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The Price Of U.S. Power

Now comes the estimable Shimon Peres, Nobel peace laureate, erstwhile prime minister of the Third Jewish Commonwealth and principal developer of the intimate relationship between Israel and France during the 1950s — when France was Israel’s critical source of arms — and proposes that India replace France on the United Nations Security Council. In effect, Peres endorsed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s dismissal of France as part of “Old Europe.” “Why not,” Peres rhetorically asked at an appearance on February 20 before a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, “India, which represents much more of the 20th century?”

Well, it is now, of course, the 21st century, and there may be good arguments for a restructuring of the Security Council, but Peres knows quite well that his remark was intended to cause shock rather than to precipitate change. It came in the context of a tough critique of the positions Germany and France have taken on America’s policy toward Iraq.

Peres’s critique included, as well, a denunciation of the world-wide mass protests against the impending war. “Why,” Peres asserted — I say “asserted” rather than “asked” because his words were meant to end an argument, not to pose a question — “didn’t they demonstrate when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, or invaded Kuwait?… One must ask why was it right to bomb Kosovo… without the United Nations. Is [former Yugoslav president Slobodan] Milosevic more dangerous than Saddam Hussein?”

I have no information regarding how these remarks went over with the Presidents Conference, though if past is prologue, one can reliably imagine they were enthusiastically received. But they are unworthy of Peres and inadequate to the gravity demanded by the debate on whether to go to war against Iraq.

Why did masses of people not demonstrate against Saddam’s war with Iran? In some part, out of a version of racism: If Muslims want to kill each other, so be it. Mostly, though, the recent demonstrations were giving voice to a specific resentment against the only superpower throwing its weight and its bombs around. With unprecedented power comes unpleasant scrutiny — unpleasant, but not unwarranted. Power comes with a price.

And why was it “right” to bomb Kosovo even without authorization from the U.N.? Yes, the West is inevitably and understandably more exercised by offensive behavior within its borders than by such behavior elsewhere. Milosevic and Saddam — each dangerous enough, the one a clear and present danger not only to the Kosovars but also to the West’s self-respect, the other to his own people and perhaps one day to others. Still, since when have we only one prescription for very different diseases?

But all these arguments are secondary. What Peres, among others, fails to grasp is that some of us who oppose the impending war do so because we are persuaded that the rosy scenarios of a democratized Iraq setting a powerful example for the rest of the Arab world are almost surely fantasies, whereas one cannot dismiss the frightening predictions that a war against Iraq will likely ignite a world war between the West and Islam and almost certainly attract legions of new terrorists. How disgustingly ironic that the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda that the administration has tried and failed to establish may be forged in the firestorm we ourselves are about to launch.

Some advocates of the war argue that just as “we” democratized Germany and Japan after World War II, we can and soon will democratize Iraq. That is sloppy analogizing: neither Germany nor Japan was linked to a vast worldwide population of hundreds of millions of co-religionists who will, unless the war is incredibly surgical, react with fury rather than with relief.

Dealing with the reality of terrorism remains the most pressing and the most awkward challenge to the United States and to the entire family of nations. One can surely understand if the president and his people vastly prefer an enemy with a face, a title and the capacity to surrender, to a faceless enemy who lives in the shadows everywhere. A war against Iraq will have a beginning and, one hopes, an end, even if its consequences ripple, or flood, onward and outward long after that ending. A war against terrorism has no proximate end point; in its current scale and its potential, terrorism is unprecedented and can at best be blunted, not defeated.

But the fear and frustration to which our own vulnerability to terrorism give rise are surely not adequate to justify an assault on Iraq. Such an assault must be assessed on its own terms, and that means its likely costs and its likely benefits must be weighed as best we can weigh them.

Israel has its own interests to protect — as do we — and one understands why Peres and most Israelis applaud President Bush’s course. But lives are here at stake and, as always, a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” The occasion calls for sobriety, not for applause-gleaning one-liners.

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).

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