Nicholas Lemann | Real Reasons
Go to Original
By Nicholas 0aLemann
The New Yorker
Monday 22 September 2003
The war in Iraq was a long time coming - so long that it 0awas obvious in Washington that war was certain even before the diplomatic drama 0athat preceded it began to unfold. President Bush and Secretary of State Powell 0awent to the United Nations, made their charges against Saddam Hussein, forced 0athe weapons inspectors to return, presented evidence of their own when the 0ainspectors found none, and, finally, concluded that Iraq would not disarm and 0awar could not be postponed, no matter what the Security Council thought-and all 0athat, evidently, came after the decision was made to invade. Disarmament may 0ahave been a sincere (if, it now appears, unwarranted) reason for war, but it 0awasn't dispositive. It was the plot device that powered a preordained 0aprocession.
The President's television speech about Iraq last week had 0athe feeling of something real being revealed after a thick, obscuring outer 0alayer has been stripped away. Called upon to justify the war anew (because 0athings haven't been going well in Iraq), and deprived of his main prewar 0aargument (because no forbidden weapons have been found), Bush gave us something 0athat seemed much closer to what his true thinking was when he made the decision 0afor war. The news in his speech was the request for eighty-seven billion dollars 0aand the decision to ask for international troops, but the greater significance 0alay in what Bush told us about his own beliefs and, therefore, about what the 0acountry is committed to while he is President.
Bush's speech was not limited to Iraq; he gave us a 0ageneral argument about the Middle East, terrorism, and democracy. The first link 0ain his chain of logic was the idea that, as he put it, "for a generation leading 0aup to September the 11th, 2001, terrorists and their radical allies attacked 0ainnocent people in the Middle East and beyond, without facing a sustained and 0aserious response." (This formulation is notable for its implicit indictment of 0athe first President Bush for pusillanimity, and for putting the son in the 0aposition of correcting the father's mistake.) So just about any forceful 0aresponse to terrorism, or to the "radical allies" of terrorism (a group that 0aincluded Saddam, evidently), would cause terrorism to decrease. As Bush said, "We have learned that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. 0aThey are invited by the perception of weakness."
This doesn't quite parse-it doesn't allow for the 0aterrorist attacks that have followed the use of force in Iraq, or for the 0aevident immunity of most of the world's weaklings to terrorist attacks. 0aTerrorists, unfortunately, appear to target qualities more specific than mere 0ameekness. But Bush's statement does claim that reducing terrorism justifies 0avirtually any use of American force. If you believe this, as Bush seems to do 0awith every fibre of his being, how could you in good conscience not go to war in 0athe region from which the worst terrorism emanates? Back in June, Thomas 0aFriedman, of the Times, wrote breezily, "The 'real reason' for this war, which 0awas never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the 0aArab-Muslim world." Well, now Bush has as much as stated it. Friedman went on, "Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine. But we hit Saddam for one 0asimple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it, and because he was 0aright in the heart of that world."
Bush's second point was that, like the use of strength, 0afreedom and democracy inevitably reduce terrorism, too. The choice is simple: "The Middle East will either become a place of progress and peace, or it will be 0aan exporter of violence and terror that takes more lives in America and in other 0afree nations." This, again, is impressive in its clarity and certainty, but 0acounter-examples fairly leap to mind. What about Pakistan-a quasi-democracy, but 0aalso one of the world's leading terrorist sanctuaries? What about Saddam's 0aIraq-the Middle East's most oppressive regime, but one that left little 0amaneuvering room for terrorists? What about the supranational Al Qaeda, the most 0adangerous of the terrorist organizations, whose survival apparently requires 0aless the help of "tyrants" than of chaotic conditions in weak states-such as 0aIraq and Afghanistan now? As Bush makes the case, all such troublesome 0aparticulars must yield to an ironclad general rule: "Everywhere that freedom 0atakes hold, terror will retreat." Therefore, every American military attack on a 0aMiddle Eastern tyrant-a term that plausibly encompasses most of the region's 0aheads of state-reduces the risk of terrorist attacks on the United States. It's 0ahard to imagine a broader charter than the one Bush grants himself through this 0aset of assumptions.
Goals as morally grand as defeating terrorism and ending 0atyranny make any objection to the program for reasons of logic or practicality 0alook puny, niggling, and cynical. The President's rhetoric divides the world 0ainto those who have passion and courage and those who believe in nothing except 0aa self-defeating caution. The willingness to make the gesture overwhelms 0awhatever difficulties there are on the ground. This is not just a habit of 0athought that Bush conveniently seized upon after the war. The understaffing of 0athe reconstruction and the lack of post-combat planning wasn't the result merely 0aof Donald Rumsfeld's bullheadedness. It stemmed from the President's soaring 0aconviction that courageous intentions must inevitably produce pleasing results.
As we are finding out in Iraq, military boldness does not 0aalways decrease terrorism. It can, in fact, inspire it-witness the terrorists 0aswarming into Iraq, including members of Al Qaeda, who weren't there before. 0aToppling tyrants does not automatically decrease terrorism, either, and in the 0ashort run it isn't even guaranteed to make life better for people in the 0acountries the tyrants ruled. Even the most powerful nation in history does not 0ahave an infinitely large army or infinite funds, and must live in the realm of 0acalculations about what is possible and what will be effective. Consequences are 0anot, alas, inevitably the product of intentions; they are determined by the 0acollision of intentions and reality. It isn't cowardly to be (dread word) 0arealistic. It isn't amoral to think through what will follow from particular 0aactions. Quite the opposite. Bush's desire to end terrorism and spread democracy 0acan't be gainsaid. But if, using the almost unlimited license he has given 0ahimself, he winds up making brave-seeming lunges at those goals without actually 0aattaining them, then confronting evil, his proudest purpose, will soon become a 0aluxury he can no longer afford. That is about the worst outcome imaginable, and 0anot just for Bush personally.
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