybe Russia on notice that dealing with North Korea is going to be their problem? Americans are increasingly ready to consider such questions. And if the commitment on the Korean peninsula can be questioned, the U.S. troop deployments in Japan and Okinawa are next, because most of their ostensible purpose is to provide backup to the forces in Korea.
The coming war has also created serious questions about previously sacrosanct international institutions like the United Nations, NATO and even the European Union. It is impossible just now to predict just how those questions will play out, particularly if most European countries assess the lay of the land and decide to throw in with the United States, at least rhetorically. But those institutions will be changed. We should have plenty of opportunities to ask whether they serve the interests of free people or the interests of a tight group of bureaucrats so divorced from the concerns of everyday people as to have lost track of what their real interests are.
If Bush and his allies seem to win, of course, at least in the short run (which is the safest bet just now) there will be plenty of voices ready to proclaim that forward commitments, endless intervention and a policy of prevention has proven its value and should be trotted out repeatedly in the future. For a while those voices will seem especially persuasive. But if we are intelligent and persistent we should be in a position to raise searching questions before the next attack.
As war comes on those who have put so much effort into trying to prevent it cannot be blamed for feeling discouraged and perhaps even a bit defeated for a while. Of course it is discouraging to have created an unprecedented and unexpectedly large (unexpected by everyone including the organizers) antiwar movement without a draft of bodybags and have it completely ignored by policymakers.
But all is not dark. The shortcomings of aggressive intervention as a policy, of the eagerness to use force first are still obvious to some. We have made strides in organizing people and putting unlikely coalition partners into contact with on another. Our critique of intervention and imperialism is still valid.
I hope that it won’t take an unmitigated disaster unquestionably attributable to interventionism to raise enough doubts to get the policy of aggressive prevention questioned and changed. Perhaps that should be our charge to redouble our efforts and sharpen our skills enough to get the questions about American policies into the mainstream before disaster hits.