Saturday, August 17, 2002

Richard Cohen has said it. Hendrik Hertzberg, too. Cokie and Steve Roberts have said it together. E.J. Dionne has (more or less) said it. Michael Kinsley was among the first to say it. Thomas Friedman and Zibigniew Brzezinski have now both said it on the same day. Foreign policy guru Senator Richard Lugar has said it. The conventional wisdom is unequivocal: the Bush administration has yet to make the case for invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein.

Taken literally, this assertion is complete nonsense. The administration has laid out a clear and compelling case for the use of military force to get rid of Saddam Hussein. His regime is one of the most brutal in a generally brutal region; he has a long history of invading neighbors, building weapons of mass destruction (including biological, chemical and even nuclear weapons) and using them (in the case of chemical weapons, at least) against both internal and external enemies. He is a longtime supporter of international terrorism, including, most likely, Al Qaida. His agents have attempted to assassinate a former US president, and may even have been in direct contact with the September 11th hijackers. Numerous regimes with far less damning records than that have been targeted--quite sensibly and justly--for violent overthrow by past US governments.

On the other hand, the case against toppling Saddam Hussein has been heard only very softly, if at all, in the (mainstream) public square over the last few months. And that's a bit surprising, because there is a fairly strong case to be made. Hussein still has a formidable army that is capable of inflicting serious casualties on an invading force. And he has that arsenal of non-conventional weapons; faced with the prospect of elimination, he may well decide he has nothing to lose and unleash them. The death toll of an invasion could thus be extremely high--perhaps catastrophically so.

There is also a plausible alternative: regimes that are too powerful to destroy militarily are usually handled with a "containment" strategy. When well-executed, such a strategy can control and limit the regime's threat to the rest of the world, at relatively little risk and cost, until such time as conditions for its collapse or removal are more favorable. If "red lines" regarding its external behavior are explicitly drawn and forcefully backed up with harsh military responses short of full-scale war, they can sharply limit the hostile regime's capacity to make trouble. To this day, for example, just such a set of rules has protected the Kurdish sanctuary in northern Iraq from Hussein's troops; a broader version of this arrangement might conceivably succeed in containing him fully until old age, internal dissention or a well-placed rival takes its toll.

It's interesting to consider, then, why so many pundits, instead of stridently presenting this anti-invasion case, have satisfied themselves with carping about the supposed lack of solid pro-invasion arguments coming from the administration. One explanation is obvious: the US military's recent string of three spectacularly easy, relatively painless victories (in the Gulf War, Serbia/Kosovo and Afghanistan) has (probably unfairly) discredited the "body bags" argument. After three instances of worst-case scenario-believers crying wolf, it's much harder to claim--even when it's justified--that this time, the danger is real.

But the "body bags" argument's political problems go deeper than just its recent history of being refuted by events. Many of those past solemn cautions about the threat of huge casualties in Kuwait, Serbia and Afghanistan were in fact disingenuously inflated doomsday predictions coming from reflexive pacifists who wouldn't have supported those military actions even if they had been guaranteed casualty-free. The "quagmire" warning has thus become entangled, in public debate, with a broad geopolitical ideology that includes perennial strong distaste for (American) military action--regardless of the cost--and a preference for multilateral diplomatic "solutions" that amount to inaction and even active appeasement in the face of aggression. A perfect expression of this ideology can be found, surprisingly enough, in Brent Scowcroft's recent WSJ op-ed, which is amazingly retro in tone; like a 1980's peacenik or 1990's paleoliberal, he prattles on about the importance of "international cooperation", a potential "explosion of outrage" in the Arab world over America's placing the Iraq problem ahead of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the need for "pressing the United Nations Security Council to insist on an effective no-notice inspection regime for Iraq".

Since September 11th, that approach has been relegated (in America, at least) to a pacifist fringe; Americans are more likely these days to consider it a cause of than a solution to the resurgent terrorist threat they've been confronting of late. Politicians and pundits are therefore terrified of even appearing to embrace such a discredited worldview--by, for example, voicing more moderate qualms about military action that have been tainted by association with it. (No doubt that's why, as Frank Rich has noted, public doubt about the wisdom of an invasion of Iraq has come primarily from Republicans like Scowcroft, who are presumably more insulated--by virtue of their party's hawkish recent past--than Democrats against the charge of one-world Euroweenie woolly-headedness.) That's a shame, because the tough-minded, containment-based case against massive military action is as legitimate, and just about as credible, as the case for invasion itself, and therefore ought to be made and discussed more seriously--this time, at least.

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