Joe Conason's Journal

Conservative crackup on Iraq: Rice and Safire scramble to defend Bush policy. Plus: Almost three out of four voters believe Bush must prove his case against Iraq.

Published January 23, 2003 8:11PM (EST)

The glories of war
The last time American and allied forces confronted the Iraqi army, both the purpose and the justification for war were clearer than today. Saddam Hussein's invasion of a neighboring state was an unprovoked aggression that had to be turned back by the international community, especially when he showed no signs of leaving Kuwait. While that war was probably unavoidable, its conclusion was truly sickening, from the merciless incineration of thousands of retreating conscript soldiers to the murderous suppression of the Kurdish and Shi'a rebellions. Photojournalist Peter Turnley has now posted a digital exhibit of the "Mile of Death," Kurdish refugees and various horrors he shot at the end of the Gulf War. Turnley is one of the best and bravest photographers in the world, and his gallery is an upsetting display of modern war's realities. Sensitive readers and children should probably avoid it. But juvenile hawkish pundits -- and others whose glib enthusiasm for armed conflict at a safe distance has been shaped by pop culture and video games -- should take a long, hard look. Americans tend to be insulated from the grimmer aspects of geopolitics. Yet their support for Bush's war policy continues to decline, according to the yesterday's Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. His snappish impatience with traditional U.S. allies doesn't appear to be making a favorable impression on voters. Approval of his foreign policy has dropped by 30 points since January 2002. Almost three out of four voters believe that the president must prove his case against Iraq before our troops invade. They don't much care for his latest tax cut proposals or his administration's economic performance, either.
[3:23 p.m. PST, Jan. 23, 2003]

The Iraq crackup
As public support for unilateral war on Iraq diminishes, conservative discourse on the topic is showing signs of a crackup. Consider the Op-Ed page of today's New York Times, which features efforts by William Safire and Condoleezza Rice to resuscitate the Bush policy. Safire devotes his space to a peculiar, rambling attack on German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a man who has annoyed the White House immensely for months. Did you know that Schröder has been married several times? Did you know that he has been feuding with newspapers that accuse him of dyeing his hair? Probably not -- and therefore you surely didn't realize that these political foibles form "the backdrop," as Safire concludes, to European dissent from White House war-making. (Someday perhaps the Op-Ed sage will explain how the marital and financial troubles of Likud politicians have affected the Mideast peace process.)

In passing, Safire also insinuates that the only reason France might ever participate in any action to oust Saddam would be to ensure that French firms aren't "frozen out of postwar oil arrangements." But American policy, of course, has nothing to do with petroleum interests.

Former Chevron director Rice doesn't argue for immediate invasion of Iraq by the (very small) coalition of "the willing." In fact, the national security advisor seems unable to offer any argument for military action at all. Nor does she cite any new evidence -- or old evidence -- that Iraq possesses nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. Instead, she complains that Baghdad has failed to behave as forthrightly as South Africa, Ukraine and Kazakhstan did when those nations decided to dismantle their nuclear arms programs. But those countries had nuclear weapons. There is still no evidence that Iraq does or ever did.

Rice doesn't bother with a justification for war, but she does her best to frighten readers with those empty missiles. What she says is worthy of careful parsing: "Last week's findings by inspectors of 12 chemical warheads not included in Iraq's declaration was particularly troubling." As noted here earlier, the discovery of those rusting shells by the inspectors proved that UNMOVIC is doing its job well -- and that if Saddam Hussein is concealing proscribed weapons, the inspectors will eventually find them.

"In the past, Iraq has filled this type of warhead with sarin -- a deadly nerve agent used by Japanese terrorists in 1995 to kill 12 Tokyo subway passengers and sicken thousands of others." Here she implies that finding empty warheads proves the existence of poison gas -- and gets to throw in a gratuitous reference to "terrorists" as well. Does she think Saddam has been working with Aum Shinrikyo?

"Richard Butler, the former chief United Nations arms inspector, estimates that if a larger type of warhead that Iraq has made and used in the past were filled with VX (an even deadlier nerve agent) and launched at a major city, it could kill up to one million people." Notice that this scenario is entirely speculative. In two sentences, Rice has moved from a dozen small, empty missiles to a big missile filled with "an even deadlier" poison that kills a million victims. Is "if" the reason we're supposed to suspend the inspections and start bombing?

Actually, Rice cites another truly damnable provocation: "Iraq's declaration even resorted to unabashed plagiarism, with lengthy passages of United Nations reports copied word-for-word (or edited to remove any criticism of Iraq) and presented as original text." Now that made me wonder: Did the former provost call in a missile strike on student dorms when someone copied a paper at Stanford?
[12:07 p.m. PST, Jan. 23, 2003]

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