2003-06-13 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

What About That WMD?

I spent quite a few words, in these pages, during the period leading up to the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime, in defense of that action
. . . and so I think it’s appropriate to take stock now. There are still a number of open questions and the most vexing seems to be the matter of Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Bush administration made this a cornerstone in its case for mili tary action though it was certainly not the only justification. In fact the case seems to have stood on four distinct legs:

1) Saddam had, or was about to have, substantial (and dangerous) quantities of WMD and was concealing this;

2) Saddam was in league with (and supported) Middle East terrorists and so was linked to al Qaeda, the major Middle Eastern terrorist organization that had attacked the U.S.;

3) Saddam was a serial aggressor with designs on achieving hegemony in the Middle East, thereby threatening his neighbors and those dependent on Middle Eastern oil and transport via the Suez Canal;

4) Saddam was a brutal dictatorial thug who oppressed and slaughtered his own people.

All of these propositions were somewhat interrelated so the case did not depend on any particular one of them but, rather, on the way each supported and fed into the others. Having WMD was a particularly bad thing, for instance, if there was a link to al Qaeda and other terrorists. More, WMD would likely be used in any future aggressive actions by the regime (and could be used as a form of international blackmail), while having this kind of weaponry increased the chance future aggressions would succeed. Also, Saddam was known to have used WMD on his own people during his various acts of oppression.

Those who opposed the war denied one or more of the above, as follows:

1) There was no evidence that Saddam had WMD but international inspections would be sufficient to control or eliminate them if he did;

2) There was no evidence that Saddam had any connection with al Qaeda and therefore no reason to assume he posed any near term threat to the U.S., while attacking him was likely to drive him into al Qaeda’s camp for sure and inflame the Middle East, increasing al Qaeda recruitment, thereby making terrorism worse not better;

3) Saddam’s aggression had been contained and was manageable in any case, should he somehow become an active threat in the region again;

4) was no worse than myriads of other dictators, some of whom we support or have supported and, moreover, Saddam himself was a dictator we had once supported, even while he was doing his worst. Besides, who were we to judge any other nation’s form of government or "choice" of leaders?

Those opposed to the war went on to make the further claim that war entailed big risks and that many lives would be lost on both sides, including innocent civilians. Some of the opponents further asserted that the U.S. had ulterior motives (imperialism, worldwide hegemony, acquisition of Iraqi oil, furtherance of the interests of Israel over the Arabs, etc., etc.) Finally, many of the opponents held that no nation, including the U.S., had the right to make what appeared to be preemptive war without international authorization which came to be de­fined as approval by the U.N. Security Council. The war’s opponents also vacillated between saying sanctions and inspections were adequate to contain Saddam while arguing that sanctions were too punitive to the Iraqi people (more or less assuring that a future regime of sanctions would soon wither away, even if their continuation was offered as a near term alternative to war!).

Needless to say, this is a very complex set of issues. Of course, the U.S. acted anyway and the outcome was quicker and less bloody than anyone expected. But it was bloody enough. War, in the end, is war and not something to be lightly undertaken. But who was right?

In some sense, winners write history and, while the U.S. has not yet won its larger war on terror (so we are not yet sure how THAT will be written), the war on Saddam, a part of that larger war, has been won. Of course there is still its aftermath and any number of things can go wrong. But the questions obsessing public debate are no longer whether we had the reasons or the right to go to war against Saddam.

Certainly, people of goodwill were arrayed on both sides. And there was a fairly clear divide: those who opposed war of almost any sort were aligned with those who opposed American power at almost any cost. Against these were those who believed the Middle East was a dangerous powder keg needing to be defused and those who just wanted to see Saddam overthrown. In the end it’s all about how you view the world, isn’t it?

Of the four reasons I cited above for favoring the war, few dispute today that Saddam was a brutal monster and that it is better for the people of Iraq that he is gone (though there are still many who think it wasn’t worth the relatively modest cost in lives and treasure incurred). As to Saddam’s pen­chant for aggression, few can deny that he had given ample evidence of this in the years leading up to his ouster. More problematic, though, is the al Qaeda connection and the existence of WMD I remain concerned that the U.S. find evidence of WMD and terrorist connections even though I think the case was a good one without these two "legs".

Perhaps the U.S. could not have made as compelling a case for military action without the  claims of wmd and terrorism since it is never easy to move a democracy toward war. Certainly, I think our government officials and intelligence experts had good reason to have believed the claims when they made them. But the U.S. must continue to operate on the world stage and it cannot do so effectively if its credibility is in question. That is exactly what happened in the Vietnam era when the American government was largely perceived to be deceptive and semi-competent at best. The residue of those years is still with us in the cries of those who distrust everything America does or says.

Will these folks suddenly change their tune and say, "yeah, I guess you should have gone to war," if the wmd and the al Qaeda connections are finally confirmed? Of course they won’t because their minds are mired in the detritus of another era. But in order to avoid building on that, in order to avoid the further feeding of anti-American emotions, in order to avoid creating new generations of those who distrust us, it is imperative that the U.S. be shown to have acted intelligently and with goodwill in the Iraqi matter. This means we must find the wmd and the al Qaeda connections if they exist. But, if they don’t we’d better be prepared to take a closer look at what we believe about ourselves and the competence of our leaders.

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