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Where’s the Fire?

Feb
1
2004

So far, it doesn’t look or feel like a scandal. And I’m blaming the Democrats. They still can’t decide what to do.
Chief weapons inspector David Kay’s testimony last week has generated some noise but not a lot of heat. Except for John Stewart whose out-the-top comedic outrage was as sad as it was funny.
Kay, former head of the effort to find nuclear and other weapons capable of killing large numbers of people, has said that he doesn’t believe those weapons of mass destruction exist. Various scientists in Iraq were supposed to be making or trying to make such weapons but they were working for a madman and they spent most of their time making him happy and satisfying his delusions, feeding the fantasies of this Middle Eastern Dr. Strangelove.
But no one in this country knew this. Nor did they know that charges made by President Bush that the Iraqi had tried to buy weapons-grade uranium were also untrue. After Sept. 11, no one wanted things to get worse and everyone was scared they would. The one person in Congress who voted against the war – Rep. Barbara Lee from Oakland – was ridiculed although being from California, she probably got off light. So we went off to war. People died. People are still dying.
But life on this side of the world goes on. A few weeks ago, Slate ran one of its on-line forums where a bunch of guys who went to Harvard — oh, wait, one went to Oxford — typed up their reactions to finding out that the weapons talk was a sham. This was before Kay’s disclosures. In densely pack prose that only served to underscore their intelligence and education, most said they haven’t changed their minds. Saddam was a bad man and needed to be gotten rid of, European objections to the war were nothing more than Liberal coddling and a refusal to face reality; we had to do something to clean up that part of the world. Lives were at stake.
Slate editor Jacob Weisberg made the most sense when he wrote about his deciding the leave the “I can’t believe I’m a hawk” club. Getting rid of Saddam was a noble goal, Weisberg said, but it didn’t justify slanting the facts, which is clearly what the Bush administration has done. And, clearly, the U.S. can’t afford the war. It was a cautious response in the face of some still very angry rhetoric and, well, Liberal caution — not coddling — got us into this mess, dammit.
The one person who most adamantly refused to buy the administration’s argument, Howard Dean has a reputation for being a hot-head but, you know, he was right. And if this set of circumstances weren’t so sad – the week Dean starts losing is the week his war stance is justified – it, too, would be amusing. The Dean campaign is badly bungling this opportunity; they’re retreating to caution. The candidate’s skepticism about the war and his demonstrated willingness to stand up to bullies and intimidation within his own party could be used to demonstrate and create a muscular Liberalism that could unite the Democrats and face down the war-mongers on the right. But it’s being frittered away. And, as much as his supporters would like, that cannot be blamed on Big Media and its fascination with Dr. Judy Steinberg’s quiet life in Vermont or Howard Dean’s scream.
Most of the others involved in the Slate debate – some of the smartest political writers going on what used to be called the Left – remain adamant in their refusal to acknowledge that the arguments they espoused were faulty. So does Andrew Sullivan (whose current spate of criticizing the Bush administration ought to make Democrasts everywhere blush). The hawks continue to say
by any means necessary,” citing the Libyan government’s decision to capitulate to Western demands for disarmament as evidence that the Iraqi invasion “worked.”
Maybe. I’m not entirely convinced. Talks about removing sanctions against Libya started early this year, well before the Iraqi invasion. And it’s possible that the sanctions that have been imposed on Libya – sanctions to which Western Europe, including the French, adhered because Quadaffi had attacked them directly – played a role, possibly an important one in their success. There have been a series of stories about bribes Saddam paid officials to breach the embargo against his country. In some respects, sanctions against Iraq were meaningless because other governments — yes, the ones who didn’t want us to go to war — were playing both sides of the fence. But in others — when it came to weapons programs, in particular, it seems sanctions were very effective. So maybe the circumstances between Libya and Iraq differ only in the ways in which the U.S. managed them and maybe the Libyan approach is the one that should be used more often.
I’m not so sure I’d feel differently about this if I lived on the East Coast and had seen the towers fall or had to drive past the Pentagon with its gaping hole. I don’t think so. But I think that day of terror is driving more of this hawkish thinking that anyone wants to acknowledge. It is splintering this nation’s politics in emotional ways, ways that defy coherent argument or discussion. The Left has degraded its arguments by so much name-calling – the softies v. the hawks – it’s enough to make you weep watching them fall neatly in to the trap set by the right. The idea that this nation can and should lead by moral example in the international arena – and that can mean sending in an army to standing up to bullies as well as engaging in more peaceful efforts – has been the real victim of the Sept. 11 bombings. I don’t think this country is as scared as President Bush wants to think it is – unless, of course, you want to talk about the national debt – but it’s not as confused as the Democrats are, either, seeming unable to parse national defenses against terrorism with a need to wreck havoc in the name of that defense on the other side of the world.
The Bush Administration’s credibility has been dealt what should be a final, stunning blow with Kay’s testimony. And it’s time the conversation about what that means for U.S. foreign policy – a conversation about the ends justifying the means to achieve them and how that thinking took over everywhere – is held. If it’s not, we all lose more than an election.

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