Gut Time

At this point Iraq is, for each of us, a gut call. We probably have as much information and hard data as we’re going to get. There are different ways to interpret the evidence, to understand the peril. No one can prove containment will work in the future, for instance, and no one can prove that it won’t. There will be a price to pay if we invade. There will be a price to pay if we don’t. And ultimately you have to go with your instinct, your gut sense of the world and of men.

George W. Bush looks at fact patterns, as they say, and does not shrink from coming to conclusions if he thinks the facts demand them. This can’t be said of all political leaders. Coming to a conclusion means having to take a stand. Taking a stand is dangerous. They would rather observe the drama from a distance (a distance that may not hold, for the drama may come to them) and, if it ends happily, come forth to say this is indeed what they hoped for, what they quietly helped. The success of the American operation was, we feel, partly the child of our criticisms. But it would be wrong to take credit, let us simply say we are pleased. If it ends in disaster they will say: Ah, that is why I could not support it.

That’s politics. President Bush in this respect isn’t a politician. He’s an actual leader. He has come to conclusions and taken a stand.

This is not small but big. It’s moving, and it’s impressive.

But it doesn’t in itself mean he’s right.

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Some people have been put off by, and some people are inspired by and grateful for, the degree to which the president’s Christian faith seems to play a part in his leadership. A New York media person or intellectual will say, Bush thinks God put him in the presidency “at a time such as this,” and that gives me the creeps. This reflects a misunderstanding about Mr. Bush’s faith. He actually prays for guidance, for wisdom, for strength. Mr. Bush told an audience the other day that he thinks the most generous gift one person can give another is a prayer. He said, “I pray for strength. . . . I pray for forgiveness. And I pray to offer my thanks for a kind and generous Almighty God.” This doesn’t make him strange. It puts him in the normal range of Americans.

He doesn’t think I’m God’s guy, he agrees with everything I do. If he did it would be disturbing to say the least. But he’s not John Brown saying God himself told me to start this war, and he’s not an ayatollah saying death to the Great Satan. He’s just a Christian asking God for help and trying in turn to do what is helpful. When you do this you’re acknowledging your inadequacy and dependence. It’s a declaration not of pride but of humility. To a Christian it’s like declaring reality. It’s like saying, “There’s weather outside.”

So Mr. Bush doesn’t shy from conclusions and he isn’t embarrassed that he asks for and needs God’s help.

Fine and good. A lot of people are able to feel a certain comfort with Mr. Bush because he’s authentically himself, not led by polls, a man of faith, a man who tries to stay plugged into the current of big love.

But it still doesn’t necessarily mean he’s right.

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Which gets me to Colin Powell’s testimony before the U.N. Security Council.
From the early days of the debate I listened to the secretary of state closely and with respect. I was glad to see a relative dove in the administration. It needed a dove. Mr. Powell’s war-hawk foes seemed to me both bullying and unrealistic. Why not go slowly to war? A great nation should show a proper respect for the opinion of mankind, it should go to the world with evidence and argument, it should attempt to win allies.

A lot of people tracked Mr. Powell’s journey, and in a way took it with him. Looking back I think I did too.

Mr. Powell now stands where the president stands: Saddam Hussein must be stopped.

This is what Mr. Powell asserted, and in my view established, in his U.N. testimony: Iraq has developed and is developing weapons of mass destruction. Iraq has deliberately hid the weapons, in contravention of international agreements. Iraq has relations with and is supportive of terrorists who mean to strike at innocent people.

You have to ask yourself: Why is Saddam developing these weapons, and what might he do with them? Will he do nothing with them? That would not be in line with his history. His history is one of aggression: invasions of neighbors, mass killings of his opponents in his own country and in others. Doing nothing with his weapons would be at odds with what appears to be his personal pathology: He is sadistic, a torturer. He likes bloody floors.

Should we think past is prologue? It would seem realistic to think that, especially when we see his increased hunger for more and bigger weapons. The anti-invasion people don’t address what they think a man like Saddam will do in the future if no one stops him. Recently I asked a friend, an intellectual who is passionately antiwar and anti-Bush, what he thinks Saddam will do if we do not remove him. At first my friend dodged the question with anti-neocon invective, but when I pressed he admitted he had no idea what Saddam would do if he were not stopped—and he didn’t care.

But you have to care. It’s irresponsible not to.

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How is Saddam a threat to world safety? Well, you don’t develop chemical and biological weapons to establish world peace. You get them, you spend your treasure to get them, to use them, one way or another at one time or another. He’s used the weapons he has in the past—both conventional weapons in his invasions, and unconventional weapons in his gassing of the Kurds and Iranians. He seems never to shy from violence. Do we want him to go nuclear, and then deal with him then? That would seem an unwise gamble.

