What shall those of us who opposed the war now say and do, save mumble that it’s not yet quite over and that real peace and democracy are still iffy propositions? For the most part, the victory has been swift, comprehensive and without the tens of thousands of civilian Iraqi casualties that some of us feared likely. Is it time, as right-wing columnists have already begun to claim, for us to hang our heads in shame, to confess that Messrs. Wolfowitz and Perle, Rumsfeld and Kristol and the others, all the so-called “chicken hawks,” knew better after all?
Sorry, no apology warranted. Was there ever any doubt that the United States would prevail?
True, those of us who cautioned that wars most often do not go as their planners intend, that great and unpleasant surprises are the norm, were in this instance largely mistaken; surprises here were few and not entirely unpleasant — for example, the feebleness of Iraqi resistance. The war was hardly the “cake-walk” the planners and the media predicted, but still less was it the debacle the war’s opponents had forecast. Might peace and democracy now prove easier than we have thought?
The other night, on television, an “expert” analyst took a strangely Pollyannaish view of the immediate political prospect: Look how successful we’ve been in transforming Afghanistan; surely we can do the same in Iraq. Heaven help us if Afghanistan is our standard of success — Afghanistan, where the Taliban are now re-emerging and the Islamist warlords have never disappeared, where President Hamid Karzai seems to have become, in effect, the somewhat feckless mayor of Kabul, the liberated nation toward whose reconstruction the entire international community contributed a paltry $1 billion last year.
But even if, somehow, the general good of the Iraqi people will be dramatically advanced as a result of the war we condemned, and even if, mirabile dictu , contrary to what we who have opposed the war and, for that matter, the CIA as well have predicted, regional peace eventuates, and even for that matter a transformation of the entire Arab world, the war’s opponents will have no cause for shame.
Freedom for the Iraqi people was a postscript to the rationales the American administration put forward for this war; it came largely to compensate for the weakness of other and earlier rationales. This war was specifically and explicitly a war born of 9/11 and intended to prevent (or at least inhibit) its sequel. In the beginning, the heart of the matter was destroying Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. So far, we have located no such weapons, even though the president along with Secretary of State Colin Powell assured us, more than once, that the United States had specific information regarding their existence. Then we were spun by an effort to have us believe in a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda, a connection the war would sever. That was, to put it mildly, doubtful all along, and doubtful it remains.
But let’s suppose weapons of mass destruction and destructive connections are discovered. Let’s even suppose an early ending to the current chaos, and then the emergence of a competent Iraqi government. The reason such discoveries and developments would not vindicate the promoters of the war is that we who opposed it were not in fact opposed to “the” war; we were opposed to this war — this war that from the first so cavalierly dispensed with diplomacy, that treated the United Nations as an obstacle to be overcome rather that as a resource to be recruited, this war that knocked Europe off its developing center, this war whose planners enthusiastically rendered the sometime need for preemptive American action a virtue — nay, a commitment — this war that has soured, perhaps poisoned, America’s capacity for leadership in the family, yes family, of nations. On the morrow of 9/11, Americans asked, “Why do they hate us?” By “they,” we meant the maniacal terrorists, the suicide bombers, the cult of Osama bin Laden and his counterparts. But when we ask that question today, so short a time later, the “they” refers to tens of millions of people in virtually every corner of the globe. Nor is the answer to that question a mystery: They hate us because we have displayed contempt rather than regard for the good opinion of mankind. We have courted their hate. The war that might one day have been necessary, the “last resort” war, was not the war we fought; we fought instead a war that gives a new meaning to the word “isolationism,” that henceforward means not antipathy to foreign adventures but a sympathy for such involvements only when they are unencumbered by significant partnerships and alliances. It is, alas, not churlish to wonder which nation this war’s planners are now thinking to attack, and which after that.
Yes, of course, good riddance to Saddam Hussein’s regime. But the arguments from morality and from prudence that counseled invigorated inspections before resorting to war are as valid, as compelling, today as they were two months ago. We did not oppose this war because we feared America would lose it; we opposed this war because we believed that America should not wage it. It has been waged, and the whirlwind begun, no matter how events in Iraq unfold in the weeks and months ahead.
The presidency remains, of course, a bully pulpit, as Teddy Roosevelt was so fond of saying. But take care when the bully pulpit is occupied by a pulpit bully.
Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).