Over the last day

March 9, 2003 6:26 p.m.

Over the last day I’ve received a number of emails saying ‘thanks’ or ‘finally’ or ‘you finally wised up’ for changing my position on the war. The passage those folks were referring to was the last in the previous post in which I said …

The pros and cons of handling Iraq have never been separable from how you do it, the costs you rack up in the doing of it, calculated against the gains you’ll get in having accomplished it. At this point, we truly have the worst case scenario on the international stage. And I think that those costs now outweigh the gains.

The last line is the one that generated the emails. Now, I’m afraid I may disappoint those who think I’ve suddenly changed my stripes on this issue. I looked back at what I wrote in my long Washington Monthly article on the subject and I agree with pretty much all of it. I don’t think I’ve really changed my position. But then people who write and make arguments for a living always say that. So I’ll explain to you what I think and why I think it and you can make up your own mind.

A number of people have written in and said that I never should have uttered pro-war sentiments knowing that it would be this president and this group of advisors who were going to implement the plan. Frankly, I don’t agree. The role of someone who does what I do — writes and constructs arguments and opinions for a living — is to look at as many of the facts as possible and then give readers an honest opinion. The role isn’t to try to game the system. That’s just a more high-minded form of dishonesty.

When I first wrote about this issue I came to the opinion that Saddam really was a threat to our interests and that in our long-running dispute with him, time was on his side, not on ours. Many people are now championing the merits of robust containment. But if you think back to a couple years ago the whole point was how our sanctions against Saddam were killing all those Iraqi children. Another point was that containing Saddam required us to garrison troops in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates and that made for a fertile breeding ground for bin Ladenism. Even now, I think it’s right to say that Saddam is contained. But how long can we contain him? We have 250,000 troops on his borders. It’s taken that much to squeeze this grudging level of compliance out of the regime. How long can we maintain that? At how much expense? At how much diplomatic and cultural collateral damage, as we managed to build up during the first decade of containment?

I don’t say these are in themselves justifications for war. But it is not enough simply to say you oppose war. That statement brings with it a responsibility to say what the proper policy is or would be. If you think Saddam is contained now then it’s incumbent on you to say how you imagine perpetuating that state of affairs into the future. And what the costs will be to your policy.

When I first wrote on this issue at length what I said was that this was an issue we really did need to deal with (probably militarily), that it was a running wound, but that the hawks who run foreign policy in this administration were most likely to do it in a way that would lead to disaster.

Now, where are we now?

When you have given careful thought to a question of war and peace, you need to be very careful not to lose heart or change your mind just when things are coming to a head. Things always get dicey just before the trigger is finally pulled. That’s just in the nature of things. And I’ve tried to resist that pressure or temptation myself. But at a certain point it simply becomes clear that the damage the administration has done outweighs the gains we might possibly amass by invading Iraq and toppling this regime.

We are at that point. I’m less worried about the immediate repercussions in the Middle East than in the wider world, where we are as quickly as we can trashing a world security system that decades of statesmanship have built up. That’s worth more than can possibly be gained in Iraq.

That still doesn’t answer the question of what we should do now. And you’ve probably noted in these pages over the past three weeks that that’s a question I’ve been wrestling with. As I said here, I think it’s very clear that we would do this differently if we had a chance. (To disagree with that proposition, I think you have to be in the camp of those who think trashing our alliances wasn’t a necessary cost but a positive good. In other words, you would have to be a political appointee at the Pentagon or the OVP.) But what do we do now, given that all this damage has already been done? I find that a much more difficult question.

People reflexively make light of arguments about ‘credibility’. And it is a slippery slope. But if we just gracelessly and abruptly climbed-down from our position right now, that really would have very serious consequences both for us and for the entire world order. How many other rogue states or Muslim terrorists would be prompted to test our apparently empty will in other parts of the world?

The administration has played this in a way that the costs of changing course really are high. Very high. Given the disaster the administration is barrelling towards, however, I think we need some other solution, some way to reconfigure our policy so as to be able to declare ‘victory’ and have it be credible and not have it lead us back to an even worse situation than the one we started in.

Almost a year ago now I wrote the following in my article in the Washington Monthly

The same goes for the State Department’s efforts to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq. The hawks tend to view weapons inspections as a contemptible joke, a half-measure that will bog us down with kibitzing at the U.N. and rob us of our justification for invasion. Properly done, however, inspections are not a way to avoid war but to build the ground work for it. Before a single soldier hits the ground in Iraq, the U.S. should demand a virtually air-tight inspection regime–not the half-measures the U.N. is currently negotiating with Saddam. Our European allies would oppose this strenuously, as will Russia and China. But it is well worth drawing them into that conversation, because the force and logic of our argument is quite strong. Once the concept of inspections is granted, the need to make them effective is difficult to refute. If Saddam were to accept a truly robust inspections regime–one which would allow the inspectors to roam the country more or less at will–we will have achieved our aim of neutralizing the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But, of course, when he doesn’t agree–and he won’t–then we will have forced our allies to confront the reality of Iraqi intransigence head-on. Some may still oppose our imminent military action. But others might join us, and that will make us stronger.

I still agree with those points. And I think the answer is that we have to wait. I feel confident that an able foreign policy mind could come up with a tack that would allow us to secure our vital objectives and yet work our way out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. I’m not sure what that grand gesture is. And absent such a grand gesture I think we have to resort to a policy of coercive inspections, start giving the inspectors quality intelligence data (not garbage) and begin whittling down the Iraqis WMD capability one step at a time.

Will we get everything? No. That’s very unlikely. But what really matters is nuclear weapons. And though I’m certain Saddam wants nukes, he pretty clearly doesn’t have them now, and he won’t be making any progress toward getting them as long as inspectors are there in force.

I think we need to pursue this goal for the next several months and keep ratcheting up the pressure, knowing that we may have to go to war at a later point, even when weather conditions and so forth aren’t ideal. (One tack we might try — and I mean this only half in jest — is to tell particularly the French but also the Germans and the Chinese and the Russians that if they’re so enamored with the current situation which has been brought about by an overwhelming display of American military might, they need to start footing their share of the bill.)

Is this a good solution? No. And I’m not certain how long we can sustain it. But I think, as I said yesterday, the gains we’re going to make by doing this (and I still think they would be substantial) will be outweighed by the costs, even the costs entailed by shifting our policy. It’s a very close call. But I owe you a straight-up answer. And that’s it.

Having said all this, do I think there’s much chance this will happen? No, I think we’ll be at war in the next ten days. This is just my sense of what we should do.

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