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Commentary

Why the Rush to War?


     
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In the face of worldwide opposition and growing domestic condemnation of the Bush administration's rush to war, the president has launched a new public relations offensive to convince the world abroad and the American people that nothing can stop the United States from carrying out its impending military conquest of Iraq. In public appearances, the commander in chief has displayed ever more impatience not only with the Iraqi regime's actions but also with anyone's even questioning his war policy. Merely repeating tired declarations that Saddam has brutalized his own people and “failed to disarm,” President Bush has added nothing of substance to the administration's case for going to war. Instead, he has become petulant when asked to explain, for example, why he is so angrily intent on military action against Iraq while he is so serenely content to let diplomacy continue indefinitely to resolve the more serious threat posed by North Korea’s barbarous regime.

None of the major European countries, save Britain, wants anything to do with a U.S. war against Iraq, and even Tony Blair’s government, ordinarily subservient to U.S. wishes, recently has expressed a preference to let the inspections in Iraq continue, perhaps for months, before deciding whether to launch an invasion. The British people remain overwhelmingly opposed to the war, which must give the Labor chieftains pause as they contemplate the repercussions their present bellicosity may have on their candidates at the next election.

In the Middle East, opposition is similarly almost unanimous. Even the Turks, who normally allow themselves to be bought off fairly cheaply, are digging in their heels this time, fearful not only of the harm a war will wreak on their fragile economy but also of the Kurdish thorn in their soft southern underbelly, which a war might sharpen substantially. The Gulf sheikdoms take the U.S. money and run, of course, mindful that in view of the American armada standing offshore, they have no good alternative. The Saudis continue to urge avoidance of a war but, placed in an untenable position by U.S. diplomatic and economic pressures, they have reluctantly conceded a modicum of cooperation. Only Israel wishes the United States Godspeed in its attack on Iraq.

This pattern might well give Americans reason to rethink the Bush administration’s policy. The president maintains that Iraq’s regime poses a grave, imminent threat. Yet, if so, why do the countries that confront the alleged threat at closest range display no fear of Iraqi action against them? And if Israel alone is cheering for this war, what might that fact suggest? Well might we consider whether the present U.S. war policy constitutes still another case of the American dog being wagged by the tail of its Israeli protectorate. If so, do the American people really want it?

For many months, administration officials have continued to make the same claims about Iraqi programs to produce and deploy so-called weapons of mass destruction, yet they have consistently refused to adduce clear evidence to back up their charges. Even after the U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq, the United States refused to make its intelligence data available to them. Is it really more important to preserve the details of the government’s intelligence sources than to avert war by assisting the inspectors in locating and destroying the alleged Iraqi weapons, raw materials, and production facilities? If the U.S. government truly knows that such things exist in Iraq, what is so complicated about simply telling the inspectors where to find them? Not everything at issue can be hauled away on trucks as inspectors approach. On closer consideration, one begins to suspect that in fact the U.S. government’s spooks do not have the information they claim to possess. Perhaps their knowledge consists of little more than scattered, unreliable reports and questionable inferences, held together by a glue of preconceptions. Maybe their intelligence is just as bad as U.S. intelligence about the USSR is now seen to have been during the Cold War.

In any event, the president’s recently displayed impatience and undisguised hostility ill suit a leader who, thanks to congressional abdication, holds the power of war and peace in his own hands. War is too serious a matter to be decided by someone who lacks the keen intelligence and mature judgment to understand the situation fully and to weigh the pros and cons of alternative policies wisely. George Bush is doing nothing to reassure the public that he has what it takes to be a responsible foreign policy maker.

Worse, he appears to be acting under the greatest sway of advisers—Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, and their ilk—who have long been obsessed with attacking Iraq no matter what Saddam might do to placate them and who manifest a megalomania for remaking the Middle East in their preferred image. Their fantasies of transforming Iraq into a liberal democracy abide light years away from any realizable reality: Iraq lacks all the ingredients for baking that cake. If Americans allow themselves to become lodged in Iraq, ruling it directly or through a puppet regime, they will soon rue the day they plunged into that oil-rich but politically hopeless quagmire. If U.S. occupiers cannot deal successfully even with the rag-tag clans and warlords of Afghanistan, they won’t stand a chance in the treacherous ethnic, religious, and political cauldron known as Iraq.

Ultimately, the most troubling aspect of the administration’s present rush to war is its failure to treat the question of war and peace as the grave issue that it is. War consists of many horrors, most of them spilling onto wholly innocent parties. It ought never to be entered into lightly. Indeed, it ought always to be undertaken only after every decent alternative has been exhausted. We are far from having exhausted every good alternative. To allow more time for the inspections to proceed promises a far better ratio of benefits to costs than going straight to war.

That the United States already has positioned scores of thousands of troops near Iraq, ready to launch an attack, in no way justifies proceeding with that attack. Acting on a “use ’em or lose ’em” assumption makes no sense. Better to withdraw those forces than to commit them to a war that easily might have been avoided. The men and women in the U.S. armed forces certainly deserve to be kept out of harm’s way unless a completely compelling reason exists to place their lives at risk. Nor do the countless Iraqi civilians who will suffer in any war deserve the harms that a U.S. attack will bring them. The ordinary Iraqi citizen is not the Iraqi regime. No defensible moral calculus can justify killing those hapless people—military conscripts as well as civilians—just because the Bush administration harbors an animus toward Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants.

Despite what President Bush insists, time is on our side, not Saddam’s. We hold the upper hand in every way. It is no answer to catalog how under a host of conditions not yet realized and not likely to be realized soon, the Iraqi regime someday might seriously harm the American people here on our own territory. Justification of war requires that we face a definite, immediate, grave threat, and the administration has put forth no evidence that Iraq poses such a threat to us. In the present circumstances, then, a U.S. attack on Iraq would constitute a clear, utterly unjustified act of aggression. We ought not to tolerate a government that commits such acts in our name.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications

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