Idiocy of the week

The New York Times is as incoherent as it is cowardly when it comes to Saddam.

Published January 28, 2003 11:57PM (EST)

From the lead editorial in Sunday's New York Times:

"The Race to War"

Let's start with the headline. The truce that ended the Gulf War in 1991 made it a condition of cessation of hostilities that Saddam completely disarm. That meant primarily his massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and his research into nukes. Since then, Saddam has done everything he can to avoid such disarmament. After some initial success by the U.N., the inspectors were kicked out of the country in 1998. So Saddam has been in violation of the terms of the truce for more than 11 years. He has been given chance after chance to change his position. The U.S. agreed to a new U.N. attempt to disarm Saddam last fall, but Saddam's cooperation has been, by the estimate of every fair observer and by the U.N. inspectors themselves, less than satisfactory.

The Times calls all this a "race" to war. In fact, it's the slowest, most protracted attempt to force a despot's hand in recent memory. It's an 11-year rush to war.

"The countdown to war has begun."

Nope. It began 11 years ago with the violated truce. Strictly speaking, the war never ended since the conditions of the truce have been violated.

"The United Nations will hear the report of its weapons inspectors this week and begin debating the wisdom of endorsing a war against Iraq. But the Bush administration seems to be operating on a different plane, gearing up for an invasion it appears determined to conduct whether or not its allies approve. At best, it may give the Security Council a few more weeks to consider whether to approve an attack on Iraq.

"We urge the administration to brake the momentum toward war."

But doesn't the Times recognize that the only reason we have even a fraudulent Saddamite attempt to cooperate with the U.N. is a direct function of the credible "momentum toward war"? Before Bush ever threatened real consequences, Saddam got away with mass murder, and with the largely unfettered development of weapons of mass destruction. The only thing that has made Saddam even listen to the U.N. was Bush's military resolve. Yet now the Times wants to remove the one means we have to achieve a goal it says it supports.

"Saddam Hussein is obviously a brutal dictator who deserves toppling."

This is a huge concession. At least the Times acknowledges the terrible evil lurking in Baghdad.

"No one who knows his history can doubt that he is secretly trying to develop weapons of mass destruction."

This is an even bigger concession. What the Times is saying is that Saddam is deliberately trying to thwart the U.N., is not cooperating with the inspectors, and clearly intends to get weapons of mass destruction for use either by Saddam directly or by terrorist proxies. What this means is that by delaying in tackling Saddam we not only run the risk of allowing such weapons to get in the hands of terrorists or Saddamite agents; but we also may actually accelerate the day when a nuclear-armed Saddam can wield nuclear blackmail over the entire region.

And yet the Times still wants us to do nothing militarily to stop this.

"But this war should be waged only with broad international support. To go it alone, or nearly alone, is to court disaster both domestically and internationally."

So let's get this straight. Even if Saddam has chemical and biological weapons; even if he is in clear violation of U.N. resolutions; even if he and his proxies amount to a dire threat against the lives of Americans, the U.S. president should do nothing unless the French, Germans and Russians agree. This isn't foreign policy. It's the abdication of foreign policy. And it's certainly a direct assault upon the credibility of the United Nations.

"Mr. Bush has enough support among American voters to undertake the kind of clean, quickly successful military action his father directed in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. But every poll, every anecdotal reading of the American mood makes it clear that he has not sold the public on anything difficult or drawn out. Iraq is a large and complex Arab nation of 24 million people in the heart of the Middle East. America's overwhelming advantage in firepower might not prevent a prolonged period of street-to-street fighting in Baghdad that would be murderous to Americans and Iraqis alike. A desperate Iraq might try to attack Israel, disable Saudi and Kuwaiti oil fields or even destroy its own oil industry before it fell into American hands. It might fire whatever chemical and biological weapons it has against American troops. These are risks that could be well worth taking, but the American public has not signed on for them. This nation should never begin a fight it is not prepared to carry out to the bitter end, no matter what the cost."

