The funny thing about our national debate over Iraq is how little opponents of an invasion seem to understand about the case for action. I’m amazed that even at this late date, critics of the president act as though there is no coherent rationale for war. They complain about imperialist adventurism and lust for oil, without even bothering to restate, much less refute, the president’s case.
John Zmirak may not be an anti-American leftist, but he shares with the Left a tendency to gloss over the argument that he purports to contradict. Between Zmirak’s autobiographical remarks and his worries about the aftermath of an attack, we get only a paragraph on the actual reasons for war with Iraq. Even there, the real issue is ignored.
We are invading Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from obtaining nuclear weapons. Once Saddam has possession of such weapons, he will be able to pass them to terrorists for use against the United States. Even short of this, Saddam is very likely to grab for control of the Gulf’s oil, while holding us off with nuclear blackmail. Hussein has already told his aides that his big mistake in Kuwait was invading before he possessed a nuclear weapon.
With a nuclear weapon in hand, Saddam’s decades-long plans for control of the Gulf, and for preeminence in the Arab world, can at last be fulfilled. What would John Zmirak advise that we do to dislodge Saddam from Kuwait’s oil fields if Hussein were to threaten the destruction of New York in response to an American counterattack? Should we cede Saddam control of the world’s economy, or should we put the lives of millions of New Yorkers at risk? Saddam doesn’t even have to go that far to confront us with an impossible choice. He could hold off an American attempt to throw him out of a captured Kuwait simply by threatening to nuke the Saudi oil fields. Such an attack would simultaneously contaminate his rivals’ oil, set off a world-wide depression, and vastly increase the value of the wells that remained under his own control.
It is difficult for us to envision all this, because the only experience we’ve had with nuclear weapons was the Cold War balance of terror. But the U.S./Soviet experience was only a single case, and even that approached disaster during the Cuban crisis. What’s really destabilizing the world is the proliferation of nuclear weapons to countries that are not at all like the United States or the old Soviet Union. The problem with nuclear weapons is that, depending on who handles them, the terror they inspire can make war either less likely, or more. Fear of nuclear conflagration discourages sober and rational states from coming to blows. That’s what kept the peace (relatively speaking) during the Cold War. But in the hands of an ambitious, unscrupulous, and foolhardy dictator, nuclear weapons make a conflagration vastly more likely, not less. Knowledge of the capacity of nuclear weapons to intimidate foes emboldens brinksmen like Saddam to employ their weapons as tools of blackmail–even if the failure of such blackmail would initiate a shattering disaster. We only need one such case of blackmail and failed brinksmanship to plunge the world into catastrophe. Saddam is clearly that case.
I would review Saddam’s terrible history, his disastrous risk-taking in war after aggressive war, and his repeated rejection of the logic of conventional deterrence. I would point to Saddam’s monomaniacal determination to obtain nuclear weapons at the cost of the starvation and impoverishment of his people, even at the risk of his own regime and life. But John Zmirak has already conceded that Saddam is a serial aggressor who ignores the logic of deterrence. The problem is that Zmirak does not understand the significance of the point he so blithely concedes. Saddam has risked all for the moment when he can turn on us with a nuclear weapon in his hand. If we do not dislodge him now, we shall truly have hell to pay.
This is why we attack Iraq. George Bush entered office a confirmed skeptic of nation building. Even now, the administration has done far less than it promised to subdue and transform an unruly Afghanistan. These are not the actions of an imperialist adventurer. George Bush was transformed by the blow that transformed us all. With the destruction of the World Trade Center by suicide pilots, we learned that sober and rational nations operating under the logic of deterrence were no longer the only game in town. And we learned how high are the stakes of failure in this new world that we are living in. George Bush is not being propelled into Iraq by an excess of testosterone, but by a right refusal to be responsible for the disaster we shall all suffer if Saddam Hussein is permitted to obtain nuclear weapons.
