Tonight’s debate will do much to decide this election. The president also needs for it to help the country focus on something broader: a debate about the fundamental question of what kind of war we are now engaged in. That is the question that has divided our political system since at least the January 2002 State of the Union speech, when President Bush labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an �axis of evil.� None of this is new ground for those of us who have followed these questions closely and debated them endlessly. But as the time of decision approaches, it is useful once again to go back to first principles on the issues that divide us.
Here’s the bottom line:
Kerry: We are at war with Al Qaeda and the remnants of the Taliban because they attacked us; we are at war in Iraq because we attacked them.
Bush: We are at war with any and all international terror groups, whether or not they have previously attacked us, and we can win only when we have removed or fundamentally altered the regimes that support or harbor them.
That’s the distinction. Let’s explore. There are a number of different strains of thought among President Bush�s critics on the Left, ranging from those whose disagreements focus principally on the mechanics of war-fighting to the Michael Moore/Ted Rall=type lefties who opposed the war in Afghanistan and would oppose basically anything that involves the exercise of American power. The latter group, of course, is beyond reason or argument.
The principal thrust of the argument advanced by many mainstream Democrats, however, and recently embraced by John Kerry, goes something like this:
1. The US may only go to war (a) to respond to an attack, (b) to interdict an imminent threat, or (c) with the sanction of the UN. In other words, we have the right to engage in direct self-defense ((a) or (b)), but the legitimacy of any mission that goes beyond direct self-defense depends on the agreement of collective bodies like the UN and, to a lesser extent, NATO.
2. The US was attacked by Al Qaeda on September 11.
3. Therefore, the US has the right to strike back at Al Qaeda, including nations that directly support Al Qaeda.
4. There is no evidence of direct involvement by Iraq in supporting Al Qaeda attacks on the US, and therefore any war against Iraq is not a part of any war of self-defense or retaliation in response to September 11, and is arguably a distraction from finishing that war.
5. There turned out to be no evidence that Iraq had sufficient WMD capabilities, let alone intent to use them, to establish an imminent threat to the US.
6. Therefore, we had no right to act against Iraq without international sanction.
The relevant international organizations had not reached a determination to attack Iraq. Absent an imminent threat or a connection to the war against Al Qaeda, we should not have gone to war until they did.
On one level or another, this has been the argument of critics like Howard Dean, Al Gore, and Bob Graham, and John Kerry has now embraced it by calling the Iraq war a “diversion”. I think I�ve been fair in setting out the syllogistic quality of this line of thought, which in its defense does have deep roots in Western thought about war. I actually agree with some of its underlying philosophy, although as I�ll discuss below, the current situation demands the competing argument of the Bush Administration and its supporters that this approach is hopelessly insufficient to deal with the ongoing threat of international terrorism.
For all of John Kerry�s past efforts to appeal to pro- and anti-war voters alike, there has long been copious evidence to suggest that this is what Kerry actually thinks. One of the clearest signs came back in June, when Kerry said this:
This administration took its eye off of al-Qaeda, took its eye off of the real war on terror in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan and transferred it for reasons of its own to Iraq . . .
In short: we are at war with a single organization (Al Qaeda) and have gone and started a second, separate war in Iraq, without meeting necessary preconditions for doing so.
What Bush, his administration and its supporters (myself included) have consistently argued is that the old way of looking at these issues is wrong, for a number of reasons; I’ll focus here on two.
1. “Al Qaeda” is not the only enemy. Yes, that’s who attacked us. But the goal here isn’t just to put them out of business but to end the terrorist threat to the U.S. once and for all. To my mind, we are at war with (a) any organized terrorist group that can reach across national borders or within the U.S.; (b) any state that sponsors, supports or gives aid and comfort to any such group. Even if you discount the evidence of Saddam’s overtures to bin Laden, the fact that Saddam had a long history of actively supporting some terrorists and harboring others makes the ability to tie him to bin Laden almost academic; you can’t well say you are at war with terrorist sponsors and leave Saddam in place. Remember, after all, that Al Qaeda itself is only a loose association of groups anyway, formed by a merger with the Egyptian group Islamic Jihad. It’s sort of silly to have arguments over whether, say, Ansar al-Islam or Zarqawi were or are part of Al Qaeda; the similarity in rhetoric, tactics, goals and ideology makes them part of the same problem regardless of where the lines on their org charts point.
2. We can’t win the war without broadening it. Because we are fighting a type of enemy, united by its ideas and tactics rather than as a single organism, we can’t win just by rolling up body counts, capturing territory and choking of funds, although all of those are helpful. What we need to do is change the dynamics of the states that have fostered the problem, both by supporting such organizations and by encouraging the hatreds that breed terrorists.
The choice between Bush and Kerry is clear, it is fundamental, and it is essential to our security. It’s a matter of life and death that we get it right.