Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

Iraq Revisionism
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Jan. 13 2004 9:30 AM

Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

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Kenneth Pollack's revisiting of his own argument in The Threatening Storm, while admirable and scrupulous (even if it is written by someone who used to be a producer rather than a consumer of WMD information) affects the essential case no more than Paul O'Neill's supposed "disclosure" that the Bush administration was anti-Saddam from the start. It was long ago announced, by President Clinton in a major speech in 1999, that a future confrontation with Saddam on WMD had become inescapable. And it was long ago voted nem con by the Senate that, for other reasons having to do with genocide and tyranny, the Iraq Liberation Act ought to become law. It would have been an occasion for very severe criticism if the incoming Bush administration had sought to dilute either of these historic commitments.

Pollack may have been led to overstate the immediate danger from WMD, but he did so on persuasive evidence that was supported by a long history of exorbitant behavior by the Baathists, and on a long history of culpable underreaction by Washington. (There was no comparable inquisition, as I recall, when the intelligence "community" failed to predict, and very nearly failed to report, the invasion of Kuwait. And the antiwar forces cling to their taunt on WMD because every other part of their propaganda and prediction has been utterly exploded.) That's if WMD ever were much of an argument in that quarter. I myself had a different experience from Pollack, in the run-up to the war. I had to debate, every week and sometimes every day, with anti-interventionists who said that Saddam's possession of WMD was a reason NOT to attack or attempt to depose him. I said that the threat was latent not blatant, and that the main "immediate" danger was an off-the-shelf purchase by Iraq from North Korea, and by the way I think I was right. But I was not an elected officeholder in a democratic government in a post-9/11 atmosphere. If I had been, I would certainly have decided to make the worst assumption about any report on Saddam's capacity for lethality, and I would have been operating at all times on the presumption of guilt. As a civilian, I would have wanted to criticize any Western government that did not err deliberately on this side.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens
Paul Berman is the author of Terror and Liberalism and The Passion of Joschka Fischer, which is forthcoming in the spring. Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times and most recently the author of Longitudes and Attitudes. Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a regular contributor toSlate. His most recent book is A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slateand is the author of The Wizards of Armageddon. George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where his article about the occupation recently appeared. He is working on a book about America in Iraq. Kenneth M. Pollack is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Jacob Weisberg is editor of Slate and co-author, with Robert E. Rubin, of In an Uncertain World. Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and the author of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.
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Another way of phrasing this is to remember the line taken by the late Dr. David Kelly, sad subject of the Hutton inquiry in Britain. In an article written just before his death, this experienced inspector stated that you could have genuine inspections only by way of regime change. This essentially commonsensical view, which has been seconded by other veteran inspectors such as Rolf Ekeus and David Kay, takes account of the notorious Iraqi deception and concealment programs; the failure to comply at any point with U.N. resolutions; the sequestration of Iraqi scientists; and the preservation of secret funds, documents, and resources in Baghdad against the day when sanctions might be lifted and another bid for superpowerdom be made. Taken together with the secret bargaining (now exposed) with North Korea, this entitles us to speak of a Permanent Threat if not precisely an Imminent One. "Imminence" might have come when Saddam gave way to the Odai/Qusai regime: a prospect that need no longer concern us but that did not concern the antiwar forces even when it was a possibility.

Thus, we now can account more or less for Iraq's lunatic mixture of missing and undeclared weapons, and that in itself is an achievement. Moreover, the Iraqi economy and military are no longer at the disposal of a crime family with well-attested links to piracy and gangsterism, and that too is a gain. Dr. Howard Dean now tells that al-Qaida is in Iraq after all, but only because of President Bush. He is entitled as a private citizen to his touching belief that the connection began only a few months ago: One would not want a president to have been so insouciant if he had had to take the actual decision at the time, and once again I applaud the presumption of guilt, which was equally well-merited.

