If wishes were arguments, the strongest argument for an American war would be the most ambitious - the wish, or prayer, that by deposing Saddam Hussein and occupying Iraq, the US would instal a democratic regime in the Arab world, a regime that, in turn, would undermine the autocratic consensus that governs the region, reverse the fundamentalist Islamic movement and foster the growth of anti-fundamentalist tendencies everywhere. Such an outcome is devoutly to be desired. If only the wish sufficed!
But the world in which the wish would suffice is not the world we live in. An American war in Iraq is very unlikely to bring it about. What it is far more likely to bring about is carnage and more terror. The risks are far too great to justify war. Is it not an elementary truth that wars get out of control and are, after all, hellish? That’s why they must only be last resorts. There are simply too many ways in which an Iraq war could get out of control. In fact, the scenario most likely to bring about the use of weapons of mass destruction is precisely the one George W. Bush has been angling for: an attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime. The scenario most likely to bring about terror attacks - on Americans, too - is precisely the same. The scenario most likely to win recruits for al-Qaida is precisely the same.
Meanwhile, against Saddam Hussein’s future threats, there are substantial, not merely rhetorical, alternatives. The case for containment is strong. Smart sanctions (not the current blunderbuss kind), coercive inspections, and maintenance of the no-fly zones are the alternatives to war.
But let it be understood that Americans are indeed - as John le Carré hoped -”awakening to the shame of what is being done in their name.”
Don’t underestimate popular American conscience and sense. Understand that the American public has not been swept away by Bush’s bravado. Far from it. The latest national Knight Ridder poll, taken 3-6 January, finds only about a third of Americans supporting unilateral war - while 83% would support multilateral war with UN backing. And this after more than a year of drum-beating, jingoist Bush indoctrinating, and the panic induced by terror attacks.
On 16 January, by a vote of 46-1, the Chicago City Council “opposed a pre-emptive US military attack on Iraq unless it is demonstrated that Iraq poses a real and imminent threat to the security and safety of the United States”. The demonstrations are growing and deepening. The antiwar movement is getting out from under the sectarian left. Churches and unions are coming forward.
Recall, for that matter, that no American majority elected George W. Bush.
Surely this is a time to refresh the optimism of the will!
©Todd Gitlin 2003
Originally published as part of a debate on 12 January 2003 Writers, artists and civic leaders on the War: Pt. 1.