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Is Washington playing at war?

By William S. Lind
web posted February 17, 2003

When I had lunch recently with the thoughtful foreign policy columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, the first thing she asked me was, "Can you make any sense out of what is going on?" I assured her that, like most of the people I know, I could not. Washington seems hell-bent on war with Iraq, and nobody (including my friends in the military) understands why.

Secretary of State Powell's speech to the U.N. did not answer the question. Considering that we are talking about war here, the grounds he offered for it were trifling. It brought to mind the War of Jenkins' Ear, when in the 18th century England declared war on Spain over the ear of a British merchant captain named Jenkins, supposedly sliced off his head by a Spanish coast guardsman (Jenkins presented the ear, pickled in a bottle, to Parliament). After the war was over, no one really understood why it had been fought.

The mismatch between causes and means raises a deeply troubling question: is Washington playing at war? Make no mistake: war is the most perilous and unpredictable of all human endeavors. Playing with war is more dangerous than playing with fire, because fire can usually be contained; war, too often, cannot. Wars have an unpleasant habit of evolving in ways that none of the participants anticipated. When, in the summer of 1914, Europe resounded with cries of "A Berlin!" or "Nach Paris!", no one imagined the Somme, or Verdun, or the starvation blockade of Germany that killed 750,000 civilians.

The sense that Washington is playing at war is strengthened if we analyze the politics. If the Bush Administration were in desperate political trouble, one could at least see a rationale for a wild gamble on war. But politically, the Administration could hardly be riding higher. It just gained strength in Congress in an off-year election, a rare event. Bush's poll numbers are more than comfortable. Yet the White House is risking it all on a single throw of the dice. If this war goes badly, it is the end of George W. Bush and any hope of a Republican ascendancy for the next twenty years. Our next President might well be Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Rumsfeld recently said that a war with Iraq would be over in six days or perhaps six weeks; it almost certainly would not last six months. Here, too one senses someone playing at war. What if Iraq fights in the cities, where the built environment negates "hi-tech" weaponry? What if we take Baghdad, only to have a suitcase nuke go off in Seattle? What if Willie says to Joe, "Hey, Joe, you got a case of the sniffles?", and we find thousands of our troops dying from a genetically engineered disease? All these possibilities are quite real. But the War Party in Washington dismisses them with a shrug.

If anyone should be cautious about playing at war, it is conservatives. The greatest conservative catastrophe in the 20th Century was World War I. The three conservative monarchies that had kept the poisons of the French Revolution in check through the 19th century, Russia, Prussia and Austria, were all swept away by that disastrous war. As the Marxist historian Arno Mayer has correctly argued, the result was a vast spectrum shift to the left. Before World War I, America and France, because they were republics, represented the international left. By 1919, they represented the international right, not because they had changed, but because the world had shifted around them. The reason Americans today find themselves living in a moral and cultural sewer, is, in the end, World War I.

Then, too, in that fateful summer of 1914, governments played at war. Austria saw a chance to restore her image as a Great Power. Russia perceived an opportunity to take revenge on Austria for her humiliation in the Bosnian Annexation Crisis of 1908. The Kaiser, rightly, told the Chief of the German General Staff, Moltke the younger, that he wanted to stay on the defensive in the west and attack in the east, which would have kept Britain out of the war. Moltke collapsed on a couch and said it could not be done (the plans were actually in the file), and the Kaiser gave in. Everyone agreed that the troops would be home before the leaves fell.

Four miserable years and millions of dead later, the Kaiser was an exile in Holland, the Tsar and his family were dead and Austria-Hungary had ceased to exist. The British empire had bled to death in the mud of Flanders, and on the streets of Paris, there were no young men. The future belonged to people no one had ever heard of, Lenin, Hitler and Stalin.

If there is a game conservatives should never allow their government to play, it is playing at war.

William S. Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation.

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