The McGill Report   3/16/03

Four Middle-Class White Guys Wrestle Over Iraq

By Douglas McGill

An anti-war petition circulating by e-mail yesterday pushed me and three good friends to decide, finally, where we stand on Iraq. 

The e-mail stared at the four of us, all friends going back years, smack in the face pleading "sign me!" Out of respect to the friend who had sent it, we knew that any of us who were still on the fence would have to get off. We needed to sign the petition or not, and if we didn't sign it we had to explain why -- and pray that our friendships held.

We are middle-aged, middle-class white guys, three of us living in Minnesota and one in New York City. We're liberal or left-leaning in our politics. Here are the e-mails we wrote explaining why we signed the petition (1) or didn't (3):

               #1: "Is War Sometimes Necessary?"

The Iraq problem is a difficult one for me. I don't look forward to war. But I don't hear much from war opponents about effective policy. All they are saying is... "give peace a chance." But, hey, that's not policy. What do we do with Saddam?

Left alone, what will emerge in Iraq in the next 10-15 years? Giving the inspectors more time is not effective. Note that the only reason the inspectors are there is because of America’s threat of war.

The UN inspectors swarmed over Iraq for four years in the early 90’s while Iraq continued a nuclear development program under their noses. The French and others at the UN handicapped the inspectors so they could not effectively respond to Iraq's refusal to cooperate. Finally, Iraqi opposition forced the inspectors out in 1998. Inspectors are effective to verify a cooperative regime's program of disarmament, as in South Africa. It is not a disarmament program itself.

Korea is very dangerous. I do not see that as an argument against Iraqi war. Cast your vision ten years hence. Saddam now has a nuclear weapon. Now what? What would we do if Iraq moves back into Kuwait? I would be comforted to hear the UN say "no more North Koreas.”

Is the U.S. acting "unilaterally"? The U.S. has worked within the multilateral framework since 1991. Most recently, the U.S. has been conducting the "full court press" to obtain allies. The U.S. is making a good effort to establish a multilateral coalition to pressure Saddam out, or go to war. Failing in its efforts to acquire international consensus is not the same as ignoring the rest of the world. Surely we cannot delegate important foreign policy decisions to the UN in total. Foreign policy by international consensus will not always be effective.

The WWII analogies don't always work. But, I think it’s interesting to look back. I have always been a little surprised when I remind myself that the U.S. did not join the war until December 1941. That was almost two and a half years after Hitler's invasion of Poland. What could we have been thinking?

It's hard to go to war. It's a big deal. But is it sometimes necessary? Can an early war save heartache later?

Most of the Democrats in the U.S. Senate opposed the Gulf War in 1991. They wanted to give diplomacy and sanctions more time. Where would that policy have led? The fact is that the Gulf War was a just one but was ended 72 hours early. Then Saddam failed to fulfill the terms of that armistice. The current crisis flows directly from that failure.

If we ignore the problem it will not go away. So, what are we to do?  

#2: "Going to War Will Slow Progress
on Other Priorities"

I am not prepared to support the U.S. going to war with every fascist. I am convinced that we have far greater priorities, such as, 1) Fighting terrorism; 2) Working for peace in the Middle East; 3) Dealing with North Korea (which looks to me to be a far greater threat to our interests); and 4) Rekindling the U.S. economy. Going to war in Iraq will hurt our progress on all of these priorities. And, I am especially troubled by the rank cowboys who don't seem to care what the rest of the world thinks, and seem prepared to proceed to war without backing by the UN.

#3: "I'm Keeping a Distance from
My Leftie Friends"

I feel ambiguous about the "peace" movement and the war. I went on the peace rally here in NYC on the 15th and found myself getting in arguments with people and wondering just how much in common I share with these so-called “lefties.”

I supported the war in Afghanistan even thought I would've liked to see the U.S. spend more money and energy rebuilding the country. Getting rid of the Taliban seemed a worthy cause but most of my fellow protestors were against it; I thought the fall of Milosevic and the protection of Kosovo (again even though more careful regulation of Kosovo ethnic rivalries would be recommended) was also justified but they were likewise against such American “imperialism.”

At the rally I searched in vain for a speaker to condemn Saddam’s regime or to at least advance an argument about how we should get rid of the guy (not because of WMD but because he's a monster who's killed millions of his own people). But most of the speeches were pitiful (and having Al Sharpton, the shakedown artist par excellence, as one of the speakers didn’t help matters).

A number of the people I walked with had a naiveté ("What did Saddam ever do to us?", which is hardly an internationalist position for the left to take and surely would not have been a very effective position to take against Hitler) that bordered on the ridiculous.

If there was international coalition committed to fight the war but more importantly committed to building the democratic peace afterwards (and all that this entails), then I might be persuaded. Since that’s not the case, I'm against the war because I do think it will make things worse. But I am keeping a wary distance from some of my leftie colleagues these days.

#4: "Saddam Has to Go"  

I believe we are already in WWIII and are already at war with Iraq. So from this perspective the "No War" crowd seems to me irrelevant, missing the point. My mouth hangs agape when I see the celebs and others trying to make their case, which to me is no case whatsoever because I see no logic or rigor or contemporary awareness in it.

I very much respect some no-war arguments, such as those being made by military people like General Anthony Zinni, and military analysts like John Mearshimer. They argue that Saddam poses no immediate threat so a stepped-up policy of containment is the better course, plus more thinking about our commitment to a postwar Iraq. It's hard to argue with this position.

Here is Zinni's argument and here is Mearshimer's.

Also I respect hardcore pacifists who are willing to face the true consequences of their beliefs.

But the anti-war crowd itself has produced no argument or person of credibility to me. In a perfect world, an international military force would coalesce to disarm Saddam before he gets the bomb and other WMD's. As it is, President Bush, although I doubt his commitment to a satisfactory follow-through, is taking this job upon himself and the U.S.

So which is the better way to expend our energy as individual citizens? Is it 1) To try to persuade the administration to be more diplomatic and to work harder on international coalition before killing or ousting Saddam; or 2) To try to persuade the administration and our fellow citizens to make the inevitable war as short, as humane, and with as much solid commitment to a democratic postwar Iraq as possible?

Basically I have chosen option #2. That's the position I took with A Global Citizen Thinks About War which I sent around earlier. If it I thought there was a chance that #1 would work, I'd do that. But I don't think there's a chance of it.

Bush is, sadly, an amateur at diplomacy who can't seem to open his mouth without disrespecting the rest of the world. In this way he is constantly turning the world against us. He's well-meaning in a certain kind of adolescent or school boyish way, and I suppose in this sense he's capable of being redeemed or seasoned or his mind changed about the need for collaboration and outreach to the global community. But realistically, this just isn’t going to happen. He's is in power and he's going to war. That's the reality of it, to me.

Therefore our best hope, because it is the most realistic, is not to try to dissuade Bush from this aggression but rather to modify and direct it as much as possible towards humane and democratic ends. Because I do believe, fundamentally, Saddam has to go.

We haven't all spoken with each other since we sent our e-mails around. Given the long personal history that we share, I'm confident that our friendships will indeed hold. And yet the stab of concern the petition raised for our long friendships was unsettling.

For three of us, the future of beautiful young children in our care is very much a motivating concern, and to a large degree is shaping our thoughts and decisions.

We are feeling heavily and treading lightly, because we sense how war's immense destructive power menaces even the fabric of friendships and love.

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report