Todd Gitlin Responds

Todd Gitlin Responds

If wishes were arguments, the strongest argument for an American war would be the most ambitious-the wish, or prayer, that by deposing Saddam Hussein and occupying Iraq, the United States would install the first democratic regime in the Arab world, a regime that, in turn, would undermine the autocratic consensus that governs the region, reverse the Islamist movement, and foster the growth of anti-Islamist tendencies elsewhere. Such an outcome is devoutly to be desired. If only the wish sufficed.

But the world in which the wish would suffice is not the world we live in. An American war in Iraq is unlikely to turn the wish into reality. What it is far more likely to bring about is carnage and a boost to terror. The risks are too great to justify war. Wars get out of control and are, after all, hellish. That is why they must be matters of last resort. In Iraq’s neighborhood, there are simply too many ways in which this particular war could get out of control. The scenario most likely to bring about the use of weapons of mass destruction is precisely the one George W. Bush has been angling for: an attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime. The scenario most likely to bring about terror attacks-even on Americans-is precisely the same. The scenario most likely to win recruits for al-Qaeda is precisely the same. Against Saddam Hussein’s future threats, there are substantial, not merely rhetorical, alternatives. The case for containment is strong. Smart sanctions (not the current blunderbuss kind), coercive inspections, and maintenance of the no-fly zones are the alternatives to full-blown war.

UN-imposed inspections are legal, proportionate to the threat, therefore just. The unanimous Security Council resolution mandating inspections is a testament not only to Bush’s power but also to the strength of the case. The proportionate threat of force to ensure that inspectors have access to whatever they wish to inspect is justified. So is the use of force-if, and only if, it is proportionate. The use of force for “regime change” is not proportionate, nor is it justified by the Security Council Resolution.

Bush’s preemptive doctrine is so sweeping, so unilateralist, so morally arrogant, so (in a word) imperial, it is likely to wreak havoc and endanger Americans. To define preemption expansively, as Bush’s “National Security Strategy” does, is to grant oneself a warrant for war wherever and whenever the president desires-a recipe for disaster. As I’ve argued in Dissent (“Empire and Myopia,” Spring 2002), empires can accomplish some good, and some empires and some imperial policies are better than others. But the Bush doctrine is cavalier. Among America’s actual and potential allies, it is likely to turn suspicion to fury. To draw a line in the sand, the mountains, the forests, everywhere is to court disaster-not necessarily soon, but eventually. ...