Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 9, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

WAR WITH IRAQ....I've gotten a lot of email critical of my post on Thursday suggesting that Colin Powell had indeed made a strong case in his UN speech. This administration has lied about everything, they ask, so how can you be so credulous as to believe their latest dog and pony show?

I'd like to explain myself, but I'm afraid this is going to be a bit long and rambling, which, I admit, is not exactly a crowd pleaser and in any case if you wanted long, rambling posts you could just click over to Steven den Beste's site and get two or three of them a day. But this is really intended more as therapy for myself than anything else, so with that in mind, either read on or perhaps the better alternative turn off the computer and go spend the rest of your weekend doing something more productive instead.


First, a little background. I grew up in the 70s, and like many children of that decade I never took the threat of the Soviet Union very seriously. Oh, sure, it was a nasty dictatorship, but it was also a big, established country ruled by conservative old men who were mostly interested in stability and control. They were unlikely to ever risk a repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Small rogue states, on the other hand, did seem like a threat. The development of nuclear and biological weapons was bound to become easier over time, and in the hands of a reckless dictator willing to take chances it seemed entirely likely that we could eventually find ourselves on the receiving end of a major attack. Not immediately, certainly not in 1980, or maybe even in 1990, but someday.

That day has obviously come. Both North Korea and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, and both are unstable enough that there's a chance they might use them. Effective biological weapons are still difficult to develop, but it's getting easier all the time, and the widespread proliferation of legitimate "dual-use" technology makes it almost impossible to control.

I take WMDs in the hands of small, unstable states seriously, and I have my doubts that these countries can be deterred from using them the way big, established countries can even horrible dictatorships like China. If you don't buy this, then the rest of this essay won't make any sense. But if you do, then read on.


There are lots of nasty dictators. Why focus obsessively on Saddam Hussein?

It's a fair question, but the fact is that there are some good answers. Partly it's because even among nasty dictators, Saddam is in a class by himself: a ruthless, brutal thug who routinely employs the kinds of torture that simply make you ill to read about. Partly it's because unlike even an unstable neurotic like Kim Jong-il, he's started two unprovoked wars against his neighbors in the past 20 years. Partly it's because there is strong evidence that he has spent the past ten years building or trying to build WMDs of all sorts. (In a sense, Powell's UN speech was meaningless since, as Ken Pollack says, "In truth, all council members already know that Iraq retains weapons of mass destruction and is deceiving the inspectors.") And finally, yes, partly it's because we have strong economic interests in the Middle East and we don't want Saddam in a position where he can threaten or control the Persian Gulf oil supply.

But there's another reason. To a large extent, Kim Jong-il is an aberration. He's undoubtedly dangerous, but the Far East as a whole is relatively stable. North Korea is the only serious trouble spot there.

Ditto for Pakistan and India. Both of them have the potential to pose serious dangers to each other, but the region as a whole is not a powderkeg.

I don't minimize the danger these countries pose, but there's simply no comparison, I think, between that danger and the danger posed by the Middle East. Democracy in India, for example, is fragile, but in the Middle East it is simply nonexistent. The entire area is under the control of medieval theocracies, and what's worse is that they don't seem to be getting any better as time passes.

In fact, if anything, they seem to be getting worse. Their populations are rising and their oil income is dropping, unemployment is rampant, and both the churches and the schools blame their problems on Israel, the United States, and the decadent West in general. They are virtual factories for producing the kinds of young men who become terrorists, and the danger they pose is real and growing.

But what to do? Certainly the United States (and other countries) have done nothing to improve the situation. Our one-sided support of Israel has inflamed the Arab world, and our support for one bloody dicator after another as long as they were useful to us for a few moments has bred contempt and cynicism for our role in the world. All that is true.

But still, what to do?


We may not be innocent bystanders, but neither does our past mean that we now have to stand aside and simply hang our heads in shame. It's vitally important, I think, given the powderkeg nature of the Arab world and the increasing worldwide availability of horrifying weapons, that we do something to clean up a mess that we ourselves have had a hand in creating.

To do this requires both long term and short term actions. In the long term, we need to genuinely promote the values of tolerance, human rights, and democratic self-government that the United States is quite rightly proud of.

