Published on Wednesday, February 5, 2003 by the Los Angeles Times
In Doubt We Trust
War Talk Deserves Skepticism, Not a Blank Check
by Benjamin R. Barber
The Bush administration is releasing small pieces of intelligence in dribs and drabs to make its circumstantial case for war with Iraq. Hints were dropped in the State of the Union message, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell promises more at the Security Council today.
In making the case for war, there is one thing on which President Bush and his critics agree: It's all about trust. The leaders of eight European countries who signed on to the war effort in a commentary in the Wall Street Journal and European papers last week didn't make a judgment on the evidence; they argued that history and the North Atlantic alliance demanded that Europe trust America.
But if the case for war rests on trust, there are good reasons why this president, like any powerful democratic leader, needs to be distrusted.
First, healthy republican democracy was founded and thrives on a fundamental distrust of power. The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights enshrine that principle. In Federalist Paper 51, James Madison notes the "great importance in a republic" of guarding society "against the oppression of its rulers," while the Constitution's most impressive devices, from checks and balances to an independent judiciary, reflect distrust of concentrated power.
Thomas Jefferson opposed the idea of a presidential State of the Union message, saying it reeked of a "speech from the throne." Modern-day Republicans often campaign on the premise that Americans should not trust "big government," but they quickly forget their reservations once they win big elections.
Some people argue that war attenuates the case for distrust. Yet war and truth are not a good match. Presidents have manipulated, edited and at times perverted the truth -- usually, to be sure, to obtain popular and congressional support of what they believed were worthy ends. The Gulf of Tonkin affair, in which a largely fabricated story of attacks on American war vessels was employed to stampede Congress into support for a major escalation of the Vietnam War, comes to mind. Or the sinking of the battleship Maine by what may have been (but was never confirmed as) a Spanish mine in Havana Harbor in 1898, an event used by President McKinley to help bring the country into a war with Spain over its colonies. Or President Eisenhower's prevarications about the U-2 incident and President Nixon's about the Cambodia incursion.
Every president believes he is being "honest" at some deeper level when misleading us to rationalize a war he thinks vital to national interests. That's his job. Ours, however, is to distrust him on crucial matters of war and peace until hard proof is on the table.
Bush imagines it is enough in making the case for a preventive war against Iraq to assure the world that "we exercise power without conquest, we sacrifice for the liberty of strangers." But we must ask for more: for hard intelligence, facts contradicting the sanguine views of the inspectors and showing that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein really possesses weapons of mass destruction or has the means and the intentions to acquire them fast.
We cannot accept a refusal to reveal intelligence because it may "endanger" sources. In our democracy, the need to protect intelligence sources must be trumped by the public's right to know. To have his war, the president must prove his case to the American people and show what Jefferson called "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" by making a public case that is more than merely inferential or circumstantial. This will be the challenge faced by Powell at the Security Council.
In his State of the Union, the president referred repeatedly to the old and empty warheads found Jan. 16 as evidence of Hussein's plans to use chemical and biological agents. But in an interview last week, chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said "no trace" of chemical or biological elements had been found either in the old warheads or anywhere else. Secretary Powell?
Powell has suggested that Iraqi officials were hiding and moving illicit materials within and outside of Iraq to prevent their discovery, but Blix said his inspectors had found no evidence for such incidents. Secretary Powell?
Many experts have said there is a far greater chance of Al Qaeda receiving weapons of mass destruction from the North Koreans or even the nuclear-armed Pakistanis than from Iraq. Secretary Powell?
We know we cannot trust Hussein or North Korea's Kim Jong II. But total distrust of tyrants does not entail the corollary of total trust in Bush. Americans have embraced the motto "in God we trust," not "in presidents we trust." They have placed their faith in a republican form of government that questions and limits power. That is the difference between Iraq and the United States.
Benjamin R. Barber is the author of "Jihad vs. McWorld" (Ballantine, 2002) and is completing a critical study of preventive war in an age of terrorism, due from Norton this summer.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times