The Case Against the Attacks on Bush’s Case for War

National Journal

Lots of smart people think that invading Iraq over the objection of, say, France would be a huge mistake. I can’t be confident that they are wrong, because the most important question-whether we will be in greater danger if we invade than if we don’t-turns on inherently speculative and debatable calculations and prognostications.

The risks of invading include chemical and biological attacks on our troops; weeks of house-to-house carnage in Baghdad; an Iraqi-initiated smallpox epidemic; creation of new terrorists in the swamps of militant Islam; collapse of the governments of Egypt, Jordan, nuclear-armed Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia; bloody civil wars in post-Saddam Iraq; and the need for years of occupation by a huge army under constant guerrilla attack amid escalating domestic dissent. (And, of course, there’s the risk of annoying the French.)

The risks of not invading include demonstrating American impotence and, thus, establishing that Saddam has regional hegemony; allowing Iraq to go nuclear; encouraging Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Libya, Nigeria, Syria, and other nations infested with Islamist terrorists to do the same-making it all but certain that, sooner or later, American and European cities would be obliterated by nuclear warheads anonymously delivered by boats or trucks. "It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country," as President Bush said in his State of the Union address, "to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known."

Making the anti-war case on its merits requires some acknowledgment of these risks of inaction and even of the possibility that Bush might just be right. Many Bush critics prefer to focus on flyspecking perceived flaws in his advocacy. He has not "made the case" for war, they argue, ducking the question of whether the case for war exists. (I tried to make it in my October 5 column.) And some ordinarily astute Bush critics have lapsed into attacks on Bush’s "case" that seem neither astute nor logically tenable nor even clearly anti-war.

Consider the op-ed columns by Michael Kinsley and E.J. Dionne in the January 31Washington Post. These two are not left-wing crazies like Michael Moore, or America-haters like Susan Sontag, or "Euro-whining" denizens of the axis of weasels, steeped in "cynicism and insecurity, masquerading as moral superiority," to borrow from Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times. These are two of the nation’s best liberal minds. (They are also friends of mine.) But in this case, I respectfully submit, they have fallen into the sort of illogic for which Kinsley has long and lovingly skewered Republicans on issues ranging from abortion to the death penalty to Bush’s fiscal irresponsibility.

Bush "has a problem that goes beyond style," Dionne wrote. "We don’t know if this war is primarily about (1) taking weapons of mass destruction out of Saddam Hussein’s hands, or (2) removing Hussein from power, or (3) bringing democracy to Iraq and revolutionizing the politics of the Middle East." Doubters can argue "plausibly," he continued, that "if this war is only about weapons of mass destruction," then inspections will do the job, without war. But if "getting rid of Hussein" is the goal, "then all the arguments about weapons and inspectors are beside the point." And while "the best case for this war may be the humanitarian case" for deposing this child-torturing tyrant, it has a "problem," because "the United States is not prepared to launch a worldwide armed struggle against every dictator."

Quite similarly, Kinsley accused Bush of being logically inconsistent, intellectually dishonest, and "morally unserious" because the president has stressed Saddam’s torturing of children and his other atrocities, even though Bush is not "prepared to enforce the no-torturing-children rule by force everywhere." If the real justification for war is that "the danger that Hussein will develop and use weapons of mass destruction against the United States justifies removing him in our own long-term defense," Kinsley added, then "that makes the talk about the torture of children merely decorative, not serious."

To the contrary, these elements of the Bush case for war are deadly serious, entirely consistent, and mutually reinforcing. If you have three good reasons for doing something, then it is logical and appropriate to take account of all three, regardless of whether each would be sufficient by itself. And when a president seeks to rally the nation for a supremely important national effort, he surely should court both hard-headed believers in realpolitik, by stressing the national security justification, and people more concerned with human rights, by stressing Saddam’s appalling history of atrocities.

It’s clear that neither Bush nor any other president would invade Iraq to depose Saddam if the child-torturing monster were no threat to us. Bush has never claimed otherwise. But it is not "merely decorative" to dramatize the human-rights benefits of deposing Saddam. It is good leadership. For those who, like me, are less certain than Bush that the national security benefits of invading justify the risks and costs, the humanitarian case might tip the scales. If it is legitimate for Bush’s critics to stress the killing and maiming of innocent Iraqis that would accompany a U.S. invasion, it is at least as legitimate for Bush to point out that the ongoing human suffering caused by Saddam’s continuance in power dwarfs the suffering attendant to removing him.

Conversely, if Bush’s main goal were to end Saddam’s atrocities, it would still make perfect sense to cite the national security benefits of deposing him as well. This might persuade people who oppose using military force, except in pursuit of our own clear national interest. President Clinton tried to broaden his case for the 1999 bombing of Serbia and Kosovo, which was motivated by humanitarian concerns, by arguing that it would bolster NATO and, thus, our security. Bush, unlike Clinton, has very strong national security as well as humanitarian grounds for going to war.

It was Clinton who said in 1998 that we must not tolerate Saddam’s defiance, because the Iraqi leader "threatens the safety of his people, the stability of his region, and the security of all the rest of us." That’s three justifications for hitting Saddam. (For Clinton, hitting Saddam turned out to be mainly a rhetorical exercise.) Was Clinton morally unserious for citing more than one reason?

Indeed, in an August 2000 column, Kinsley defended Clinton’s humanitarian interventions against charges of inconsistency: "The Clinton Doctrine does not elevate logical consistency to a moral precept. Whether we act depends on the circumstances…. Critics make great hay over the inconsistencies. Why Bosnia and not Rwanda? Why Kosovo and not Sierra Leone?… But … it is a bizarre form of affirmative action to suggest that we must let white people be slaughtered in Kosovo because we let black people be slaughtered in Rwanda." It makes even less sense to attack Bush’s emphasis on the torturing of children in Iraq because he will not "enforce the no-torturing-children rule by force everywhere."

As to Dionne’s suggestion that the goals of disarming Saddam and of deposing him are somehow at odds, the answer is that deposing Saddam seems to be the only hope for disarming him. Iraqi obstruction of inspections is making that more and more clear. "And why would we not be satisfied with a coup that kicked Hussein out [and replaced him with] another dictator, but one willing to do our bidding where weapons are concerned?" Dionne asks. The answer is that we would be satisfied. No weapons of mass destruction, no war. The administration has made that rather clear.

This is not to dismiss all of Dionne’s and Kinsley’s Bush-bashing. Dionne was right to fault the administration for inviting distrust through its "relentless effort to insist on some link between Hussein and Al Qaeda" without more-persuasive public documentation. Dionne was on the mark in slamming Bush’s slips into "self-involved swagger," which unnecessarily undermine American credibility abroad. (The president should stick to prepared texts.) And Kinsley identified the heart of the problem with Bush’s "axis-of-evil" rhetoric and "Manichean notion of an absolute war against an absolute evil called terrorism": They have led him to feign (let’s hope he’s feigning) mindless unconcern about North Korea-a nuclear threat much more provocative and imminent than Iraq-because he apparently has no options in Korea better than dealing with the devil, which Republicans have long trashed Clinton for doing.

But the big question before the nation and the world is not whether Bush sometimes paints himself into rhetorical corners and says and does other things we don’t like. It is whether-assuming continued defiance by Saddam-we should invade Iraq.