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Against Innocence

A liberal's war, too.

Perceptions, perceptions. The great debate about the war in Iraq-- does anybody imagine that the United States has dispatched 180,000 troops to the Gulf not to send them into battle?--has dissolved into another debate about debates, another collision of perspectives, Washington, Paris, Berlin, New York, Brussels, Vilnius, Riyadh, the streets, the halls of power, as if there were no real threats that must be met, no conclusive answers that can be given to some of the urgent questions, and all that is needed now is a tolerance for other people's opinions. But it is not intolerant to believe that one is right and the other is wrong, if one can defend one's view. My own view is that it is quite easy to defend the necessity and the justice of separating Saddam Hussein from his lethal devices, which is the same thing as separating him from his power, which is the same thing as aiding in the formation of a democratic government in Baghdad. The only genuine solution to the problem of the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological arms is political development. It comes in many kinds, and often with assistance from the outside. (There is imperialism, and there is assistance from the outside. It is not naive to maintain the distinction, unless one thinks that the imbalance of power is itself an evil; but then one has surrendered the discussion of politics.) And the theory of deterrence cannot be responsibly applied to a dictator who has already used weapons whose use is famously not rational.

Morally, there is no significant difference between Halabja and Srebrenica. Both places were the sites of genocidal crimes that required decisive action by the international community, that is, by an American-led "coalition of the willing." There is a difference in scale, though, and in danger: Unlike the villain of Srebrenica, the villain of Halabja is in the position to perpetrate the same atrocity again, and worse. How can any liberal, any individual who associates himself with the party of humanity, not count himself in this coalition of the willing? So never mind the future of NATO, and all the other conference-building measures; there are many thousands of lives at stake in the outcome of this debate, in the disposition of Iraq's arsenal. Dominique de Villepin, in a breathtakingly obtuse phrase that brought down the house at the Security Council last week, called for "disarmament through peace." There speaks the collapse of modern memory. But it is the other way around, sucker: peace through disarmament. How can any liberal think otherwise?

The difficulty now is that the magnitude of American power seems to be obscuring the magnitude of American liberalism. The United States is the strongest state that has ever existed. It has no rival, and it will have no rival for many decades. And its capabilities seem to be blinding people about its purposes. How can such a powerful country not adopt its own power as its cause? How can such a mighty republic not be what Raymond Aron called "the imperial republic"? It is not surprising, surely, that the overwhelming dominance of the United States, in the aftermath of the cold war and the recent revolution in technology, makes many people around the world uneasy, and inclines them to overlook the considerable inhibitions on our pleasure in the use of our power that our culture has always imposed upon us, either in the form of internationalist decency or in the form of isolationist indifference.

It certainly has not helped that the Bush administration, and particularly the Rumsfeld Pentagon, has permitted itself fantasies of omnipotence. I refer not to its notorious doctrine of preemption, which in the case of certain threats really is nothing more than prudence. (Be early to kill a man who is coming to kill you, runs an ancient Jewish adage.) The theory of just war--not that war requires the approval of professors, but we must be thoughtful-- demands that a threat be "imminent" before you preempt it; but its notion of imminence is based on the old clarities of armies confronting each other on battlefields in the light of morning. What was disturbing about the Bush administration, rather, was its dream of the militarization of space, and the restoration of missile defense in its most theological version, and the "revolution in military affairs," which was merely a transposition of the stupid technological utopianism of the 1990s to the realm of military strategy. In the National Security Strategy that was released in September 2002, the president declared that "our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." So we will never again be equaled: From the standpoint of American interests, this is nothing more than an American government properly pressing its advantage; but there is an eschatological echo in the language, a temerity about history, as if the experience of nations has once and for all been transformed, and the Hobbesian problem has been forever solved, and we are Leviathan.

