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COMMENT REAL REASONS by Nicholas Lemann Issue of 2003-09-22 Posted 2003-09-15
The war in Iraq was a long time coming?so long that it was obvious in Washington that war was certain even before the diplomatic drama that preceded it began to unfold. President Bush and Secretary of State Powell went to the United Nations, made their charges against Saddam Hussein, forced the weapons inspectors to return, presented evidence of their own when the inspectors found none, and, finally, concluded that Iraq would not disarm and war could not be postponed, no matter what the Security Council thought?and all that, evidently, came after the decision was made to invade. Disarmament may have been a sincere (if, it now appears, unwarranted) reason for war, but it wasn?t dispositive. It was the plot device that powered a preordained procession.
The President?s television speech about Iraq last week had the feeling of something real being revealed after a thick, obscuring outer layer has been stripped away. Called upon to justify the war anew (because things haven?t been going well in Iraq), and deprived of his main prewar argument (because no forbidden weapons have been found), Bush gave us something that seemed much closer to what his true thinking was when he made the decision for war. The news in his speech was the request for eighty-seven billion dollars and the decision to ask for international troops, but the greater significance lay in what Bush told us about his own beliefs and, therefore, about what the country is committed to while he is President.
Bush?s speech was not limited to Iraq; he gave us a general argument about the Middle East, terrorism, and democracy. The first link in his chain of logic was the idea that, as he put it, ?for a generation leading up to September the 11th, 2001, terrorists and their radical allies attacked innocent people in the Middle East and beyond, without facing a sustained and serious response.? (This formulation is notable for its implicit indictment of the first President Bush for pusillanimity, and for putting the son in the position of correcting the father?s mistake.) So just about any forceful response to terrorism, or to the ?radical allies? of terrorism (a group that included Saddam, evidently), would cause terrorism to decrease. As Bush said, ?We have learned that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness.?
This doesn?t quite parse?it doesn?t allow for the terrorist attacks that have followed the use of force in Iraq, or for the evident immunity of most of the world?s weaklings to terrorist attacks. Terrorists, unfortunately, appear to target qualities more specific than mere meekness. But Bush?s statement does claim that reducing terrorism justifies virtually any use of American force. If you believe this, as Bush seems to do with every fibre of his being, how could you in good conscience not go to war in the region from which the worst terrorism emanates? Back in June, Thomas Friedman, of the Times, wrote breezily, ?The ?real reason? for this war, which was never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world.? Well, now Bush has as much as stated it. Friedman went on, ?Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine. But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it, and because he was right in the heart of that world.?
Bush?s second point was that, like the use of strength, freedom and democracy inevitably reduce terrorism, too. The choice is simple: ?The Middle East will either become a place of progress and peace, or it will be an exporter of violence and terror that takes more lives in America and in other free nations.? This, again, is impressive in its clarity and certainty, but counter-examples fairly leap to mind. What about Pakistan?a quasi-democracy, but also one of the world?s leading terrorist sanctuaries? What about Saddam?s Iraq?the Middle East?s most oppressive regime, but one that left little maneuvering room for terrorists? What about the supranational Al Qaeda, the most dangerous of the terrorist organizations, whose survival apparently requires less the help of ?tyrants? than of chaotic conditions in weak states?such as Iraq and Afghanistan now? As Bush makes the case, all such troublesome particulars must yield to an ironclad general rule: ?Everywhere that freedom takes hold, terror will retreat.? Therefore, every American military attack on a Middle Eastern tyrant?a term that plausibly encompasses most of the region?s heads of state?reduces the risk of terrorist attacks on the United States. It?s hard to imagine a broader charter than the one Bush grants himself through this set of assumptions.
Goals as morally grand as defeating terrorism and ending tyranny make any objection to the program for reasons of logic or practicality look puny, niggling, and cynical. The President?s rhetoric divides the world into those who have passion and courage and those who believe in nothing except a self-defeating caution. The willingness to make the gesture overwhelms whatever difficulties there are on the ground. This is not just a habit of thought that Bush conveniently seized upon after the war. The understaffing of the reconstruction and the lack of post-combat planning wasn?t the result merely of Donald Rumsfeld?s bullheadedness. It stemmed from the President?s soaring conviction that courageous intentions must inevitably produce pleasing results.
As we are finding out in Iraq, military boldness does not always decrease terrorism. It can, in fact, inspire it?witness the terrorists swarming into Iraq, including members of Al Qaeda, who weren?t there before. Toppling tyrants does not automatically decrease terrorism, either, and in the short run it isn?t even guaranteed to make life better for people in the countries the tyrants ruled. Even the most powerful nation in history does not have an infinitely large army or infinite funds, and must live in the realm of calculations about what is possible and what will be effective. Consequences are not, alas, inevitably the product of intentions; they are determined by the collision of intentions and reality. It isn?t cowardly to be (dread word) realistic. It isn?t amoral to think through what will follow from particular actions. Quite the opposite. Bush?s desire to end terrorism and spread democracy can?t be gainsaid. But if, using the almost unlimited license he has given himself, he winds up making brave-seeming lunges at those goals without actually attaining them, then confronting evil, his proudest purpose, will soon become a luxury he can no longer afford. That is about the worst outcome imaginable, and not just for Bush personally.
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