The state of war

Will Iraq comply with the rigorous demands of UN inspections? Hopes are high that Saddam Hussein’s resolve to stay in power will override his desire to conceal nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons sites. If so, the Bush administration’s pursuit of his disarmament through the UN will prove as Brent Scowcroft writes, "a remarkable exercise in diplomacy," offering "the peaceful resolution of the crisis over Iraq that few would have thought conceivable only three months ago" (Washington Post, November 21). Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush, was one of those most critical of calls for an Iraq war; his very vocal criticism (and perhaps that of his former boss) may have induced a more cautious approach in Bush II.

Even so, there is little doubt that should the inspections collapse, the president will authorize an attack. Regime change remains a powerful impulse in an administration at odds over its Iraq policy. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s diplomatic efforts have prevailed and may succeed; meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz wait in the wings ready to force Hussein from power-by war if necessary. Failed weapons inspection and the requisite UN resolution may give legal justifications for a military attack, but its moral justification is highly problematic, as the U.S. Catholic bishops said at their November meeting. Bombing Baghdad hardly seems a last resort when both no-fly zones and sanctions have kept Iraq contained for ten years; the consequences of an armed conflict are likely to issue in more terrorism rather than less; and civilian casualties are likely to be high.

War against Iraq is not what Americans expected when Bush declared war on terrorism a year ago last September. The justified attacks on Afghanistan swiftly accomplished what people did expect: The end of Taliban rule disrupted the Qaeda network. But that quick success and the continuing arrests of Al Qaeda leaders and operatives have not brought an end to terrorist attacks nor a sense of security to Americans, or anyone else. Hence, our nation’s apparent acquiescence (at least as registered by public opinion polls) in a war against Iraq, even though no connections to Al Qaeda and the September 11 attacks have been demonstrated. To the contrary, putative links are demonstrably counter to the interests of Iraq and Saddam Hussein.

What if war with Iraq, rather than stemming the terrorist tide, whips it up, creating ever greater reason for the disinherited of the Islamic world to join the jihad? Indeed, the chaos of war will give terrorists of many persuasions the chance to grab or to buy some of Hussein’s weaponry, both conventional and otherwise.

Isn’t the slow but steady work of surveillance, intelligence gathering, and police action more likely to stem the tide of terrorism? The institutional caution of the U.S. military about war with Iraq as a dangerous diversion is well considered, and Bush’s apparent popularity should not obscure from other Americans the full consequences of what we may unleash.

In the meantime, the war against terrorism within the United States proceeds in implacable bureaucratic fashion. The reorganization of twenty-three federal agencies (165,000 employees) into a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security passed Congress as it adjourned. Funds, computer resources, and management skills, though lacking to carry out current responsibilities (for example, at the Immigration and Naturalization Service), are promised for fighting terrorism, though neither the FBI nor CIA is included in the new department. In the meantime, FBI agents are being ordered to turn from the pursuit of criminals, such as major drug dealers (arguably more dangerous), to ferreting out terrorists on American soil. How many terrorists can there be? Enough for fifty-six FBI field offices? At the same time, the wall separating federal investigations into criminal activities and spying for foreign agents was removed on November 18 by the decision of a court appointed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist for that purpose at the request of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Meanwhile, John Poindexter, previously of the Iran-Contra scandal, is setting up a database at the Department of Defense, Office of Information Awareness, that promises to track personal information entered on commercial and governmental computers from e-mail, Internet use, travel, credit-card purchases, phone and bank records, as well as other public and private data in what the Pentagon describes as one "centralized grand database" (Washington Times, November 21).

Ironic, is it not, that the war on terrorism is being pressed by Bush and company in a manner that invites erosion of the rights and freedom of the American people while the terrorist networks go about their rather more plodding but single-minded efforts to undermine the values and power of the United States.

November 26, 2002

Published in the 2002-12-06 issue: 
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Seventy-five years!

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