February 16, 2003

A Moment Of Clarity (Lengthy Post Warning):

So a mate comes over today and we decide to spend some time at the local pub quaffing a few beers and enjoying a world-class beef & cheese sandwich. We sit at the end of the bar, and it’s not long before our conversation turns to war and its portents. This particular friend is a former liberal, who’s now a conservative (but who fancies himself a libertarian--yes, one of those, as am I, I suppose). He’s also one of the smartest people I know, and a policy wonk at heart ... so I can always count on him for an insightful, substantive conversation.

So we begin to talk of the possibility of war. And we find ourselves agreeing that the US must disarm Hussein by force, if necessary. He’s thought this for some time, but the position is relatively new for me. Yes, I have a well-deserved and not always favorable reputation for being … shall I say, firm in my opinions. Nonetheless, a clear view of our policy toward Iraq has been difficult for me to resolve.

In the Gulf War I was certain we’d made a mistake in not finishing the job … that a 100-hour ground war was merely a brief First Act in a much larger play. And I was right: On 9/12, even as the smoke billowed over lower Manhattan, I knew the curtain had raised on Act 2, and that we would—and should—soon return to the Gulf. Then, as the question of inspections came before the UN last fall, I was certain that the time to act was at hand … that additional delay only increased the odds of Saddam using WMD (though likely in defense). But three weeks ago I changed my mind, based on two considerations: First, that (with the exception of Grenada-like engagements) the U.S. had never entered a war from a first-strike posture—a precedent which I was not eager to set; and second, that a regime change in Iraq was not worth more than 10,000 American lives.

Which raises what I think is perhaps the central question: what is the over-under on the American lives we’re willing to lose in Iraq serving a greater interest? 1,000? 5,000? 20,000? It's a trick question, of course: the calculus depends on how one defines our interests. And there are many definitions … which are regularly tramped before us and that run the gambit from nuclear proliferation to revenge.

I was defining our interests then primarily as limiting the proliferation of WMD, and secondarily, as pursing a policy of raining American power upon nations that foster or endorse terrorism. And my gut told me that a war in Iraq may easily produce 10,000 American casualties, which was too great a price to pay for those interests.

But over the past several weeks, I've become increasingly certain that in the face of failing diplomacy, the situation in Iraq does require force … and it is this position that we discussed over our beefs and beers this afternoon.

As often happens in a local pub, on Saturday afternoon, when the cold of winter holds men inside, the noise and libations were a catalyst for conversation … in this case, with nearby man of his early 50s. In 20 minutes of polite but opinionated discussion, he made this argument:

We are likely watching the end of a US hegemony, and my children may not enjoy my same prosperity

The ferment we’re seeing overseas in response to our position in Iraq is a function not of a desire to save Iraqi lives, but rather is a reflection of global frustration with a United States that has lost touch with a changing world

We can reverse our decline if we can better appreciate and find strategic advantage in this changing global mindset

American leadership is too immersed in their own socio-economic context to appreciate this fact, and our motivations in Iraq flow from the self-interest of U.S.-based multinational business

That said, we now are committed to action in Iraq simply from a need to preserve the credibility of American power, and he supports action in Iraq for this reason

North Korea appreciates this, has us behind the eight ball, and will successfully extract concessions as a result

If we don’t shape up soon, in 15 years the Chinese economy will kick the hell out of us

We went back and forth some … he clearly was a bit of a conspiracy theorist, and I had to remind him that Osama bin Laden is a butcher, not a Martin Luther leading a new wave of social change. Even so, this discussion … after the glasses were dry and the bill paid … gave me cause to think. Not because I was unfamiliar with the argument, but because it was so unexpected. Our local pub is not necessarily a place where one expects to find a direct summation of the day's political issues … and certainly not on Saturday afternoon, and not from a total stranger. Nonetheless, as I left the bar, I was struck by the transparency of three conclusions:

First, the U.S. is indeed entering a critical period in its history … one in which it will either adapt to and find advantage in changing global socio-economic dynamics, or continue to pursue policy from outdated assumptions. We face both supply- and demand-side sources of conflict. While disarming Hussein may address the supply-side problem of his destabilization of the region, it does not address the demand-side problem of large numbers of Muslims throughout the Islamic world finding appeal in fundamentalist doctrine. If we continue to pursue policy from our existing assumptions, we will face a more rapid decline in the next century than Britain faced in the last.

Second, we must disarm Hussein as soon as possible. Tony Blair, who has nearly total access to the U.S. intelligence apparatus, is willing to sacrifice his career out of his belief that we must disarm Hussein as soon as possible. Clinton, who was privy to that same apparatus until just two years ago, demonstrates the same certainty. Remove Bush (and all the claims about his conflicts of interest and hidden agendas) from the equation and the people who have full access to the facts are unshaken in their belief that disarming Hussein is not a national security priority, but an imperative. That is all we should need to know.

Finally, we should be unshaken in the primacy of our political principles. My consideration of these issues came about because I engaged in political discourse with a total stranger in a local pub. We did not completely agree. But we also did not lack civility. And we did not fear reprisal from our state. Neither, ironically, did millions of citizens of free democracies across the planet today as they exercised their right to voice opposition to possible state policy (while the Iraqi people for whose safety they advocate are unable to exercise this same right).

* * *

The bottom line: yes, we're in a time of hegemonic flux, and we need to focus on both supply- and demand-side solutions. And yes, we need to disarm Hussein as soon as possible--even if we must do so alone. But even as we endure social discontent in dealing with both of these issues, we should never forget that Democracy works. Our charter of political principles affords greater respect for humanity than any other. Sadly, many of those same protesters forgot that today. But I did not. I never will. Hopefully, neither will you.

Posted by Avocare at February 16, 2003 12:28 AM
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