The war-drums are sounding, and their beat is catchy and contagious. I danced to them all too easily, once upon a time. I was a gung-ho College Republican in the heady days of the Cold War. I thought the very word "peace" suspicious-having seen it so often abused by appeasers. I remember seeing U.S. troops landing on a beach on television and rejoicing that we were invading somewhere, anywhere! (It was Grenada, by the way, not that I cared. I would have welcomed an airborne assault on Paris or Vienna-where was Anne Coulter when I needed her?) I led a ragtag band of like-minded folks behind an American flag, singing "From the Halls of Montezeuma..." to barge in on a peace demonstration, and insist on equal time at the open mikes. The New Haven "townies" took our side, and soon we outnumbered the peaceniks.
There were reasons for my enthusiasm-some of them rational. But mainly, I remembered with burning shame images from the fall of Saigon: Soviet tanks knocking down our embassy gates, helicopters with desperate South Vietnamese clinging to the landing gear, our flag hauled down by exultant NVA troops. Worse was to come: The next five years saw slaughter and repression in Vietnam, and then genocide in Cambodia-two countries whose regimes we had set up, and solemnly promised to defend. But superpowers are selfish, by their nature, and once the cost of defending a province becomes too high, the empire withdraws, and leave its allies behind to pay the price....
Wishing to reverse this humiliation-and the ugly spectacle of American helplessness in Iran-I became a ferocious hawk, and hungered for American victories, however easy, wherever they could be had.
Now that I'm older and have recovered from adolescent testosterone poisoning, I watch with growing dismay the onrush of war. Sure, we have the legal justification for an attack on Iraq-and Iraq alone-in the violated terms of our truce of 1991. Hussein has flagrantly resisted and outfoxed inspectors who sought to pry from his bloody hands the "weapons of mass destruction" which we partly helped him develop, when he was our ally against Iran. While we helped give him the pretext for refusing inspections, by using inspectors as spies, we still do have an absolute right, under the peace agreement (and hence under international law) to insist that he disarm. Unlike other governments that have developed such weapons-Israel, Pakistan, India-Hussein's regime has shown a willingness to use these weapons as more than a deterrent, and has earned its status as an outlaw regime. Most neighboring governments would be glad to see Hussein fall. But almost none wish the U.S. to march in with a massive invasion force and depose him. Only two of our allies support such an invasion, and in both Britain and Israel opinion is deeply divided. A bare majority of Americans approve of such a war-and that support shrivels quickly, when you state the possible costs in American lives.
Iraq is not a nation. It is a petty, despotic empire. Unlike other multicultural states-such as Switzerland and the U.S., to cite two of the only successful examples of such a government-Iraq has not existed for centuries, carefully balancing the interests of different ethnic groups and religions through decentralized, liberal government. Quite the opposite-it's an artificial creation of colonial mapmakers, designed by foreigners to suit their interests, which can only be held together, to all appearances, by a tyrannical regime that represses minorities. In other words, it's a lot like Tito's Yugoslavia-and remember what happened, and is still happening, there. Should the U.S. invade, it will become our responsibility to create and maintain a stable regime. All failures will be rightly laid at the feet of the American government, and resentments throughout the Arab and Moslem world will be aimed at Americans-not just American soldiers or policymakers, but at innocent civilians who work in skyscrapers, American tourists on vacation, American businessman and women working abroad.
Should the Kurds-let's say-vote to secede from an American-ruled Iraq, will our Marines repress them by force? The Turkish government has threatened to invade any nascent Kurdish regime. Wouldn't that suit our interests, to have a NATO country crushing the legitimate aspirations of a long-captive nation, as our troops look on?
What if the Shiites-a clear majority in Iraq-decide to establish a theocratic government, imposing Islamic Sharia on the hundreds of thousands of Christians who live (untroubled by the current secular government) in Iraq, as Islamists are now attempting to do in Sudan, Nigeria, and Indonesia? Will we stop them? That should help diminish support for terrorism, shouldn't it?
How will the most educated, influential segment, the Iraqi Sunnis, react to losing power? Will we sponsor them in clinging to it? (All the exiled Iraqis the U.S. supports are members of this elite minority.) Will we abandon them, and align ourselves with the rebel Kurds and pro-Iranian Shiites?
Let's remember that Osama bin Laden's overt motivation for the appalling atrocity committed against my home town, NYC, was the presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, near Moslem holy places. (He latched onto the Palestinian cause as a convenient way to rally Moslems through murderous hatred of Israel.) Do we want to provide more reasons for angry young Moslem men to attack Americans? If we use military force to impose our values and political preferences upon supine foreign nations, what can we expect but terrorism as the response of a billion humiliated Moslems?
What exactly does the U.S. hope to accomplish by unseating Hussein, and adopting Iraq as the 51st state? To set up a model Arab democracy? Can we manage that? (We had enough trouble holding our own democratic elections in Florida.) To remake the entire region in the image of stridently secularist Turkey, as Norman Podhoretz has modestly proposed? Imagine what that will cost, in money and lives-and remember what happened the last time we tried to save a whole region through the imperial use of force-in Southeast Asia. Friends of Israel-and I count myself one-should remember the fate of our solemnly guaranteed allies in Saigon, the last time thousands of body bags started streaming back to U.S. military airports. We declared victory, and fled.
It's a good thing that President Bush is rattling his saber, to force Saddam Hussein to agree to real inspections, including "presidential palaces," that will keep the weapons of mass slaughter out of the hands of a cruel despot, a man who rained missiles on the innocent civilians of Tel Aviv, who set alight the oilfields of Kuwait, who used chemical weapons against Iran. The threat of force must be credible, in order to be effective. But I pray that we don't have to use that saber-to stick it into the mire of an intractable, almost ungovernable country, in pursuit of aims we haven't clearly thought out, and could probably never achieve.