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On the fence on Iraq

By W. James Antle III
web posted February 3, 2003

Bush at the SOTUMany people questioned whether and to what extent minds would be changed on the subject of war with Iraq by President Bush's State of the Union address. Over the course of the past year, my position has changed slightly – I have moved from outright opposition to being on the fence.

It is never helpful for someone who writes about public affairs to be undecided on a major issue. Readers and publications tend to prefer writers who dogmatically cling to a certain position and defend it with barrels of ink. Yet in this approaching war, I cannot comfortably align myself either with the hawks or the doves.

I have read persuasive arguments on both sides. While I am not impressed by the invade-and-democratize-the-world sentiments expressed by some neoconservatives who believe the United States should pursue benevolent global hegemony, some have ably made the case for why war is in our national interest: Andrew Sullivan, Stanley Kurtz in National Review On-Line and FrontPage Magazine, Robert Locke in FrontPage, and Brink Lindsey in Reason and on his website. I am even more put off by much of the antiwar movement, tainted as it is by the marches organized by the most insane elements of the radical left. Many leftists oppose war against Iraq as a proxy for their opposition to America and capitalism while many libertarians, anarcho-capitalists and paleoconservatives do so as a proxy for their opposition to the modern state or the current federal government. Yet there have also been thoughtful arguments as to why this war isn't in our national interest by Doug Bandow in National Review On-Line, Gene Healy in Liberty, J.P. Zmirak in FrontPage and Paul Schroeder in The American Conservative.

Part of my problem is that neither side of this debate has yet arrived at first principles applicable to a wide variety of circumstances. How would interventionists limit the use of U.S. military force abroad? Should we always enforce nuclear non-proliferation – at least when it involves states whose governments we either disapprove of or are not allied with – through military conflict? Should the proximity of a threat ever be a factor in whether we act militarily, or should the precautionary principle govern our national defense policy?

To those opposed to the idea of preemptive war, is it in our interest to have nuclear-armed terrorist states? If not, what other alternatives do we have? How is deterrence supposed to work against terrorist attacks whose sponsors and perpetrators are difficult to trace? Sure, Saddam Hussein would be committing suicide if he lobbed a nuclear missile (assuming he had the capability) at the U.S. or one of our allies, such as Israel. Deterrence worked against him in Operation Desert Storm, where the first President Bush threatened a nuclear response if chemical weapons were used against our troops. But we still don't know who carried out the anthrax scare over a year ago – the use of terrorist intermediaries has the potential to obscure any state's role in an attack and complicate the case for any U.S. military response.

Some questions turn on prudential judgments. The fall of Saddam's Iraq could signal the beginning of the end for the oligarchies and tyrannies governing the Middle East. Or it could so inflame tensions in the Muslim world that even relatively friendly governments in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan collapse and are replaced with more hostile Islamist regimes. Disarming Iraq could keep weapons of mass destruction – or even, to borrow a phrase from antiwar libertarian blogger Jim Henley, "weapons of some destruction" –away from terrorist organizations. Or the resulting regional instability could cause one of Pakistan's weapons to fall into the wrong hands. Another U.S. military victory could keep al-Qaida on the run or provide them with massive new recruiting opportunities.

One hopes that the White House is making the correct judgments because they have access to detailed intelligence information unavailable to those of us who write about politics on the Internet. It would be easier to feel secure in this position if everyone with a fair amount of intelligence access favored war on Iraq, but to some extent there is risk and uncertainty in all decisions of this magnitude. At stake here is nothing less than the level of risk Americans will find themselves at for another attack of a magnitude equal to or greater than 9/11.

Iraq has a proven track record of aggression against neighbors and has a grudge against the world's industrialized democracies that dates back to the first Persian Gulf War. It is difficult to imagine that either propensity would be tempered by the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. This is likely why it has not disarmed even by the United Nations' meager standards. But does this constitute an imminent threat? Maybe the choice is between war now and war, under conditions less favorable to the U.S., later. Or maybe we need a more clearly defined mission, justified by compelling evidence, before we invade and occupy a country with little democratic tradition, in a volatile region where people already have many angry feelings towards Americans, and attempt to remake it in our image.

Too many proponents of war see the entire Middle East as a monolith and consequently fail to distinguish vast parts of this region from our war with the al-Qaida network. This prevents them from seeing that not every attack on a country over there will make us safer from the threat of more 9/11's. Too many antiwar advocates cannot separate their analysis of a post-9/11 world, with a tangible and deadly terrorist threat that must be confronted, from their perceptions of the Bush administration's motives and cavalier statements about "no blood for oil." But slogans won't protect American lives.

The U.S. and the world are likely to take decisive action soon. It seems inevitable. Yet my questions for both sides in this debate continue to grow by the day. It may be time that provides the answers.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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