Maybe, says Nick Ashmore, it's time to shift the focus of the Iraq debate away from the war-vs.-no-war standoff (to which I've been a contributor) and to the tougher question of what, given present-day realities, the United States might reasonably do.
He may be right, for two reasons. First, President Bush finds himself (wisely or not) in a high-stakes game in which to hesitate is to lose. He wants a quick decision from the U.N. Security Council -- either a second, stronger resolution or a clear signal that it won't act -- because he is convinced that further delay only benefits and emboldens Saddam Hussein. Even small children (in the days before corporal punishment transmuted into child abuse) learned the emptiness of repeated threats to "get my belt" -- and learned as well that if they could delay even well-deserved punishment, they might avoid it altogether.
Bush is at great pains to neither bluff nor delay.
But there is a second reason why Ashmore's recommended shift makes sense. The partisans in the war/no war debate are as trapped in their positions as Bush is in his. We keep offering new reasons for our foregone conclusions without much hope of changing anyone else's mind. We are increasingly preaching to our own choirs.
Ashmore, a Washington lobbyist who learned a thing or two about negotiation and political compromise when he was an aide to former House speaker Tom Foley, thinks it's time we considered a different audience: those who, like him, endorse the administration's view that Hussein deserves his military comeuppance but who still think the consequences of our delivering it may be against our own long-term interests.
"One side keeps offering proof that an attack is justified, and the other that it isn't," Ashmore says. "The arguments don't get any better or any more convincing. It seems to me that somebody should be pointing out that we have Iraq pretty much right where we want them -- under constant observation. Under those circumstances, Saddam won't move against us or move to aid Osama bin Laden or anything else that constitutes a clear and present danger to us. And if he does, not even the French could argue against massive retaliation."
On the other hand, Ashmore says, a war launched in the name of preventing terrorism could have the effect of increasing it. He offers an aphorism from former Lyndon Johnson aide Horace Busby: "We often cause to happen that which we work hardest to prevent."
But if Hussein deserves a spanking and we have both the will and the means to deliver it, why not do it and deal with the consequences when they come?
Because, says Ashmore, some of the most likely consequences are dangerous to our interests. His great fear is that war will revive the "ugly American" syndrome in the region -- of a tough, self-righteous bully who throws his weight around because there's no one big enough to stop him. Revival of that image, he said, would stymie our ability to act effectively (except militarily) anywhere in the Arab world.
Actually, there's a great deal more than that to worry about. There's the prospect that a full-scale assault on Iraq would spark terrorist attacks against Americans and American interests all over the world. There's the prospect that the likes of bin Laden, who wants desperately to foment a war of civilizations -- Islam against the infidels -- would be able to paint an attack on Baghdad as the opening campaign in just such a war. His evidence might include the Bush administration's talk of changing the political face of the region, "liberating" people who don't see us as rescuers and democratizing populations that haven't asked for it.
Imagine some American viceroy in a postwar Iraq trying to cobble together a government out of warring Shiite and Sunni Muslims, secularists and Islamist theocrats, while holding at bay ambitious Iranians and Turks and damping down the territorial ambitions of independence-minded Kurds. And all this while controlling -- largely for our own use, influence and economic benefit -- Iraq's huge oil resources.
"Ugly American" won't begin to describe it.
Ashmore thinks it is as important to understand the likely consequences of the war as to grasp the justification for war in the first place. If we could make that dilemma our focus, he suggests, we might even help our president find a way out -- or else unify the rest of the world behind him.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company