Beyond Baghdad, A World of Worries

Beyond the next peace is always some further problem. Without offering any of these as reasons for inaction on Iraq, here are three problems nearly or quite as grave.

Colin Powell proposed two links between Iraq and Al Qaeda in his speech to the U.N.: Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, a chemical and biological warfare adept, wounded in Afghanistan, who sought refuge in Iraq, and Ansar al Islam, a fundamentalist terrorist group that is attacking the Kurds in their Northern Iraq safe haven. Mr. Powell’s presentation implies a missing step: Iraq is separated from Afghanistan, Al Qaeda’s former base, by hundreds of miles of Iranian territory. If Mr. al-Zarqawi got to Iraq, and if Al Qaeda personnel came to assist Ansar al Islam, they must have done so with Iranian connivance.

When President Bush first described the “axis of evil,” it had two countries whose names begin with I-R-A-. In dealing with one, we should not overlook the other. Iranian politics is a strange three-way tug of war. The two smallest parties make up the clerical elite, who have seen their will written into law for over 20 years. They are divided between stand-patters and cosmetic reformers. The largest mass is the bulk of the Iranian public, fed up with their monochrome paradise of insincere prayer and niggling regulation. When student demonstrators are being beaten and free-ish newspapers are being suppressed, the mass has no means of expression. Iran could be a great gain-there for the taking, without military effort.

As early as Sept. 11, 2001, everyone noticed that 15 of the 19 mass murderers were Saudi citizens. The months since have seen a dismaying pattern of Saudi evasion about the sources of anti-American terror in their country and the effectiveness of their measures for dealing with it. The Saudis make the French look like Tony Blair. Finally, the Saudis have decided to face the contradictions of their situation, even if the United States has not. The New York Times reports that the Saudi royal family has decided on a three-point program of change: asking American troops to leave the country; curbing the radical clergy; and introducing some democratic reforms.

The first step is all to the good. Our bases in Saudi Arabia have brought us nothing but frustration. During the first Gulf War, they were a means by which we protected a country that was unable to protect itself. In the run-up to the second Gulf War, they became a bone of contention: Would we be able to use our own bases to protect ourselves against Saddam Hussein’s long-term plans for us? No alliance lasts forever. Saudi Arabia is even becoming less important as it steadily loses its central position in the world oil market to new producers in West Africa and the former Soviet Union. Come let us kiss and part, before any more of your aggrieved losers try to blow us up.

I will not hold my breath for democratic reforms and curbing the clergy. Why would a ruling caste seek to marginalize itself, and how can this ruling caste rein in the fanatics who have been their prop and stay since the beginning of the dynasty? But now let it be their problem.

A continent away sits North Korea, readying itself to turn out atom bombs like baked goods for a church social. Here again, disengagement looks like a good preliminary move. For decades, the United States has maintained a garrison of troops in South Korea as a down payment on defending it from any renewed attack from the north. All the regional powers-South Korea, Japan, China and Russia-have come to rely on America as the check on North Korean craziness.

But now if we have to take out North Korean nukes, we don’t want symbolic ground troops within easy reprisal range. We should bring our troops home, to give ourselves maximum freedom of action. Such a move would also encourage North Korea’s neighbors to take it more seriously. In the long run, South Korea and Japan might feel compelled to arm themselves. Rather than see that, China might take a role in controlling the Hermit Kingdom.

All these alarms are taking place on the edges of consciousness-at the ends of the earth, or behind the glass screen of the television. Meanwhile, we live our lives, watching Michael Jordan, buying clothes or drinking coffee. The disjunction between the daily round and the rumors of apocalypse causes a problem here at home, in our own minds. The beginning of World War II-the period of seeming calm between the fall of Poland and the invasion of France-was called the “Phony War.” If we are living in a Phony War now, are we then phony?

A related problem is the aestheticization of life, and of death. Death is final and direct; when it is violent, it is vivid as well. But so much of ordinary life as we know it is pointless, undirected, frivolous. Richer than Croesus, we spend our money on hamburgers. Blessed with more leisure than any class in history, excepting absolute rulers, we listen to the radio. If people ignore ugliness, waste time, and lay up treasures where moths and rust corrupt, then why do they deserve to live? The soldiers who are fighting are certainly better than we are. Perhaps the enemies who would kill them and us are better, too.

The anxious, censorious voice comes from fear of freedom. The minute we take our eyes off the task at hand, the spectacle of everyone else engaged in their own tasks looks like witlessness and confusion. Dare we enjoy it? Dare we act in the defense of such folly? The poet, the philosopher and the scientist-freedom’s ancient rivals whenever they are given an inch-are too ready to say, “Stop doing all the crap you’re doing; do what I say instead.”

I have only two thoughts for the anxiety. First, do your task; when you can, make sure it is worth doing. This is possible; after all, it’s a free country. Second, don’t worry about the brave men and women on the front lines. The front lines now are everywhere. New Yorkers don’t need Tom Ridge’s color-coding to tell us that. If the moment comes, we will do our best.