I cannot see the point of the case about a "distraction" from the hunt for Bin Laden, and this is not only because I strongly suspect that dear Osama has already passed away. Nor is it because so many of those who stress the Iraq "distraction" were telling me, just a couple of years ago, that it was futile to intervene in Afghanistan lest such a move cause thousands of new Bin Ladens to spring up. … (How soon they forget, but I don't, and I am keeping score.) The tactics and resources that are required to fight a covert war against nihilistic theologues, and the tactics and resources that are required to remove a totalitarian dictatorship, are somewhat distinct. They may well overlap and they have in fact done so, but who can argue that we should not be ready and able to perform both such undertakings, possibly simultaneously? The two in fact reinforce one another, and coalition forces in Iraq are now rapidly acquiring deadly skills that will certainly be required in other places and at other times before the war against jihad and its patrons is over.

This point also applies to the question of cost. One cannot know the price of anything in advance, but one can be determined to pay it no matter what, as in a struggle for one's own life or for the life of loved ones. If it was foolish of the administration to argue that things like Iraq or Afghanistan could be done cheaply, it is flat-out irresponsible for the antiwar populists to argue that the money would be "better spent at home." Do they somehow still imagine that war is another word for "overseas"? For all I know they do. If we are really looking for cost cuts, then we could draw down the wastage and folly of the "war on drugs," or the fantasy of nuclearism. (The failure of the left to seize those chances, by the way, is yet another proof that it cares only for morbid dislike of anything undertaken by the president.)

As for casualties, there is only one apparent way of avoiding them for sure, and that way—abstention or pacifism—runs a risk of greater casualties later on, or as well. I detest utilitarianism, but I prefer it to idealism or neutralism, and I believe a decent case can be made that many, many Iraqis have been saved by the intervention, and that many inhabitants of other countries including our own are better-protected by the abolition of aggressive and unstable dictatorships. The case cannot be literally proved, of course, but we have a shrewd idea of what can happen when such regimes are left to choose the initiative. And this in turn makes one weep to think of what we and the Iraqis might have been spared if Saddam Hussein had been removed by Bush Senior. (Now that the in-between sanctions have been lifted, surely those who claimed that they were genocidal and child-murdering ought to have a good word to say. Or do they want one to suspect that they only wanted sanctions lifted when Saddam Hussein was still in power?)

Staying with the lachrymose for a moment, one weeps also at the missed chances and the blunders. Need I specify the appalling misjudgment of Washington's Turcophiles, the stupefying lack of economic and technological follow-through—the voracious Halliburton lobby seems really to have dropped the ball there—and the ditherings over the Governing Council? However, these seem to me to be second-order objections, since we had well before the turn of 2000 become in effect co-responsible for the future and the care of Iraq. Its future was unavoidably in our future. The chief blemish of that de facto policy, in which every main faction in American politics was already complicit, was that it involved a shame-faced and unstated power-sharing with Saddam Hussein. That was intolerable and could not long endure. So, I think that the president and his advisers deserve credit for acknowledging and shouldering what was in fact an "actually existing" responsibility. While those who tried to disown or disclaim the responsibility are in a very poor position to snipe at the way it is being discharged. Much of the criticism I read expresses one or another form of denial of this basic consideration. Those who say, for example, that they would approve the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq if only there were more French or Russian soldiers there are conceding more than perhaps they intend. (I personally can't say that I yearn to see there the veterans of Rwanda and Cote d'Ivoire and New Caledonia, or the heroes of Grozny.)

Friedman is right to say that the macro-policy, so often and so stupidly attributed to "neocon" conspiracy, has provided an important vindication. Since the regime changes in Kabul and Baghdad, other regimes from Riyadh to Islamabad to Tehran have quietly but decidedly changed their tune, while some others have gone so far as to drop their weapons. There is no serious state-sponsored hiding place for al-Qaida, whereas a quiverful of measures and tactics now exists, well field-tested, to tackle any new challenger in this field. Myself, I still have a fondness for the micro-policies, too. The Marsh Arabs are returning to their habitat, my profession can be practiced again in one of the places where writing was invented, the Shiites can follow their own religion, the Kurds are nearer to self-determination, there is politics again in a serious country, and we have seen the tree of liberty being watered in the traditional manner, which is an event that not every member of every generation can take pride in.

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