The war against Iraq cannot be. I have a nickel riding on this, two nickels in fact. The first one wagered that the war would not happen in mid-February. Deadline passed. This friendly bet has been rolled over to mid-March. The second nickel is completely open-ended, at least until the presidential election of 2004.
By war, my nickel means a full-scaled U.S. land attack against the sovereign state of Iraq.
Perhaps I should state up front that I have never stood accused of underestimating America's ability to do terrible things abroad as well as at home. She is particularly adept at doing terrible things against people not of European descent. If they are outgunned and poorly matched, all the better. Starting with the indigenous people of this continent running down to the island state of Grenada and the Iraqis of the last great conquest, the United States has loosed rivers of blood in the name of its national interest.
Still, in all of those skirmishes, more than a few of them cowardly, the republic most often convinced itself at least of a motive, whether trivial or self-delusional. The early campaigns of manifest destiny and naked gunboat diplomacy gave way in the last century to subtler motives for war, some of them quite convincing.
A reluctant nation was pulled to the ramparts of World War I, in part, by the infamous Zimmerman note. This 1917 telegram from the German foreign minister to his embassy in Mexico City warned that if the United States entered the war, Germany would form an alliance with Mexico. The prospect of brown Mexicans fighting across its southern border jolted the United States from all prospects of neutrality. No such ruse was needed in World War II, thanks to the Japanese.
Two decades later, the ruse for war returned with the surfacing of false reports that Vietcong gunboats had attacked two American war ships in the Tonkin Gulf. This trick got President Lyndon B. Johnson his war powers from a naive Congress. Following the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, the Reagan administration stormed into Grenada, a Caribbean island of about 89,000, under the pretext that U.S. medical students were in grave danger. And with the first Great War against Iraq, the United States successfully lured Saddam Hussein into attacking Kuwait, then cleaned his unsuspecting clock.
The point is that, before committing its troops to battle, the United States has usually established a rationale for crossing the most deadly of all Rubicons.
In this impending war against Iraq, the Bush administration has established no such rationale that passes muster, even from its own appraisers. The motive for the land war has spun from Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, to the changing of his regime, to the clear and present threat that his 93-mile missiles pose to the continental United States. This glaring lack of a clear motive for war, despite TV media drumbeats and Congress' ceding of its war-making prerogatives, has left the American public unconvinced.
The rationale against the Iraq war is grounded in the role of the United States as the lone superpower, unchallenged and unchallengeable. While al-Qaida- like terrorist groups might attack and hide in friendly countries, no nation bent on its own survivability would dare attack America. Hussein may well be a risk taker, but he is also a survivor and - Bush's charges notwithstanding - the dictator poses no certain threat to Americans other than attacking soldiers within his very own borders.
The Bush policy approves a pre-emptive war that seeks to protect America against an unknown, undeveloped threat that Hussein might develop somewhere down the line. Such criminal activity is ill-advised and should be illegal in a civilized world. Nor should America target for extermination those heads of state who displease the ruling circle of this republic. Such undertakings are the actions of a small-minded nation tilting toward conquest and, perhaps, paranoia. Intelligent superpower leadership at ease with its global preeminence should instead find constructive ways to live up to its possibilities.
For all these reasons, I find it well nigh impossible to imagine this country - under the skeletal pretense spelled out so far - launching a ground war against Iraq. This war just cannot be.
Should the Bush administration persist in defying this principle of its possibility by launching the Iraq war, the republic would have changed fundamentally. The date of the invasion, no matter the outcome on the ground, will surely mark the decline of the United States as a great nation. Then again, that decline may well have already been duly marked by the momentous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 12, 2000.
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