The same argument could, of course, have been made -- and was indeed made -- before the first Gulf War. What it amounts to saying is that the U.S. cannot act in its own defense unless the public overwhelmingly supports every possible contingency that might accompany war. The truth is, that will never happen and has never happened in the post-Second World War era. And the Times knows this. What this position does is restrict American intervention to the most minor contingencies. It means retreating from any serious threat of military force in any region where we might become embroiled in a difficult or protracted conflict. No Korean War. No Gulf War I. No Bosnia. No Kosovo. Not only must a president cede such decisions to the president of France and the chancellor of Germany, he must also cede such decisions to the polls. Why, one wonders, didn't the Times oppose President Clinton's "rush to war" in the Balkans, when there was no Security Council support and the threat of a Russian veto?

"That isn't true of this engagement, and the fault lies mainly with the president himself. Mr. Bush has never been open with the American people about the possible cost of this war. He has not even been clear about exactly why we are preparing to fight. Sometimes his aim appears to be disarming the Iraqis or punishing Baghdad for defying the United Nations; sometimes the goal is nothing short of deposing Mr. Hussein. The first lesson of the Vietnam era was that Americans should not be sent to die for aims the country only vaguely understands and accepts. "

How many speeches does the president have to give? His position after 9/11 was absolutely clear. We were at war with international terrorism and its state sponsors and enablers. Iraq is one such country, the most dangerous and lethal of the bunch. We therefore have two options: pretend the world hasn't changed, leave Saddam in place, and react defensively to every new terrorist outrage. Or actually have a strategy to fight and win. Sometimes I wonder if the Times would only endorse a war against Saddam after hundreds of thousands of Americans were killed by a Saddam-manufactured chemical or nuclear device. The question is: Should we or should we not wait for that calamity before we act to prevent it? The Times implicitly argues that there is no danger of such a calamity. How can they be sure? What assurances of Saddam's good intentions do they have that the rest of us don't?

"The second lesson of Vietnam was that the country should never enter into a conflict without a clear exit strategy. We have nothing close to a plan for how, once in Iraq, we get back out again. Even if Mr. Hussein is easily eliminated, the United States will be left to govern and police Iraq for an extended period. Without clearly acknowledging the possibility to the American public, Washington could easily find itself involved in an open-ended occupation."

Yep, this is an extended commitment. Just as our commitment to a newly liberated Afghanistan is open-ended. As is our continued commitment to Germany -- over 50 years after liberation. But that doesn't mean there is never an end. And it doesn't mean it's not a venture worth undertaking.

"These risks would be tolerable if the rest of the world were working alongside the United States, prepared to share the danger of the invasion and -- much more critically -- the responsibility for creating a more humane and progressive Iraqi government in its wake. There are some threats and some causes that require fighting even if America has to fight alone, but this isn't one of them."

Why not? Is the threat of a chemical attack on New York not worth fighting to prevent? Is a nuclear-armed Saddam, able to control a huge amount of the oil resources for the entire West, not worth fighting to prevent? The insouciance of the Times toward these nightmare scenarios -- as nightmarish as the U.S. has ever encountered -- beggars belief. And in a liberated Iraq, why does the Times assume that the French, Germans and Russians won't be clamoring for access, if only to make money? Post-Saddam, the problem won't be enough foreign help. It will be too much.

"And the world -- like the American public -- is not yet really convinced that a Hussein-free Middle East is a goal worth fighting a war for.

"Britain, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Australia and a number of Persian Gulf states have offered military assistance or access to bases, but there should be no mistaking this ad hoc group for a united international front. France, Germany, Russia, China and even Canada are not on board. They may all have their parochial reasons for not joining the fight, but their resistance to war should be a powerful signal that if anything goes wrong -- and something will go wrong sooner or later -- the United States will bear the responsibility alone."

And the U.S. is unable to bear that responsibility alone? What a long way we've come from the Kennedy era promise to bear any burden and pay any price for the defense of freedom. Here we have the Times saying that the U.S. shouldn't bear this burden, even when the survival of its own citizens is at stake.

"One of the most disturbing aspects of the Bush administration's campaign to get broader international support is the implication that France or any other nation that fails to get on board now will be cut out of the administration of postwar Iraq and its oil fields. Freeing the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's brutality and freeing the world from the threat of his belligerence are causes worth fighting for."

