What’s Missing in The Iraq Debate

The battle is joined, the debate begun in earnest. In the past 48 hours we have witnessed Bush vs. Daschle, Hitchens vs. Cockburn, Democrats vs. Republicans, The American Conservative vs. The Weekly Standard and National Review, paleocons vs. neocons, compassionate conservatives vs. the left. In New York we debate whether strong criticism of Israeli policy is prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism. In Washington it’s two questions: Who owns conservatism, and is the modern left more than a collection of depressives, America-lasters and anti-Semites?

The background music to all this has underscored the drama of the moment: It is the plaintive wilderness fiddle of PBS’s “The Civil War,” repeated each night all week. You can walk the dog in the evening in the upscale neighborhoods of the East and hear the fiddle’s lonely tune coming from the screened windows of neighbor after neighbor. It’s what you hear as you walk along, wondering how the question of war will be resolved.

We wanted interesting lives, and we got them.

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What is at issue as we discuss war on Iraq? The safety of America, of untold numbers of people, the position of our country in the Mideast and elsewhere—and that’s just the beginning. The debate has already become personal. This one is “a repulsive character,” that one is “another middle-aged porker of the right.” Personal viciousness is probably inevitable, but this fight should be serious.

It should be epochal.

One question has already been settled. The war will be the great issue of the 2002 elections. Some Democrats says this is Karl Rove’s plan to restrict the national conversation to foreign policy, where Republicans are traditionally strong, and away from the economy. Maybe that is Mr. Rove’s plan, and if it is, it’s not without logic—what is more important than war?

But as plans go it’s not without danger. Opponents of the war will now gather their forces, their resources, their arguments and data. They’ll be all over trying to make their case. They’ll have no trouble being heard.

So far they’ve not done well. They have argued that there are grave risks to action, but this is not an argument. There are grave risks to inaction, too. They have argued that America will have a hard time establishing a new Iraqi government. Well, yes. That doesn’t mean it must not or cannot be attempted.

More is needed from the opposition.

The Bush administration says Saddam Hussein is sinister and vicious. Let me, with confidence and admitted presumption, assert on behalf of the majority of Americans: We believe it. Saddam has used poison gas, has already invaded two neighboring countries, has murdered people in the coldest of blood. The administration says Saddam is gathering weapons of mass destruction, and again: We believe it. There is plenty of evidence, and there is also proof. They say he is pursuing nuclear arms. Again: We believe it. He would.

The opponents of war, it seems to me, must face the questions that flow from what we know.

If you know Saddam is wicked, know he’s gathering weapons of mass murder, know madmen are likely to ultimately use the weapons they stockpile, and know, finally, that he wishes America ill, then why not move against him? And why not now? Wouldn’t inaction be irresponsible?

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But the administration still has questions to face, too. Among them: What has stopped Saddam from using the weapons he has, and has had for some time? Isn’t it deterrence—the sure knowledge that if he launches missiles weighted with weapons of mass murder he can wave goodbye to Baghdad, to his own life and those of many, many of his countrymen? The era of Saddam the Great would end.

If we move against Saddam now, this inhibiting incentive is lessened or removed. What will stop Saddam from going out in a great blaze of “glory”? He can kill millions.

Why is deterrence no longer operable?

The Democrats on Capitol Hill have so far failed to mount a principled, coherent opposition. I am not shocked by this, are you? One senses they are looking at the whole question merely as a matter of popular positioning: Will they like me if I say take out Saddam? Will they get mad at me if we try to take him out and it’s a disaster? Will they like me if I say there’s no reason to go to war? Have I focus-grouped this? Such unseriousness is potentially deeply destructive. It is certainly irresponsible. And here’s the funny thing: If some Democrat stood up and spoke thoughtfully and without regard for political consequences about what is right for us to do, he’d likely garner enhanced respect and heightened standing. He’d seem taller than his colleagues. At any rate, more than usual, I am missing Pat Moynihan and Sam Nunn.

Members of the administration, on the other hand, seem lately almost inebriated with a sense of mission. And maybe that’s inevitable when the stakes are high and you’re sure you’re right. But in off-the-cuff remarks and unprepared moments the president and some of his men often seem to have missing within them a sense of the tragic. Which is odd because we’re talking about war, after all. Leaders can’t lead by moping, but a certain, well, solemnity, I suppose, might be well received by many of us.

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At any rate, the battle is joined. It will be waged over the next six weeks. It is going to be hot. It is going to dominate public discourse. This is good. We need and deserve a debate that is worthy of the moment, and worthy of the people—the millions of them—who could be affected by America’s decision one way or another.

And by the way, it is not bad for a critical world to see how a great democracy, the world’s oldest, goes about resolving questions of the utmost gravity. This is a good time to remind them who, and what, we are.