»  National Review Online

February 18th, 2003

  Will the U.S. Go to War Against Iraq?

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Uh-oh, is it time to bring on that dish of crow yet? In my comments on the topic of war against Iraq, I have consistently argued two points: (1) that the U.S. will not go to war against Iraq, and (2) that Tony Blair will rat on us the moment it looks as though I am wrong about (1). Am I blushing? Do I have egg on my face? (If both things are the case, we might get a nice omelette out of it … but let's not go there.) Just how embarrassed am I just now? A little, I admit. To deal with the lesser issue first:

Will Tony Blair rat on us?  Many readers have chid me for my skepticism about Blair. "He's our one true friend," they tell me. "In the teeth of strong opposition from his own party, and against public opinion in Britain, he has stood by us, and spoken clearly and firmly of the case for war. This is courage; this is loyalty; this is something to admire. God bless Tony Blair."

I am going to agree with this, with some mild qualifications, and admit that I have misjudged Blair. Or rather, that I have let my distaste for a moralizing windbag (which I still believe Blair to be) blind me to the fact that even moralizing windbags can act on principle, display courage, and hold to large general principles against petty political considerations.

My dislike of Blair has many sources. For one thing, he is the leader of the Labour Party, and I dislike them en masse. Labour is a party of social engineers, of system-builders and "planners" (in the Hayekian sense). It is a party of pacifists and socialists, of love-the-world useful idiots, of Castro-fawners and Arafat-admirers. It is a party of tax-eaters and commerce-haters, of labor union officials and government pen-pushers and Community Relations Liaison Officers. It is a party of God-hating hedonists, of sour-faced feminists and proselytizing homosexuals, of cop-haters and criminal-coddlers … You get the general idea. I don't like Labour. Oh, I know, they have cleaned up their act a lot since last I lived in the sceptered isle, become more business-friendly, shed a lot of their ideological baggage, got haircuts and decent suits. The great truth enunciated by the late Philip Larkin remains unaltered, though: the Right in Britain, as everywhere else, is the party of "thrift, hard work, reverence, desire to preserve," while the Left stands for "idleness, greed and treason."

For another thing, there is the yawning gap between what Blair says and what he does. This has been most plainly seen in his Northern Ireland policy, whose brightest jewel was the Good Friday agreement of nearly five years ago. The people of Northern Ireland were promised, by Blair, that the sacrifices required of them by the Agreement would be paid for by "an end … to all the structures of terrorism." This has not happened, mainly as a result of Blair's weakness and dishonesty (though to be fair, the far greater weakness and dishonesty of Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has been an even bigger factor). Similar gaps between word and deed are showing up all over Blair's domestic policies, with much-advertised reorganizations of the health and education services turning into vast exercises in centralized bureaucratic empire-building with nothing to show in the way of actual healing or actual teaching.

Most of all, though, there is the fact of Blair's being a moralizer, what H.L. Mencken called a "world-saver." Even in making the case for war against Iraq, Blair leans heaviest on the moral case, telling us what a good deed we should be doing by ridding the world of an evil man. Now, it is true that in speaking to his party, Blair has to talk that way, as it is the only argument that has any weight with them. It is also true that our own President has sometimes spoken like this, too, assuring us that the long-suffering people of Iraq will greet us joyfully as liberators, that leaving Saddam in power would be an act of cruelty towards little Iraqi children, and so on. With Blair, though, and not with Bush, you feel that this is the heart of the matter for him. We must make the world a better place for all.

I am not very susceptible to this kind of appeal. I don't wish the little children of Iraq any harm, and hope U.S. policy goals can be attained without killing or maiming any of them. I would not favor going to war on their behalf, though; and if it could be demonstrated to me (which I am glad to say I don't think it could) that we can only achieve our goals in Iraq by slaughtering hecatombs of Iraqi civilians, I should want to go ahead anyway. I favor war against Iraq because if petty dictators get really nasty weapons, they will sooner or later use them against us, either directly, or — more likely — via proxies like the 9/11 lunatics. We should do what we can to prevent this development. Iraq is clearly under the heading "what we can" (unlike Iran and North Korea, which are going to require different approaches). So let's do it. Not for their sakes — I fundamentally don't give a fig about Iraqis, who must shift for themselves — but for ours. I don't want to save the world, and am anyway doubtful such a thing can be done. I just want the U.S.A. to be stronger, more secure, and better respected (or feared — I don't much care which) by backward, trouble-making peoples like the Arabs. I am therefore not on Tony Blair's wavelength.

