When it comes to the war on Iraq, "Why now?" is the question on many minds. The President of the United States tells us repeatedly that he is losing patience with Saddam Hussein, yet offers no evidence of anything having changed there for years. The man is presumably no more evil, if no less, than he has been for a long time. So why now?
The answer is simple: because that is how long it has taken the U.S. administration to get to this point. Think back to the beginning of this administration (how short memories are these days!) and recall that hawks in it were pushing for an attack on Iraq from the outset. At that time, they were dismissed as extremists; now they are mainstream.
This suggests that the intended war has nothing to do with the events of Sept. 11. Terrorism is the excuse for attacking Iraq, not the reason. Let's not mix up rogue states with terrorist cells. Consider the evidence -- about the lack of evidence. When efforts to link Iraq with al-Qaeda failed, the case shifted to the dangers of Iraq supplying terrorists with weapons.
Sure, that could happen. But the world is a big and porous place. A band of lunatics in the Tokyo subways did not need Saddam Hussein to get their chemicals. Terrorism will not be stopped by an America that runs around putting its finger in every weapons dike that springs a leak. Trying instead to get at the causes of terrorism could help, but that has not been on the U.S. agenda.
"Why?" is the more difficult part to answer. Why is this happening at all; what logic is behind all this? Obviously, most well-meaning people, Muslims included, would like to see Saddam Hussein go. But just as obviously, most of these people do not want to see him removed by a war on Iraq. Colin Powell said recently that because Iraq is in material breach of UN resolutions, "serious consequences" would follow. That's precisely what many of us fear.
First possible serious consequence: more terrorism. Can anyone really believe that humiliating another Muslim country (for whatever reason) will lead to less terrorism? Terrorists, too, need excuses, if not reasons. What better one than bombs raining down on Iraqis, with Americans pushing the buttons? Picture the images on hundreds of millions of television sets in Muslim homes around the world. The response won't be "Finally that S.O.B. is getting what he deserves," but "Look what those S.O.B.s are doing to us." If there really is a war on terrorism, then attacking Iraq in this way at this time is the worst possible move.
Second possible serious consequence: political instability. Regime change works both ways -- getting rid of one Saddam Hussein risks bringing several others to power. Such regime changes already happened some years ago in Iran, Libya, and Afghanistan. We know what Egypt and Algeria have been living with; we are also aware of equivalent forces at work in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Do we want to encourage them?
Third possible serious consequence: economic depression. The U.S. economy is not in good shape; there have been repeated warnings about the effect of war on it. This could send the whole global economic system into a downward spiral. Is that worth the risk?
Fourth possible serious consequence: wholesale death. And not only for a great many Iraqis. If Saddam Hussein really has these weapons, then he could use them on U.S. troops. If he does not, why attack? Either way, the logic of this war is questionable. George W. Bush and Tony Blair consider themselves to be religious men, but truly religious men don't normally engage in wanton murder. War is wanton murder. Sometimes, its ends justify its means, notably to stop more wanton murder. But the Pope is a religious man; he is trying to stop this war.
Fifth possible serious consequence: failed peace. Washington feels it is right to pursue this war, with or without its allies. Has any country ever gone to war without feeling its cause to be right? (One of Napoleon's biographers wrote about his noble efforts to unite Europe -- with or without the consent of the other states!) A peaceful world does not depend on any state being right. It depends on the rule of law. Saddam Hussein may be in breach of UN resolutions; Mr. Bush is prepared to be in breach of the UN Charter, which requires member states to "refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state . . ." What kind of example will that set in the world?
Put all this together and it just does not add up. Why, then, is the U.S. administration so intent on pursuing this course of action? Why is it investing so much of its resources and credibility in what so many prominent people around the world just cannot understand? And why is it prepared to alienate so many of its allies, and so many common people around the world?
There has been much speculation about this: control of oil supplies, revenge by the son for the father, "finishing" the war in the Persian Gulf, pursuing a stalled war on terrorism that has nowhere else to go except against another government.
Choose any or all of the above. But add in a good dose of ideological groupthink, that mindless collective drive toward a flawed course of action. It has happened before in America, most notably in the 1960s when the greatest brain trust ever put together in an administration could not distinguish a nationalist movement from a Communist one. (I should add that the currently popular comparison with the Cuban missile crisis is inappropriate. That represented a clear, direct, and proximate threat, and so people were convinced. The Iraqi "threat" today is much like the Vietnamese "threat" of the 1960s: vague, distant, mired in ideology and paranoia.) Groupthink also occurred in the 1950s when a paranoid senator named Joe McCarthy managed to take control of the American political agenda for a time. Then, too, it was communism. Or was it? Now it is terrorism. Or is it?
Foreigners visiting the United States these days, myself included, feel uneasy about all those "God Bless America" signs. After all, Osama bin Laden also believed he was acting in the name of God.
In Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes wrote about Flaubert with respect to France that "The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonestly, foolishly, viciously." America needs some honest patriotism right now. Not to have "God Bless America," so much as to have "God Save America." And the rest of us, too.
Henry Mintzberg is Cleghorn professor of management studies at McGill University in Montreal and author of the forthcoming Developing Managers, Not MBAs.
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