Entry from August 30, 2002

The conservative case against attacking Iraq. . . One scarcely wishes to give comfort to a man who is undoubtedly an enemy of the United States and of virtually all of its friends (as well as some of its enemies). Nor can it be denied that it would be in our interests — almost as much as in those of his own people — were Saddam Hussein to be dispatched to his eternal destination without further delay, and his thugocracy with him. Moreover, the argument about the importance of forestalling the acquisition of “weapons of mass destruction” by such an enemy is a powerful one. But it is not enough by itself, I think, to justify going to war and risking the lives of young Americans, even if that war were to be as brief and successful as the first war with Iraq was.

For one thing, in addition to having terror-weapons he has to give clear signs of a willingness to use them against us, or against our allies, and this he has not done — though he has gassed his own people. It was the act of a coward-bully, but, by the same token, he would avoid any such provocation to the power that gave him such a shellacking in 1991. Knowing as he does how small a thing it would take to justify another such attack on him that — he must also know — would be fatal, he is much, much more likely to be on his very best behavior in the region for the foreseeable future. He may be wicked but he is not stupid. If he were attacked, however, he would then have nothing left to lose, and such terror-weapons as he may already possess would be much more likely to be deployed.

This in itself might not be enough reason to prevent us from taking the risk, particularly if we thought (as many do) that his capacity for mischief will soon be considerably greater. But it seems to me that the operative consideration here is, or ought to be, less the national interest than the national honor. For however successful an American attack on the Butcher of Baghdad, it would be a sign of weakness in the eyes of the rest of the world. I do not agree with Brent Scowcroft that such an attack would be dangerously destabilizing in the region, but I do think that it would further diminish the reputation for strength and purpose that we acquired in the Arab world after putting an end to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Since then, the respect that we enjoy among those who would be sure to be much more active enemies without it has been a diminishing asset. I have no idea whether or not the story of a meeting between Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi diplomat in Prague before September 11th is true, but I know that most of the world does not believe it to be true. Or at least does not believe in it enough for it to be a plausible casus belli. And in matters of honor, perception is all. To go to war with no more reason than that and the unusable weapons of mass destruction would look like a pretext. We would be seen by those whom we want to keep in awe as simply not knowing what to do next, having failed to bring home the head of Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan, and so attacking the nearest available enemy with whom we thought we had more of a chance of success.

In other words, we want there to be a bright line of connection between the terrible swift sword and that which provoked it, namely terrorism mounted against the United States and its citizens — so that, seeing what we do in response to such terrorist acts, those who plan, commit or protect those who plan or commit them will think twice before doing so another time. Where that connection is as weak as it is in the case of Iraq, however good may be the other reasons for attacking, we will appear merely to be flailing — because we don’t know where else to turn and need another victory to keep the fires of vengeance stoked and our self-conceit in trim. So, at any rate, an attack on Iraq would appear to potential enemies, whose respect for American power and the will to use it is the foundation of our security.

For the argument about the casus belli in which James Baker and George Will are in dialogue is not really a moral one — there Will is in the right of the matter — but the honorable one. Whatever the real reasons we want to go to war, however justified it may be, the world will see it as a matter of cause and effect in the world’s own terms, and we want them to see the cause and effect drawn very tightly: terrorist cause, terrible retaliation. Having waited all this time and dithered and argued and cajoled the allies, an attack on Iraq would not present the world with such a cause and effect, even if that were the truest explanation.

On the other hand, the Bush administration has greeted the news that Iran is giving safe harbor to al-Qaeda members with nothing but a feeble protest through a second-string spokesman. “The behavior of the Iranian government is unacceptable when it comes to oppression of the Iranian people, efforts to seek weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorism” said Scott McClellan on behalf of the president at the Texas White House. When asked if a formal protest had been made to Iran, McClellan answered that the American position was already “well-known.”

Not nearly well enough known, I should say! If we seek for a casus belli in the region, here is one from which the world, and in particular the Muslim world, would draw all the right conclusions about what it means to make an enemy of the United States. Surely an ultimatum is in order: either turn over the terrorists, or we’ll come and get them. That would make the Iranian mullahs as well-behaved — at least until the lesson begins to fade — as Saddam Hussein is likely to be.

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