Yet the disagreeable fact, the unpleasant truth that has disappeared into the Pentagon's trance, is that the most potent country in the history of the world is not omnipotent. Quite the contrary. We are stumbling again and again upon the limits of our power. There is September 11, and anthrax, and our disgraceful failure to find Osama bin Laden; and there is North Korea. The Korean crisis is particularly instructive. Pyongyang's sins of proliferation are significantly greater than Baghdad's sins of proliferation, but we will satisfy ourselves with diplomacy. We will not use force. Are we hypocrites, then? Not exactly. The reason that we will not use force against North Korea is simple. It is that we cannot use force. If the United States will punish North Korea militarily, North Korea will punish South Korea militarily. The prospect of such a catastrophe is unacceptable. And so we are, except in the insane circumstance that Kim Jong Il prepares to launch a nuclear weapon, deterred. But we are not yet deterred by Iraq, which is why we must act while we can act. The ironic implication of our Korea policy for our Iraq policy is to justify it: Saddam Hussein is already strong enough to constitute a menace, but he is not yet strong enough to constitute a deterrent. The bad news, of course, is that the nations of the world have also remarked upon the thwarting of American power in East Asia. The Korean crisis has become a garish advertisement for nuclear proliferation.

So the United States finds itself in a peculiarly antithetical situation. We are more dominant than we have ever been and we are more vulnerable than we have ever been. We are fearless and we are afraid. There is a basis in reality for both these feelings, and it is not a simple matter to adjust them to each other. George W. Bush's Lucchese swagger is not doing the trick. Neither is the outrageously sectarian spirit in which the Bush administration is conducting its business. The president is correct in his conviction that history has summoned him, that he must defend the country with ferocity against its enemies, that greatness is demanded for such a task; but you cannot govern as Winston Churchill some of the time and as Grover Norquist most of the time. You cannot unify the citizenry for your foreign policy and divide the citizenry for your domestic policy. In an hour of peril it is not asking too much of the president to find a few moments away from politics. Are we fighting evil abroad? Then we must show goodness at home; not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is the stirring thing to do, and in this fight we must be stirred. What sort of time is this to worry about the rich?

The president's unfortunate combination of bigness and smallness is reflected in the incoherence of his administration's arguments for the war. Four motives have been given, by various sources with varying emphases, for our decision to depose Saddam Hussein: proliferation, terrorism, democratization, oil. I have said that I concur enthusiastically with the argument from proliferation, and I concur also with the argument from terrorism. Even if a "direct link" between the Iraqi regime and Al Qaeda has not been demonstrated, it is ridiculous to suppose that Saddam Hussein is prevented by any scruple from assisting terrorists, or that terrorist attacks against American and Israeli targets offend his secular Baathist conscience. He has his own delight in jihad. As for democratization, I do not think that it alone would justify the war, but the war will not be won unless a degree of democratization is achieved; and if there is such a thing as collateral damage, there is also such a thing as collateral humanitarianism, as the destruction of the Taliban in Afghanistan showed. But then there is the tasteless subject of oil. I do not agree that we are going to war for economic reasons, but it would be foolish to pretend that Iraqi oil does not intrude at any point upon American planning for Iraq after Saddam Hussein. Iraq's oil reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia's. The energy business has always cared more about stability than about democracy. Will Tommy Franks hand over the wells and the fields to a bunch of romantic reformers in the hope that the profits will build schools and libraries? I do not mean to be conspiratorial about the oil companies, merely unillusioned. Anyway, the influence of the American oil companies is owed to the incontinence of the American way of life. It will be a delicious moment when the president discovers that his love of democracy does not comport altogether comfortably with his love of energy; a moment of truth for this entire administration.

So can a liberal support this president in this war? I do not see why not. The United States, its needs and its duties, is larger than any of its leaders. The war against Saddam Hussein is just, and it is truly a last resort. (Saddam Hussein has been in violation of the Security Council for twelve years. It is his unrestrained contempt for the United Nations, and not the Bush administration's restrained contempt for the United Nations, that may destroy the institution.) There were some Republicans who despised Bill Clinton as much as some Democrats despise George W. Bush, but they supported the American interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and thereby they rose above politics to history, above sectarianism to Americanism. I cannot imagine any strenuous construction of liberalism that does not include the injunction to fight terror and to fight genocide. Liberalism is not a philosophy of innocence; and it should make tyrants quake, not smile.