I do acknowledge, though, that he has behaved wonderfully well in his strong and consistent support for the administration's policy. When people do good, it is usually not wise to inquire too closely into their motives. Tony Blair has done good by supporting our government, in the teeth of much opposition from his own people. If he has done that in the deluded belief that George W. Bush is a reincarnation of Woodrow Wilson, well, he has done it none the less, and I join in the general praise for him. Give me one slice of crow pie, please.

Will the U.S. go to war against Iraq?  I admit, I am beginning to believe it. If this is a bluff, it's an awfully big one. Please note that word "beginning," though. I'm not convinced yet, so don't be cutting any more slices of crow pie on this one.

My judgment that the U.S. would not go to war against Iraq has always been based on the complete absence of any visible sense of urgency about our war preparations. War, I have always supposed, is a fierce and desperate business in which speed and daring are as important as sheer weight of materiel. Perhaps this is just a personal perspective. It is said that generals always fight the last war. Perhaps that is true of armchair generals, too. The last war for me — the last war I saw my own country engage in, and some of the participants in which I knew personally — was the Falklands War of 1982. Speed and daring were certainly on display in Margaret Thatcher's response to Argentine aggression; and the wrist-flapping mountebanks at the U.N. had very little to do with what transpired. Talking with American friends, however, they tell me that there is a characteristic American way of war, which involves the slow accumulation of overwhelming force, which is then unleashed in a brief, terrible campaign. Speed and daring don't come into it much. It's a different national style of war-making.

All right: but my goodness, it certainly has been slow, hasn't it? Half of history's wars were over and done with in the time it has taken our government to assemble forces for an assault on Iraq. And they are not ready yet! From Saturday's New York Times: "[M]ost military experts believe that it could easily take a month more to complete the transport of the required American and British troops to the front lines in Kuwait and Turkey." Does the U.S. really need 15 months of preparation before we can step on a cockroach like Saddam Hussein? Then God help us if push ever comes to shove with a big, strong power! And what on earth has all this dickering with the U.N. been about? Colin Powell seemed to be on the edge of losing his temper the other day, after Hans Blix's absurd presentation. What did Powell think was going to happen when the U.N. got involved? Does Powell really believe the Security Council will ever authorize war against Iraq? They won't. I could have told him that a year ago. I have just watched Condi Rice on Meet the Press: "Re-affirmation of 1441 … Saddam Hussein is seriously abusing his obligations to the U.N … we believe the Security Council needs to show resolve …" Great God in boots, they take this stuff seriously!

And while all this laborious preparation has been going on, while all this foolishness about "inspections" and "resolutions" has been played out, Saddam Hussein has been at leisure to booby-trap his country, wire up his oil fields, add another twenty feet of reinforced concrete to his bunkers, and infiltrate his proxies into the U.S. These months of painstaking arms build-up may look like prudence, these weeks of song and dance at the Security Council may look like low comedy, but if we do go to war they will cost us lives — and not just military lives, either. Condi Rice: "Saddam Hussein, if left to his own devices …" Madam, he has just been left to "his own devices" for a year while we have been explaining to the Security Council that two plus two equals four. Those devices are now in much better condition than they were in a year ago.

These months have, too, given the anti-war movement time to recruit and organize. Motley mobs of European pacifists marching in the streets of Paris and London will not prevent George W. Bush from making war, and will hardly affect the ultimate outcome of that war; but the longer we delay, the more time those mobs have to work on public opinion — including U.S. public opinion. And the louder their voices, the more encouragement Saddam will take from them. Dictators are even more prone to wishful thinking than the rest of us, since, for well-known reasons, they do not hear much bad news. The sight of 100,000 people marching against war will hearten Saddam, when it would be more productive to dis-hearten him.

So … will we go to war? It's a "matter of weeks," said Powell. That's the kind of thing I say when I want to put something off into the indefinite future. "I'll get round to it in a few weeks." All right, all right: yes, I now believe the Administration is willing to make war. Yes, I think it could happen — I'd put current odds at around 50-50, with one of those 50s given over to a palace coup in Baghdad, which the White House (not to mention the Saudis and sundry other players) is probably doing its best to bring about. My goodness, though, what a way to go about making war. If Bush and Co. were willing to go to war against Iraq last spring, they should have gone, making the best of what they had, as Thatcher did in '82. We were already bombing the wretched place; why not just expand the target list — start taking out some of those fuzzy black rectangles Powell made so much of in his February 5 presentation? I am an American now, and I suppose I had better get used to the American way of war. I have to tell you, though: I prefer the British way.