The Missing Conversation

The problem is that casting the debate in terms of being "for war" or "against war" precludes meaningful progress. There are many possible wars, and many possible peaces; choosing "war" or "peace" up front cuts off the serious work involved in debating our way through those possibilities.

I'm furious at just about everyone right now. Start with the Bush administration, whose polemophilia has led it actively to undermine every proposed non-military option. Effective inspection-based disarmament and an exile-for-regime-change deal, for example, might not seem so unlikely had our nation's diplomatic and military planners not trash-talked them quite so severely and so unnecesarily. It takes some amazingly hard work to exude bad faith this strongly, but somehow the Bushies have managed. The forgery and the inept plagiarism are more than just embarassing; they make it impossible to evade the inference that the conclusory tail is wagging the evidentiary dog.

The credibility hawks, who think that a nation that has taken such a belligerent stance cannot now afford to back down, deserve special contempt. That was how World War I started, after all; had Austria-Hungary been willing to stand down, it might have survived. (Besides, the credibility argument works in reverse, too: a nation whose sabre-rattling commits it to war is a nation that cannot be trusted with a sabre.)

The anti-war activists have learned nothing from the 2000 election. The insistence that the war can and must be stopped may be a useful organizing technique, but purity of principle won't save any Iraqi lives once the bombs start falling. With all of the sound and light coming from the left, where is the legislation for a second Marshall Plan? Where is the concern for Iraqi refugees? Where is the insistence that civilians be spared even at the risk of more American casualties? I hate Bush, too, but there are more important causes than standing up to him for its own sake.

The balking hawks are being obtuse in the same way, of course. Guess what, guys? Back when you signed on "for war," you should have been a little more specific about what kind of war you were siging on for. But you weren't, and if the only response you have is to want to unsign, you're not going to be taken seriously, because you don't deserve to be. If Bush isn't about to wage the multilateral, UN-approved, nation-building sort of war you want him to wage, your job is to hold some feet to the fire and get the right war, not to undercut your own reasoning by suddenly pretending to recognize realities that have been obvious for months.

More than anyone else, though, I'm enraged at the Europeans, because they're the ones with the power to fix things, even at this late date, and they're squandering the opportunity. When it comes to UN credibility and multilateralism, the damage is either already done (whether you hold the US or France responsible for sticking the knife in, the Security Council is already a joke) or will never take place (whatever face-saving deal we all cut in the end will salvage our foreign relations somewhere well-shy of the recall-of-ambassadors stage). And notice, please, that the multilateral interests being asserted here, are those of the EU, and not those of the rest of the world (especially the countries with substantial Muslim populations). But that sort of engagement is precisely backwards, if you think of multilateralism as a political technique for cutting off the oxygen-rich atmosphere of anger in which terrorism burns.

What are the Europeans bickering over? Timing. Procedure. The language of authorizing resolutions. In other words, all the issues that have zero intrinsic importance and whose procedural importance will vanish the instant the shooting starts. These are questions whose answers affect neither the rightness nor the consequences of war, and yet these are the "compromises" for which the Europeans are holding out. In the face of such moral frivolity, it's easy to pick on the French. They asked for it when they showed greater concern for the sanctity of Resolution 1441 than for the stability of the Middle East.

I'm against this war, on the grounds that the President must be discouraged, as strongly as possible, from making such phenomenal diplomatic cock-ups, and refusing him his war is about the only leverage available. I'm against this war, on the grounds that the blowback from peeved "allies" and outraged Muslims will be awful beyond belief. And I'm against this war, on the grounds that a great many of innocent people will die in it.

But, the thing is, these defects can be dealt with. Not perfectly, to be sure, but it is possible to clear up the bad blood, to assuage the rage with memorable shows of good faith, to make the slaughter less wholesale. Would I be for or against the war if these things were done (or, even more counterfactually, had been done)?

That question, as they say, is not before this court. And, in a subtler sense, neither is the question of whether I'm for or against this war. No one made me judge. No one gave me a ballot with clearly marked "yes" or "no" boxes and a promise that my vote would make any kind of difference. The war, as such, is not an up-or-down proposition. I'd rather put my energy into making the actual war a more just war, or the actual peace a more just peace, than into splitting the hairs and balancing the equities of a wholly abstract "war" and an equally undefined "peace."