The president’s new policy of preemption is based on the same considerations. His policy stems from the recognition that nuclear proliferation has radically reconfigured the nature and the risks of war. The president’s policy is a message to the Saddam Hussein’s of the world that their plans to obtain nuclear weapons and subject the civilized world to blackmail will not be tolerated. Just as surely, however, our failure to dislodge Saddam Hussein at this critical moment would serve as a signal to every tin-pot dictator in the world that possession of a nuclear weapon or two will suffice to neutralize the conventional might of an already intimidated United States.
As Zmirak points out, a number of our allies say that they oppose an invasion of Iraq. Some of these allies are simply lying. They despise and fear Hussein, and want him destroyed, but hesitate to expend the political capital it would require to say so out loud. France and Russia have undermined the sanctions against Saddam that they solemnly agreed to, all for the sake of oil and money. What’s more, the Europeans believe that they, unlike the United States, are not now targets of nuclear terror. They want things to stay that way (although they are being naive about their ability to remain above the terrorist fray). But we are targets, and shall continue to be targets, no matter what we do. So if we fail to accept and deploy our power, we shall surely be undone by the hatred that our power inspires.
Zmirak correctly points to a very difficult set of problems that will confront this country once Saddam’s regime has been conquered and destroyed. It is not necessary, however, to advocate the immediate democratic transformation of Iraq, or the conquest and secularization of the entire Middle East, in order to favor an invasion of Iraq. My guess is that a friendly Iraqi autocracy will emerge in the short term, perhaps giving way to a workable democracy in the long term. Even that will be exceedingly difficult to achieve.
But Zmirak misses the point. We are already in a new world. We are already targets. And we shall face nuclear blackmail and terror–in Iraq, and beyond Iraq–if we do not act now to show Saddam and his would-be imitators the bad end that their nuclear plans will come to. We must face this new world with a combination of reluctance and boldness–prudence and strength. We require manliness, yes–a manly refusal to place our heads in the sand when our lives are at stake, and a manly willingness to risk our lives to protect our loved ones, and the future of our civilization. But we shall also require the wisdom to hold back in instances when other means besides force might realistically succeed, or when it becomes evident that ambitious attempts at social transformation in the Arab world would be premature and counter-productive.
I myself would never have chosen, under normal circumstances, to use force in an effort to democratize the Arab world. Nor, it is evident, would the president have made such a choice. It is too easy to forget that democracy has social preconditions. Those preconditions are anything but met in the Arab world. Attempts to democratize in the absence of a civil society and the beginnings of a liberal culture can easily bring dictatorship in its wake. Having said that, I do believe that, in the long term, given the dangers of a world filled with rapidly proliferating weapons of mass destruction, Arab society does need to move in the direction of political modernization and liberalization. How, and how successfully, we bring that change about is a very open question. What Zmirak fails to realize, however, is that it is a question that the protection of our very lives has now forced us to ask and to answer.
Will Iraq break apart in the wake of our victory? There will certainly be forces pushing it in that direction. But Zmirak has said nothing of the counter-forces. Even in the absence of a dictator, Iraq is held together by oil revenues. Each of the country’s three main communities wants its share of those oil revenues, and each knows that the others will be loathe to see one community abscond with the wells in its territory. That, and a strong hand by the United States (and yes, by Turkey), will probably suffice to keep the country together.
But that is only the beginning of our difficulties. Managing a conquered Iraq will be a tremendous, demanding, and expensive challenge. Even in the best of circumstances, there will be communal strife, international tensions, and bitterness in the Arab world against us. This is now our fate. We cannot return to September 10. Nor can we return to the Cold War. The twin evils of Islamic terrorism and nuclear proliferation are upon us. We must face them and make the best of them. We must remain angry about what was done to us, but angry in the right way, at the right time, in the right place, to the right degree, and for the right purposes. That is an honor and a manhood that a mature nation can–and must–willingly embrace.
Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a contributing editor at National Review Online.