If Saddam means to do mass harm with his weapons, whom does he mean to harm? He has long pointed to America and Israel as his great foes. He was thwarted and humiliated by America 12 years ago when he tried to take Kuwait. He was infuriated by Israel 22 years ago when they bombed his nuclear reactor. Whether you think America and Israel were right in those past actions or not, they are history, and they suggest who Saddam sees as his ultimate targets: them, and their allies, such as Britain and Italy.

When America in the Gulf War spared his life and left him in power, he solemnly agreed to stop developing weapons of mass destruction. The world turned its attention elsewhere as he merrily resumed developing such weapons.

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It is hard to believe Saddam’s future plans are benign.

It is also hard to assume an invasion of Iraq would be as smooth, short and low-cost in terms of casualties as the first Gulf War. Maybe it will. U.S. military power is somehow always stronger and more overwhelming than one expects. But this looks like Saddam’s last stand, and it is hard to imagine he will not hide and use the weapons he has. American troops appear to be prepared for this, but the unarmed civilians of Iraq do not. If Saddam uses all he has and goes out in a blaze of inglory, it could yield a terrible human toll among his own people, to whose safety he’s long given little thought. Those who implacably oppose war will use these civilian loses to paint America as a mindless behemoth scattering bodies in its wake. But a great nation cannot allow its decisions to be determined by the pictures its foes will paint.

War is ugly, damaging, chaotic and, in its individual application, often wildly unjust. It is as William Tecumseh Sherman said, hell. But Gen. Sherman didn’t say the Civil War was wrong because war is hell. He fought hard and hellishly for the Union.

President Bush’s foes warn of body bags. There will be body bags. But the question does not seem to be “invade and get body bags” versus “don’t invade and no body bags.” If that were so we’d all say fine, no invasion. The question is: “invasion body bags or noninvasion body bags?” Removing Saddam and taking losses, or not removing Saddam and waiting for the losses that will no doubt follow. Saddam is a body-bag bringer. Where he is, loss follows.

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What good can come of an invasion? A successful invasion would mean Saddam removed and, in his place, someone almost certainly better. Maybe a more benign dictator, or an Iraqi leader who is already helping the CIA and has silent Iraqi support, or a hopeful democrat, or a claque of men who hate what Saddam’s leadership did to abuse their country and people. U.S. forces would obviously be there for some time, and maybe a long time.

Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction could be found, removed, destroyed.

This will be difficult, all of it. It may not work, or work completely. But if it removes Saddam and removes his killing weapons it may well sober up our allies in the area. And it will hearten the civilized world more than we imagine. For the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, the civilized world will be able to feel that it can seize control of its fate again.

It would also be a real and psychological blow to terrorism and terrorists. “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse,” Osama bin Laden said in a post-Sept. 11 videotape. America, he implied, was the weak horse. Will it be bad for the world if the civilized West gallops into the chaos and removes the weapons cache? I think it will encourage a more robust sense that nonterror states do not have to be the victims of bad history in a bad era.

So: a blow to terrorism, the destruction of horrific weapons, a reassertion of Western spirit and values, and the stopping of a rogue nuclear program controlled by a sadist. This would seem to be worth a lot.

And millions of Iraqis would be freed from oppressive and pathological rule. That would be worth something too.

A more stable Iraq may well contribute to a more stable Middle East, and a more stable Mideast would contribute to a more stable world. And in the context of that enhanced stability the U.S. would hopefully feel free to be a more effective encourager of the hard steps needed to calm the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is not the only source of but the obvious modern source of our current woes.

Much needs to be done in a troubled world, and surely the removal of Saddam is part of it, a needed step.

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We cannot expect a successful invasion of Iraq to result in a new age of peace and security. Islamic terrorism won’t stop until all the terrorists themselves are jailed or killed. They will probably do terrible things again before the West decides once and for all and en masse to stop them. We are in for rough times. It cannot be said often enough that we are in the era of weapons of mass destruction. It is one thing for a Hitler to plan a war, build up his military and move strategically to get what he wants. It is quite another when a thousand little Hilters get their hands on one huge weapon and passionately, nihilistically go forth to kill. There will be plenty more heartache before the drama is done.

But we can’t dodge history. History won’t let us. We’ll have to deal with it, do our best, lead for the good. Iraq is part of the pattern of world terror. To move against it is a gamble. But to do nothing is a gamble too. It’s gambling on Saddam’s future goodwill, a new reluctance on his part to use what he has, a change of heart, mind and character. Does that strike you as a safe bet? A good one?

Me either.