Hold on a minute. Didn't the Times just argue that this wasn't one of the causes that's worth fighting for? Well, actually the Times said that this wasn't a cause worth fighting for alone. So a grave moral evil that's worth fighting against nevertheless should be left alone if we can't have overwhelming international support. We already have Britain, Spain, Italy, Australia and others. But for this moral cause to be worth it, we need France, Germany, Russia and all the countries that have a direct interest in keeping their trade with Saddam. All I can say is: Morality worth fighting for is awfully easily traded away in the mind-set of the New York Times. I expect this kind of realpolitik from Henry Kissinger. But from Gail Collins?

"Winning control of Iraq's oil fields is not, particularly when the attacking nation is a country whose wasteful use of energy is an international scandal."

So because the U.S. should do a better job at energy conservation, it has no right to secure oil fields crucial to the world economy?

"We hope that after the chief weapons inspectors present their reports tomorrow, the members of the United Nations Security Council will set aside their preconceptions and evaluate the findings carefully, particularly the level of Iraqi cooperation. The inspectors alone will never disarm Iraq."

This is another huge concession. Let's reiterate it: The inspectors alone will never disarm Iraq.

"But they can slow Mr. Hussein's weapons programs ... "

How? What evidence do we have for this at all? If we cannot find the weapons or the plants developing them, how can we begin to know if they're being impeded or not? But even if you concede this implausible point, what will disarm Saddam? Drum-roll, please:

"... leaving more time for diplomatic efforts to remove him from power ..."

At this point, the editorial simply collapses into complete incoherence. Does anyone at the Times seriously believe that diplomacy will remove Saddam? Do the editorialists believe that by the U.S. standing down, acceding to the French and Germans' desire to keep Saddam in power, that pressure on Saddam will increase? Of course, the only result of the Times' proposal is a huge victory for Saddam, and for his enablers in Europe. It will encourage him not to cooperate at all. Far from it; it will show him that his old tactics of hide-and-seek, and playing one Western power off against another, have worked yet again. Any delay till the fall is essentially an end to the threat altogether. If Saddam can get the West to stand down after blatantly flouting U.N. resolutions, he won't moderate in the future. He will ramp up his ambitions; and his terrorist allies, from al-Qaida to Hezbollah will see how weak the U.S. is and ratchet up their violence as well. Saddam said that he knew his best hope lay with the opposition in Western countries, and the Times is dancing to his tune perfectly.

"... and for Washington to mobilize the international support it now lacks."

On what grounds, one might ask, would such a strategy lead to winning more support for war against Saddam? France and Germany would rightly see the collapse of a military threat against Saddam as a mere prelude for their real intent: an end to sanctions against Iraq. And they'd have a point. The brutal sanctions are a terrible burden on the poor Iraqi people. If we forbid them liberation, should we also enforce immiseration upon them? Or perhaps the Times' editors believe that somehow some smoking gun will be found. But if such a thing is found, it will simply be used as evidence that inspections work, rather than as a reason to end inspections. Do they believe that the inspectors can disarm Saddam? Nope. So what are they actually proposing? The answer is: nothing but delay, prevarication, weakness and retreat. Why on earth would they support such a strategy?

"Forty years ago, the United States entered into a conflict in Southeast Asia with good intentions. When it emerged, it was torn at home and humbled abroad. The men and women now preparing to take the country into war in Iraq are, in the main, products of the Vietnam generation. They should be the first to remember how easy it is for things that begin well to end badly."

Ah, Vietnam. There's your answer. It's still haunting 43rd Street, even after much of the rest of the country has moved on. And, of course, if Vietnam is used as a reason to treat warfare with great seriousness, then that's all to the good. But if it's used to foster merely ambivalence, fear, inconstancy and abdication in foreign policy, then it will be a self-fulfilling policy.

The Times believes that Saddam is evil, that he is a real threat to the region and the West, that he has and is trying to gain more weapons of mass destruction, and that the U.N. inspectors cannot disarm him. But the Times also believes that, even after 11 years of Saddam's defying the U.N., that war should not be an option, that diplomacy can remove Saddam, that the French and Germans should have a veto over American foreign policy, and that time is on our side. That's their position. It is as incoherent as it is cowardly; as weak as it is afraid.

By Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own Web site.

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George W. Bush Iraq Middle East The New York Times