What's the future if we don't act?

What's the future if we don't act?

What's the future if we don't act?

A wartime lexicon.
March 17 2003 1:25 PM

(Un)Intended Consequences

What's the future if we don't act?

There has been a certain eeriness to the whole Iraq debate, from the moment of its current inception after Sept. 11, 2001, right through the phony period of protracted legalism that has just drawn to a close. It was never really agreed, between the ostensibly contending parties, what the argument was "about." (Nor had it been in the preceding case of Kuwait in 1991: You may remember Secretary of State James Baker on that occasion exclaiming that the justification could be summarized in the one word "jobs.") Nobody has yet proposed that this is a job-creating war—though it may turn out to be—nor has anyone argued that it will be a job-losing one (though it might turn out to be that, too). The president bears his share of responsibility for this, for having made first one case and then another. So do the "anti-war" types, for picking up and discarding a series of straw arguments.


Conspicuous among the latter, and very popular recently, is the assertion that proponents of regime change have been TOO consistent. On every hand, I hear it darkly pointed out that several neoconservative theorists have wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein for a very long time. Even before Sept. 11! Even before the invasion of Kuwait! It's easy to look up the official papers and public essays in which Paul Wolfowitz, for example, has stressed the menace of Saddam Hussein since as far back as 1978. He has never deviated from this conviction. What could possibly be more sinister?

The consistency with which a view is held is of course no guarantee of that view's integrity. But it seems odd to blame Wolfowitz for having in effect been right all along. Nor, by his repeated hospitality and generosity to gangsters from Abu Nidal to Islamic Jihad and al-Qaida (in the latter instance most obviously afterSept. 11, 2001), has Saddam Hussein done much to prove him wrong. So, the removal of this multifarious menace to his own population, to his neighbors, and to targets further afield would certainly be an "intended consequence" of a policy long-meditated at least on some peoples' part.

What of the "unintended" consequences? By some bizarre convention, only those who favor action to resolve this long-running conflict are expected to foresee, or to take responsibility for, the future. But there's no evading the responsibility here, on either side. (I wouldn't want, for example, the responsibility of having argued for prolonging the life of a fascist regime.) But who can be expected to predict the future? The impossibility doesn't stop people from trying. Jimmy Carter, in 1991, wrote a public letter to Arab heads of state urging them to oppose the forcible eviction of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. An American-led counterattack would, he instructed them, lead at once to massive rioting and disorder across the Islamic world. It would cause untold numbers of casualties. And it would lead to an increase in terrorism. Carter said all this again recently in a much-noticed op-ed piece. He could even be right this time, but not for any reason or reasoning that he's been able to demonstrate.

As an experiment, let's take a Carter policy. As president, he encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade Iran in 1979 and assured him that the Khomeini regime would crumble swiftly. The long resulting war took at least a million and a half lives, setting what is perhaps a record for Baptist-based foreign policy and severely testing Carter's proclaimed view that war is a last resort. However, of these awful casualties, an enormous number were fervent Iranian "revolutionary guards," who were flung into battle as human waves. Not only did this rob Shiite fundamentalism of its most devoted volunteers, but it left Iran with a birth deficit. The ayatollahs then announced a policy of replenishment, financing Iranian mothers with special inducements and privileges if they would have large families. The resulting baby-boom generation is now entering its 20s and has, to all outward intents and purposes, rejected the idea of clerical rule. The "Iranian street" is, if anything, rather pro-American. How's that for an unintended or unforeseen consequence?

Or take another thought-experiment, this time from one of Carter's lugubrious warnings. There are many smart people who have come to believe that the first bombing of the World Trade Center, in 1993, was in fact a terrorist revenge for Kuwait on Saddam Hussein's part. Ramzi Yusef, generally if boringly described as the "mastermind" of that and related plots—and the nephew of the recently apprehended Khalid Sheikh Mohammed of al-Qaida—may have been an Iraqi agent operating with a Kuwaiti identity forged for him during Saddam's occupation of that country. One cannot be sure. But suppose that this was a terrorist counterstroke of the sort that is now so widely predicted to be in our future rather than our past. Would it have been better to have let Saddam Hussein keep Kuwait and continue work on what was (then) his nuclear capacity? That seems to be the insinuation of those who now argue that a proactive policy only makes our enemies more cross.

If consequences and consistency are to count in this argument, then they must count both ways. One cannot know the future, but one can make a reasoned judgment about the evident danger and instability of the status quo. Odd that the left should think that the status quo, in this area of all areas, is so worthy of preservation.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.