After a year of fighting in Iraq and an occupation fraught
with violence, surely it is not rash to suggest, given the debacle over missing
"weapons of mass destruction," that it is a good general rule to treat any
official rationale for war with skepticism.
This conduct would be a healthy departure from the tendency of both
Congress and the major media to assume, as was clearly done on the eve of this
war in Iraq, that the government is telling the truth. And such skepticism
would certainly be a prudent approach to any supposed candor coming from
presidential press conferences, such as last night's, during an election
If one human being on trial can only be given a death sentence on the basis
of certainty beyond "a reasonable doubt," then surely this criterion should be
applied where the lives of thousands are at stake. The decision to go to war
in Iraq should have been challenged on two grounds.
First, that the fearsome weapons claimed to be in Iraq's possession had not
been found despite months of inspection by a United Nations team given
unrestricted access throughout that country. Second, common sense suggested
that a nation with 25 million people, devastated by two wars and 10 years of
economic sanctions, without a single nuclear weapon, surrounded by enemies far
better armed, could not be an imminent threat to the most powerful military
machine in history.
Not only did the president deceive the public, and take the country into
war with a rationale that defied common sense, but Congress and the media, by
going along, became accessories to that deception.
A bit of history might have suggested skepticism. It might have been
recalled that President James Polk took us into war with Mexico in 1846, and
William McKinley took us into war with Spain in 1898, and Congress authorized
war in Vietnam in 1964, all based on deceptions.
Another suggested principle: When a calamity occurs - such as the killing
of soldiers on the Mexican border, or the sinking of the battleship Maine, or
the blowing up of the Twin Towers, should Congress, the media and the public
not be wary that the calamity might be made an excuse for going to war, with
the real reasons concealed from the country?
Should we not, after the terrible events of Sept. 11, have acted more
intelligently, in a more focused way, against terrorism, seeking fundamental
causes, rather than striking out blindly at whatever seemed easy targets -
Afghanistan, Iraq? Should we not have considered whether military action might
not inflame terrorism rather than diminish it?
When the evidence for war is shaky, should we not ask: What is the real
reason for military intervention?
History might be useful here. Is it too embarrassing to suggest that oil is
the real reason for virtually anything the United States has done in the
Middle East? The real reason for war with Mexico was to take almost half of its
territory. The real reason for war in Cuba was to replace Spanish control of
that island with U.S. control. The real reason for war in the Philippines was
the markets of China. The real reason for the Vietnam War was to take another
piece of real estate in the Cold War game of Monopoly with the Soviet Union.
Another general principle, buttressed by history: Military interventions
and occupations do not lead to democracy. I would cite the long occupations of
the Philippines, Haiti, the Dominican Republic. Also: the military action in
Vietnam on behalf of a corrupt and dictatorial government, and the many covert
actions - Iran, Guatemala, Chile - leading to brutal dictatorships.
More conclusions, from both history and our experience in Iraq: that all
wars have unintended consequences, usually bad ones; that military occupation
is corrupting to the occupied country and also to the occupiers; that the
casualties of a military adventure are not just the immediate ones, but
continue far beyond. Think of the tens of thousands of suicides of Vietnam
veterans, the 160,000 medical casualties of the Persian Gulf War.
A final lesson from past and present: The American public cannot depend on
our much overrated system of "checks and balances" to prevent a needless and
costly war. Congress and the Supreme Court have proved to be no check for an
executive branch hell-bent on combat. Only an aroused citizenry can provide the
check on unbridled power that a democracy requires.