Joe Conason's Journal

Bush backers go to the trenches, and those who dare to criticize are labeled "Defenders of Saddam."

Published February 7, 2003 9:11PM (EST)

Objectively repellent
"Defenders of Saddam" is now the epithet of choice that war enthusiasts substitute for argument with those of us who believe that war really should be the last resort in Iraq. William Safire uses such extreme invective today twice in his second paragraph. He applies the broad, smearing brush to anyone who doesn't assent to the immediate imperative of invasion. That must include Safire's employers on the page opposite his column, who today reiterated their position: "Because the consequences of war are so terrible, and the cost of rebuilding Iraq so great, the United States cannot afford to confront Iraq without broad international support." The Times editorial board has insisted all along that inspections backed by force are the best alternative to war. If that makes them protectors and defenders of Saddam, the Hitler of our time, it is hard to understand why Safire dishonorably continues to accept their patronage.

This abusive language (and abuse of language) is now a habit among some on the right. To disagree is to be subjected to accusations of disloyalty, appeasement and so on. Colin Powell, suddenly hailed as the patron saint of intervention, has been denounced as an appeaser and worse many times over during the past year, usually by people whose keen appetite for a war in which others will fight and die is more than a little unbecoming.

According to Andrew Sullivan, for instance, my opinion about the continuation of inspections as an alternative to war makes me "objectively" an ally of Saddam. How ironic it is that when the self-styled Orwell becomes agitated, he reaches immediately for the rhetorical slime of Stalinism. "Objectively" is an artifact of the smelly cant that Orwell specifically rejected -- a term habitually used by Communists to defame opponents with the accusation that they were "objectively" allies of fascism and imperialism. Now we see certain scoundrels using the same defamatory tactic to inhibit debate about Iraq.

Objectively then, as Sullivan would say, everyone who has endorsed inspections or expressed skepticism about war must be Saddam's stooge, from retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, the president's Mideast envoy, to the editorial writers at the Houston Chronicle, the president's supportive hometown newspaper, who yesterday urged Secretary Powell "to explain why the U.N. weapons inspection regime was worth signing onto a few weeks ago, but doesn't merit an adequate opportunity to be carried out." (Two former National Security Council staffers raise important questions about the administration's war policy here.)

To the extent that Safire and Sullivan make a coherent argument, they seem to say that unless Saddam disarms voluntarily and completely tomorrow, we must rain cruise missiles on Baghdad next week. The true success or failure of inspections is irrelevant to their position -- and perhaps they ought to stop pretending otherwise.

Recent history makes nonsense of the false, constricted choice presented by the war enthusiasts. For seven years, between 1991 and 1998, inspections worked and Iraq was wholly contained. I wonder whether Sullivan would be so honest as to inform his readers how much Iraqi ordnance was discovered and destroyed during that period. This 1997 USIA release provides some measure of the magnitude of weaponry and production equipment Saddam lost before he decided to foreclose that process. It dwarfs the amounts discussed by Powell yesterday. Insisting on continued, intrusive inspections is no favor to Saddam -- nor to the Islamist enemies of the United States who anticipate a propaganda bonanza from the suffering our forces would inflict on the Iraqi people in war. Perhaps that makes the advocates of war "objectively" allies of Osama. Much of what Sullivan says, like his assertion that the current U.N. inspections are "fruitless" and will find nothing, is self-contradictory. After two months, the inspectors already have discovered warheads, documents and chemical weapon precursors that Sullivan and others earlier pronounced "very serious." What is to stop the U.N. from putting hundreds more inspectors in country, with U-2 surveillance and other sophisticated methods? Why not reserve what the president called the "last resort" for the moment when Saddam resists those measures?

Yesterday Kofi Annan warned Baghdad that Iraq must cooperate with the inspectors or face eventual judgment by the Security Council. He's right. Let's wait and see what Hans Blix -- who, like Powell, has recently been praised for his toughness by those who earlier disparaged him -- says in his next report before we rush to war.

Meanwhile, I can only hope that when Sullivan misleads his readers about my views, they will take the trouble to read what I've actually written. That's always a necessary precaution with Sullivan, as he demonstrates today with his "three cheers" for Mary McGrory. Anyone who doesn't read her column wouldn't know that she concludes her praise for Powell with this sentence: "I'm not ready for war yet." Until she's ready, I suppose that makes her a "protector of Saddam," too.

[12:52 p.m. PST, Feb. 6, 2003]

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