Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
March 31, 2003
WAR: NOTES OF CAUTION
Conservative pundits have had a lot of fun with the media's panic over the first whiff of grapshot in the present war. The refrain has been a series of wise remonstrances: war has ever been thus; nothing ever goes entirely according to plan; and, in any event, by any reasonable standard, we are succeeding faster and at more lopsided casualty rates than any military invasion of a country of anywhere near comparable size in history.
That's all true, and I agree that -- while there's certainly plenty of good to say about some of the war coverage -- the media is being ridiculous in a number of ways. But in determining whether this war was a good idea in the first place, the question of whether the war is going to involve the sacrifice of a substantial number of American lives and the wreaking of a substantial amount of damage on Iraq (including killing some Iraqi civilians) is not a ridiculous question. Why? There are a couple of reasons worth remembering, but one is that the advocates of war, myself included, explicitly argued and continue to argue that war is just here because the harm caused by war is outweighed by the harm in doing nothing. Obviously, if the harm caused by the war were to be much more substantial than people may have thought, they wouldn't be crazy to rethink their positions.
There's a corollary here for the other side of the domestic debate, though. We should also remember that every sign that Americans are flinching at the casualty reports is something that will help the enemy. The Baathists' strategy is entirely premised on being bailed out if the American public turns against continuing the war. I'm not a fan of branding people unpartiotic simply for saying this war is a bad idea and will be costly, but you can't just ignore that political opposition to the war is the critical element of the Iraqi regime's strategy. The Republican Guard can't save them; Tom Daschle, R.W. Apple and their British counterparts could, if things go a certain way. Critics of the war should, before they criticize, ask two questions:
1. What will be the result if we throw in the towel as a result of my criticism?
2. Will it be worse than continuing to fight?
If the answer to #2 is "yes," that doesn't mean no criticism, ever. There will be plenty of time for criticism after the war, especially with Bush up for re-election next year and a very high likelihood that the war will be over well before then even if it doesn't go particularly well. The question during wartime is, who will be helped by this criticism? You can call me a McCarthyite for pointing this out, but the balance of rights and responsibilities in the area of free speech does change in wartime.
Unfortunately, most of the war's critics have a rather unrealistic view of the balance of dangers here; I'd hazard a guess that many of them think #2 is so bad that nothing could be worse. But now that the war's started, the cost of backing down has escalated tremendously. Remember, even from the beginning, there was an element of national face-saving (not Bush family face, but the nation's) in refocusing on Saddam's continued defiance of the U.S. after September 11. It was obvious that the U.S. could no longer to tolerate, smack in the middle of the Middle East, a nation that broke treaties with us, fired at our aircraft, spread anti-American propaganda, and generally gave us the finger, all while abusing everybody within reach of the regime and financing the region's open sore on the West Bank. Even without WMD and without ties to international terror, there was a certain logic to confronting Saddam to make an example of him to people who "back the strong horse," in bin Laden's terms, and to those who expected Americans to fear conflict after the bad examples of the Iranian hostage crisis, Somalia, even our retreat from Beirut after Hezbollah opened a score with the United States Marine Corps that has yet to be settled. Maybe that justified the war by itself and maybe it didn't, but it was always a subtext of the run-up to war, and one that I think is reflected in deep public support for the war as an anti-terror effort despite controversy over whether we had enough evidence to support a search warrant of the billionaire dictator's palaces. If we turned back now without deposing the Iraqi regime, it's not just a handful of Republicans who would permanently lose credibility; it's the whole country, and all our enemies would be hugely emboldened.
Bearing those costs in mind, maybe the war's critics can ask themselves: Is my criticism of the war plan now -- before we've even seen the whole thing play out, or close to it -- really necessary? If your goal is to stop the war with the defeat of America's policy of regime change (which has been our national policy since 1998), and you've thought through everything that means, OK, go ahead, but be prepared for entirely fair criticism in response that you have chosen to advocate a policy of defeat for your nation at the hands of a bloody tyrant. But if your goal is to inflict political damage on the president for what you believe is his mishandling of this or that issue in the conduct of the war - please, please, can't it wait?