There is no greater sacrifice that a democratic government can ask of its citizens
than that they offer up their lives in defense of the nation.
That imposes upon the elected officials who make the appeal the requirement
that they give justifications commensurate with the sacrifice demanded. But an
additional burden placed on democratic leaders is that they themselves be worthy
of the sacrifice that war entails.
Since Sept. 11, the administration of President George W. Bush has provided
the American people neither with good and sufficient reasons - other than intelligence
reports whose significance he reassuringly invokes - to initiate war with Iraq.
If by word, Bush has failed, by deed he has fared even more poorly as his
administration has come to stand for little more than a strident nationalism in
foreign policy. He has coupled this breezy jingoism abroad with domestic policies
biased toward largess for the privileged classes, an airy disdain for many of
the world's most enduring problems, and a callousness about the natural abundance
of this nation that verges on an invitation to plunder.
Our observance of the first anniversary of the savage attacks on this country
and even our recognition of the administration's successful prosecution of the
war in Afghanistan and worldwide terrorism does not give Bush a free pass, especially
since the ticket he wants us to punch for him has such apocalyptic implications.
The question one must return to when pondering the possibility of a large-scale
military campaign in the Mideast, conducted solely by U.S. forces, is not only
its destabilizing effects on the region but the worthiness of those urging this
undertaking. If, for example, the relationship of Vice President Dick Cheney to
the energy companies who have such a colossal stake in Mideast politics were ever
clarified, it might turn out to be quite innocent. But we have no way of knowing
this. And the refusal of Cheney to divulge to Congress the details of the meetings
of his energy task force leaves the impression that there is something sinister
The denial of Congress's request is defended by the assertion of the general
principle of executive privilege. While the legality of this principle has been
validated by the Supreme Court, the frequent recourse to it by this administration
leads down the perilous path to an assertion that "the president knows best."
That, in fact, has been the tone in which the president's statements on Iraq seem
to be set.
Is the intelligence that Bush is receiving - and which he uses as a shield
to blunt all questions about the wisdom of an all-out war on Iraq - any more credible
than the so-called "captured documents" that figured so prominently in the Vietnam
policies of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon? Or, indeed, are they
as trustworthy as the reports of North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. warships in
the South China Sea that led to the first air strikes against the North and to
the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which amounted to a declaration of war.
As the White House lawyers cobble together a legal theory to defend the dispatch
of forces without congressional approval, the memories of these former usurpations
of power need to be recalled. With the economy gasping for air, the proportion
of Americans without any health insurance growing, and the recent report that
one of every 30 Americans is either in prison or caught in the toils of the criminal
justice system, the blithe references to war by the president begin to sound like
an alarmist ploy to distract us from our domestic problems and, not coincidentally,
make Republicans look good for the congressional elections this November.
In a well-ordered republic, the loyal opposition ought to be picking furiously
at the president's cloak but, with a few exceptions, the Democrats have pulled
their punches and, aside from raising some questions about the abuse of civil
liberties by the Justice Department, have given the president a free ride on foreign
policy. That is, perhaps, more understandable than the Democrats unilateral disarmament
on hard-core economic issues such as the increasing share of the national wealth
possessed by the top 1 percent of Americans.
Even the suggestion that stock options, which have been the subject of so
much abuse, need to be reined in was derided as class warfare rhetoric by the
so-called "new Democrats," the collaborationist wing of the party.
The commemoration of the Sept. 11 attacks ought to be more than vigils, candle-lightings,
and the unveiling of memorials to the slain.
Perhaps even more important than honoring the sacredness of the grief of those
whose loved ones were killed, it should be the occasion for our leaders to come
clean to the American people about why war is imperative and what proportion of
the unmet - and even unaddressed - national problems will need to be relegated
to the bottom of the agenda by the resort to conflict.
The president's claim that he has secret information about the development
by Iraq of weapons of mass destruction or that Saddam Hussein is a despicable
man take us only so far. These are not good enough to die for.
Ross K. Baker is a political science professor at Rutgers University.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.