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Useful idiots and useless arguments: The depressing Iraq war debate

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 10, 2003

It is often said that we are moving toward war with Iraq without adequate debate. Given all these months of haggling, it is less the case that there has been no debate than that is has been one of exceptionally low quality.

If all the droning about what television news programs like to dramatically describe as our "countdown to war" or "showdown with Iraq" seems unsatisfying, maybe it is because serious issues have been drowned out by unserious arguments. Even by the appallingly low standards of contemporary political debate, there has been a substantial amount of name-calling, red herrings and weak arguments by both sides. I am not high-mindedly exempting myself from this description – my own work at times treats the phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" as if it were a useful category of geopolitical analysis.

As "reality TV" broadcasts the most intimate personal details about people nobody had heard of just weeks before, we are bombarded with celebrities' opinions about the war as if were some kind of popularity contest. Forget the positions of Great Britain, Spain and Germany - Kid Rock and Tom Cruise are for the war while Martin Sheen and Sheryl Crow are not. Doesn't Bono have veto power on the United Nations Security Council?

Yes, to a certain degree this is not anything new or unique to the Iraq war. Barbara Streisand has been keeping us apprised of her liberal views for years now. Rock musicians and folk singers were fixtures of the 1960s movement against the war in Vietnam; there has yet to be an anti-war-with-Iraq Woodstock. Famous people have never been content with being famous. They desire also to be important. But somehow celebrities seem to be a bigger part of the Iraq war debate than they were during previous conflicts.

Anti-war protesters demonstrate in Washington, D.C. on March 8
Anti-war protesters demonstrate in Washington, D.C. on March 8

To a large extent, the whole debate over using military force against Iraq is a proxy for how one feels about President Bush. The president's supporters back a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as a way of showing solidarity with their commander-in-chief. Bush's critics are leading an anti-war movement that is really more of an anti-Bush movement. The "no blood for oil" arguments are largely predicated on the idea that Bush and his "oil cronies" want to fight this war to for their own financial gain. Signs carried at protest marches are emblazoned with insults against the president and Vice President Dick Cheney. Attorney General John Aschroft is singled out for vitriol even though he is not particularly responsible for the Bush administration's defense policies.

To a certain degree, this is a natural part of the debate over any policy that is identified with a particular administration. Lyndon Johnson had to endure calls of "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Later, Richard Nixon was consistently the target of anti-war protestors' ire. Moreover, in the absence of any publicly distributed evidence of an imminent threat the case for war has been made on the basis of risks. How credible you find those risks and whether they are compelling enough to prompt you to support a war to address them depends in part on your faith in the Bush administration's judgment.

But the raw partisanship of much of the most outspoken anti-war activists is breathtakingly obvious. Relatively few of them protested when Bill Clinton took a tougher line against Iraq in 1998. When the Clinton administration effected regime change in Haiti – to restore democracy, of course – bombed Serbia and intervened in Kosovo it did not seek the approval of the U.N. Security Council. This approval almost certainly wouldn't have been granted in the latter two cases – Russia surely would have vetoed any such resolution. No argument for any of these interventions could be made on self-defense grounds, preemptive or otherwise. Yet ANSWER-type groups did not organize mass demonstrations in response, though it should be noted that some noninterventionists, such as the writers at LewRockwell.com and Antiwar.com, were as opposed to those adventures as a war against Iraq.

Protestors attending these demonstrations don't merely oppose war with Iraq. They hold signs celebrating a litany of far-left liberal causes, ranging from free health care to freeing Mumia. Anti-war conservatives and libertarians glumly note that speakers at these events are rabid leftists who rail against capitalism, trade and American institutions. Some are not merely opposed to war; they are virtually apologists for Saddam Hussein. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets almost as much attention as the possibility of the U.S. going to war with Iraq. Some denounce Israel in terms that approach anti-Semitism. Key organizers hail from Workers' World and the Socialist Workers' Party.

Rabid armchair warriors viewing these protests on TV respond with calls to invade and democratize the world. When Ann Coulter wrote a column suggesting that we should invade countries where Islamic fundamentalism is popular, kill their leaders and convert the people to Christianity, she was widely denounced. Some of the more ambitious proposals to widen the war on terror to include the most amorphous criteria for terrorism possible amount to little more than a secularized version of this.

We are dealing with the possibility of yet another hostile rogue regime acquiring weapons of mass destruction in an age of terrorism. Action and inaction both pose serious risks that should be weighed as the focus of any Iraq war debate. Yet this doesn't happen often enough. As the day of reckoning approaches, there is still a lot of confusion and mixed emotions. This is because some people saw a war and sought to trivialize it as theater.

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

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