Unfortunately, we also have to do something about the immediate threat. And it's also likely that simply "promoting" tolerance and human rights probably won't get the job done. The sad fact is that in addition to promoting these things, we also need to show that we're willing to back up our words with force. And while I realize how much of a cliche it is to say that "force is the only language they understand," there's a kernel of truth in it too.

For a variety of reasons, Saddam Hussein is the best target for that force. An invasion of Iraq will surely kill thousands of Iraqis and the proposed "shock and awe" carpet bombing of Baghdad is horrifying but I suspect that in the long run it will save more lives than it takes. And that's why I support the war.


There are, of course, lots of good reasons to oppose a war with Iraq, and prime among them must be the question of those "long term" actions I mentioned above. There is obviously no chance of simply transplanting American-style democracy to Iraq, but for this war to mean anything we have to genuinely try to make things at least incrementally better there instead of simply installing a friendlier dictator once Saddam is gone.

What else do we have to do?

  • We have to take the Israeli-Palestinian problem more seriously and show ourselves willing to press hard on both sides. We have considerable pressure that we could bring to bear on the Israelis, and we shouldn't be afraid to use it.

  • We have to stop cozying up to regional dictators just because they are (temporarily) friendly to us. We need to demand genuine progress in the region, and we need to show ourselves willing to help generously those who truly show a commitment to engage in reform.

  • We should rededicate ourselves to working with our allies and the rest of the world more respectfully and constructively. Bush has been simply appalling and inept in this regard, almost certainly making this task far harder than it needed to be, and the horrified reaction from the rest of the world toward both his rhetoric and his actions is fully justified.

Will we do these things? I am sympathetic to the idea that George Bush has shown himself to be so hamhanded in foreign affairs that there's little likelihood of success as long as he's in power. And yet, what's the alternative? We need to try, and I'm inclined barely to give him a chance. Something has to kick start the Middle East into the 21st century, and I don't see anyone else willing or able to do it.

I realize, of course, that this is exactly the kind of talk that anti-war opponents, especially in Europe, find most disturbing. Will a successful war bring on a succession of such wars, turning America into an imperial, colonizing power? The question is legitimate, but to believe this is to judge all past U.S. actions in the worst possible light, something that's just as indefensible as the superpatriots' constant invocation of anti-Americanism anytime American policy is questioned.

Consider: in Saddam Hussein the Bush administration has a genuinely hideous tyrant; it has a decade of defiance to UN mandates; and it has the steadfast support of Great Britain, a country most Americans respect and admire. But even so public opinion is only barely in favor of military action. Even if the war goes well, it defies belief to think that the American public would put up with a long succession of such wars, and in a democracy that's the final control. If Bush goes too far, he will be voted out of office.


So that's it. I have tremendous misgivings about this war especially under the aegis of this administration and I respect the views of those who oppose it. But rogue states and terrorists are a genuine threat, the Middle East is the world's biggest breeding ground for both, and gentle prodding seems unlikely to change either of these things.

Does this mean that we are practicing cultural imperialism? Perhaps, and if this amounts to nothing more than creating some docile new client states we will have failed. But at the same time there are some aspects of western culture are worth exporting: religious tolerance, democratic institutions, civil liberties, and respect for women among them.

It is right to criticize the U.S. for its shortcomings, but it's also right to remember that on the big issues of the past century World War I, World War II, the rebuilding of Japan and Germany, the fight against Communism America has largely been on the right side. Our record isn't perfect, but neither is it contemptible, and for all that's gone wrong, I imagine that life in Kosovo and Afghanistan is at least a little bit better than it was before our involvement there.

In a sense, I envy the people on both sides of this debate who have strong and unwavering opinions. And yet I can't help but think that anyone who enters this debate with no doubts in their mind is simply not taking the whole thing seriously. Committed doves, I suspect, aren't facing up to the very real dangers of rogue states with WMDs, while committed hawks refuse to acknowledge the dangers of a doctrine of pre-emptive war.

That said, and with misgivings, I find myself on the side of war. Yes, there are enormous risks in this approach, and it could all go horribly wrong. I hope it doesn't.

Kevin Drum 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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