In London Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair declared with fanfare that Saddam Hussein's Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, is ready to use them against other nations, and soon will have nukes as well. In Washington, a reporter asked President Bush why Blair offered no new evidence to explain his newfound conviction on these matters.
THE PRESIDENT: He explained why.
Q: Pardon me, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: Explained why he didn't put new information—to protect sources.
That's a good joke on journalists—"protecting sources" is our religion—and not a bad point on the merits. Much of what our leaders know about Iraq's military capacities and intentions can't be revealed, and how they know it must be secret as well. So, how is a citizen of a democracy supposed to decide the most important question any nation must decide: Should we go to war?
In this case the issues are mainly factual. That is not always so. In Vietnam, though there were factual disputes, the big disagreements were about moral and strategic issues on which the government's policy had no home-team advantage. With Iraq, by contrast there would be almost no opposition to imposing what is being called, with comic delicacy, a "regime change" if Blair and Bush are right that Western nations are in imminent peril. But this turns on facts and analysis that ordinary citizens must take on trust.
The official U.S. government message on how citizens should decide about going to war is, "Don't worry your pretty little heads about it." Last week the White House issued a sort of Official Souvenir Guide to the Bush administration's national security policy, and it is full of rhetoric about democracy. Yet that policy itself, including at least one likely war, has been imposed on the country entirely without benefit of democracy. George W.'s war on Iraq will be the reductio ad absurdum of America's long, slow abandonment of any pretense that the people have any say in the question of whether their government will send some of them far away to kill and die.
Add it up. You may not agree that the Bush family actually stole the presidency for George W., but you cannot deny that the other guy got more votes. Once installed as president, Bush asserted (as they all do) the right to start any war he wants. Members of Congress can pass a resolution of support if they would like—in fact, he dares them not to—but the lack of one is not going to stop him. You may not agree that this is flagrantly unconstitutional, but you cannot deny that this makes any discussion of the pros and cons outside of the White House largely pointless. Finally, it's already clear that Bush will copy his father's innovation of rigorously controlling what journalists covering the war can see and report. You may not agree that the obvious purpose of this is to protect official propaganda and lies from exposure, but you cannot deny that such will be the convenient effect.
Democracy will be especially missed if "pre-emption"—the hot concept in Bush's national security policy—takes off as his advisers hope. (The Bushies hail pre-emption as a brilliant innovation by The Man, except when they're downplaying it as nothing new to worry about.) If the United States is going to feel free to attack any countries that might attack us, without the inconvenience of waiting to see if they actually do, then putting that decision in one individual's power seems especially reckless. And most of the reasons people give to explain why the Constitution doesn't really mean what it says about Congress having the power to declare war involve things like responding to surprise attacks. These concerns seem especially out of place if America's future wars are going to be chosen off the a la carte menu and then stewed for months or years before they are actually served up.
But let's pretend we actually do have some role in deciding whether our nation goes to war. How should we go about it when our leaders don't come PR-ratified by democracy and when crucial information for an independent decision is unavailable to us? We aren't capable of answering the actual questions at hand: Is Saddam Hussein an imminent threat to our national and personal security, and is a war to remove him from power the only way to end that threat? So, we must do with a surrogate question: Based on information we do have and issues we are capable of judging, should we trust the leaders who are urging war upon us?