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Opinion

Check the facts before rushing to war

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

campaign.

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.

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