So it has come to this. America, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, prepares to initiate its very first pre-emptive war -- a war justified not by attack on America or even immediate threat to America, but rather by a foe's intrasigence. As I've written before, there are arguments to be made for taking such action, and circumstances that could require it, but this administration, even at this late date, still can't decide which objective it has in mind. Disarmament? Liberation? National security? Future national security? Ridding the world of an evildoer? Nation-building? Stability of oil supply?
Support for the President's war rests on multiple and fragile circumstance as no other American war has before. Yes, Lincoln needed a victory at Gettysburg and likely at Vicksburg, Truman needed MacArthur to make that landing at Inchon and LBJ desperately needed initial reports of the Tet Offensive to show that the North Vietnamese had suffered a horrific defeat.
But Bush faces a situation more fragile than even these examples. If any one of a mountain of variables spins out of control, the results could be devastating: If the Iraqi army doesn't fold; if Saddam escapes with loyal troops; if we cause serious civilian casualties; if American troops do get hit with WMDs; if, because of bad weather or miscalculation, our military suffers a serious setback; if we aren't greeted as liberators; if before the dust settles, the economy worsens; if during the invasion we are victimized by more terrorist attacks; if we learn, as Thomas Friedman has warned, that Iraq produced Saddam, not the other way around; if the situation in North Korea further deteriorates. If any one of these circumstances goes into the tank, not even the President's propaganda machine will be able to save him -- or us. This one needs to go just about perfectly.
Speaking of the President's propaganda machine, at a time when trust in his government is so important, most troubling are reports that some polls show 80 percent of the American public now believes that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. And how do you suppose this false perception got planted -- since, of course, the facts tell us that Iraq didn't have anything to do with 9/11? Well, we now know that a small cadre in the administration, with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz as its intellectual leader, was looking for a reason to mobilize public opinion in support of a war against Iraq that they believed hadn't been completed a decade earlier. Then came 9/11, and the hawks had their hook.
Even so strong an administration supporter as the conservative William Kristol acknowledges that before 9/11, not only was Iraq not on Bush's agenda, but that as regards to foreign policy, Bush had no agenda.
Evidence would emerge, the hawks figured, linking Saddam to 9/11. When it didn't, they were too far down the road to turn around (even if they wanted to, which they didn't). Again, there are legitimate reasons that can be used to defend an invasion of Iraq, but linking Saddam to 9/11 is not one of them.
The writer Christopher Hitchens, who supported this war before the President did, argues that Bush isn't disingenuous as he jumps from justification to justification -- no, Hitchens thinks Bush is just a neophyte who has had to learn on the job. It wasn't that long ago, remember, that Bush was running a baseball team. Hitchens' interpretation explains, precisely, why guys like Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney have been able to tutor Bush so effectively on their views of the world.
Here's where it's useful to compare Bush to another president faced with a grave decision: John Kennedy. Saddam, after all, isn't the first dictator we have tolerated, nor is he the most dangerous. Castro, with those missiles aimed right at us back in 1962, wins that prize. Yet when faced by military leadership unanimous in its recommendation that we launch an all-out strike, as Bush's civilian Pentagon leadership urges him to do today, Kennedy didn't just leave it to the so-called military experts and do what he was told. He was the president, and he asked the hard questions, demanded answers, avoided hyperbole and insisted that all perspectives and options be examined. In the end, Kennedy managed to avoid taking a step that historians now widely recognize could have led to nuclear war.
Wolfowitz would argue that the world has changed since 1962; that even in the last decade, time and space have been changed forever. Paradoxically, the Cold War's bipolar arrangement defined by the doctrine of "Mutually Assured Destruction" resulted in a much more stable world than what has emerged since he collapse of the Soviet Union. But in Wolfowitz's worldview -- now the president's and ours as a nation -- nothing can prevent our nation from launching pre-emptive war if we, and we alone, believe it is justified. Treaties, diplomacy, world opinion -- when we feel threatened, none of that matters.
Yes, it has come to this. What should accurately be termed the Wolfowitz Doctrine -- a reversal of 200 years of American foreign policy tradition implemented after zero public debate -- will now be put to the test. The hawks will get that regime change they've wanted since 1991, but then comes the scary part. Because of their actions, events will unavoidably be placed into the saddle, where, for some time to come, they will ride mankind.