PARIS -- It is hard to judge whether the generational split on the
Iraq issue, between Republicans who governed under the first President George
Bush and those in Washington today, is more likely to block a war or speed its
The young George Bush and his neoconservative advisers and cheerleaders want
the war, but opposition is widening and solidifying, in public opinion as well
as within the Republican Party. It is possible that the administration will feel
compelled to go to war while it can. Gallup Poll findings released on Friday say
that only 20 percent of Americans support a U.S. attack made without allies.
By now the public has also taken note that members of the war party and their
main backers in the press seem, without exception, to have arranged to be elsewhere
while the last serious fighting was done, in Vietnam.
The "chicken-hawk" issue is not simple demagogy. It justifies asking
if those planning this war are serious, and if they know what they are doing.
"Sweet is war," wrote Erasmus, "to those who know it not."
James Baker, formerly the senior President Bush's secretary of state, is the latest
from the father's administration to tell the son that while fighting against "rogues
like Saddam ... is an important foreign policy priority for America," there
are some conditions to be met. The United States must have allies. To have allies,
it must respect international law. UN Security Council backing is needed for an
attack. This means a new UN demand that Saddam Hussein admit inspectors, with
time for him to react (or even accept).
Next, the Palestine problem has to be out of the way before attacking Saddam.
That requires an end to Palestinian suicide bombings, Israeli withdrawal to last
September's positions and an immediate end to Israeli settlement activity. Therefore,
Baker's actual message to the younger Bush is that the United States can't go
to war, either now or in the near future. These conditions have not been met,
and the last of them possibly cannot be met. A Palestine-Israel truce or settlement
is impossible without the United States abandoning the policy of unqualified support
for Israel that the younger Bush has followed since he came into office. Until
now the hawks have simply insisted that war is necessary because Saddam is a murderous
and dangerous despot. Few disagree with the description, but many disagree with
the proposition, since there are many such figures in the world and the Bush administration
coexists comfortably with most of them.
The only occasion I can recall when Washington found the sordid character of
a foreign leader sufficient to justify a war was in 1989, when George Bush senior
invaded Panama to seize Manuel Noriega. That operation, not the Gulf War, seems
to be what the younger Bush wants to repeat. However, Iraq is bigger and presumably
better defended than Panama, and the political context is explosively different.
In any case, the justification for a war has nothing to do with a war's feasibility.
Overturning Saddam could simultaneously be a good cause and a bad idea. It is
reasonable to argue that the foreseen casualties, and the foreseeable international
political backlash to a unilateral U.S. attack on Iraq, could outweigh the advantages
of getting rid of the Iraqi leader.
This administration and its supporters argue as if the feasibility issue could
be resolved by willpower or "resolve." If you question the feasibility
of the project, you must somehow be on Saddam's side.
If you think it is desirable to overturn Saddam, you are required to think
that most of his army will run away when Americans arrive, and that the people
will cheer the United States in the streets of Baghdad. It is not allowed to imagine
that the Iraqi army might fight simply because it is the nation's army.
The public is listening when James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Lawrence Eagleburger
and other senior Republicans say that realism requires that plans to invade Iraq
accommodate the possibility of a big and expensive war, significant casualties
and major negative political backlash.
They are making it necessary for the younger Bush's administration and its
backers to give up the irresponsible arguments they have been using. But they
almost certainly have not convinced them, and by complicating their situation
they could be forcing them toward what George W. Bush has already threatened,
a preemptive war - which in this case would be a war of domestic political preemption.
Copyright © 2002 the International Herald Tribune