A particularly brilliant March moon currently illuminates the globe from sunset until almost dawn; yet the wondrous nocturnal scenes it reveals remind us only of approaching peril. Half a world away, in the desert vastness of Iraq, the same brilliant moon will soon light the way to death and destruction; and that violence may rebound to our own shores even before the next lunar cycle.
In recent years, the citizens of the United States have been forced to learn too much about such things: the devious uses of everyday objects and natural features; the fragile smallness of the earth. Boundaries of every kind have grown brittle and porous thanks to man’s viciousness and his ingenious technology.
At this moment, with humanity splintered into factions by the prospect of a war that is mere hours away, fear seems to motivate every side, to taint every voice. Worst of all, this is not the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” of Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, but rather fear born out of a sensible assessment of the facts. And because fear animates all players, the behavior and goals of each have become uniformly negative : Despite President George W. Bush’s obviously heartfelt address to the nation Monday night, there is at present no profound, no persuasive voice of genuine hope to be heard; no one can point with conviction to the manifest good that will come either from fighting or from avoiding the battle. There are rationalizers, of course: Every nation and faction has them, from the squabbling Western allies to the pro- and anti-intervention groups. But their ideas are small and hollow, and their diagnoses and prescriptions so unreal and self-serving that they only reveal more plainly the dread that drives them all.
Begin with the squabbling Western allies. France (and Germany and Russia) spied several months ago an opportunity to check sharply the power of the dreaded American hegemon. President Jacques Chirac and his grand vizier of moral and historical revisionism, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, can try all they like to paint their nation and their government as apostles of peace, but Mr. Chirac’s career-long involvement with weapons proliferation-particularly regarding the man he for so long knew as cher Saddam -gives the lie to this effort. Their goal is in fact to frustrate American and British aims in Iraq: a negative tactic, and likely not only to fail, but to degrade seriously their nation’s global influence.
America, too, seems doomed to take a negative approach. On Monday, Mr. Bush delivered another urgent warning to Saddam, along with another chronicle of the Iraqi dictator’s crimes. Once again he uttered what has become the mantra of U.S. policy, the declaration repeated by every official in his administration: “The time for diplomacy is over.” The whimpering attempt to keep American statesmanship alive during the coming conflict-the promulgation of the administration’s “road map for Middle Eastern peace”-may be of some use in mitigating the effects of the Iraq war outside the Middle East; or it may make things worse. There is as yet no sign that President Bush has developed the nerve to force concessions from Ariel Sharon (who, tiring of his lifelong hobby of murdering Palestinian refugees during the course of military operations, has now taken to permitting the gruesome slaughter of American civilians who protest his methods), and if the Bush initiative produces only more Israeli intransigence, rage on the Arab street will make Palestinian terrorism in the United States almost a certainty.
Absent diplomacy, America is left with its own set of negative motivations: to disarm, depose and in every way defang the beast of Baghdad. These are valid aims, especially in the light of 9/11 and Saddam’s supremely negative efforts not only to defy weapons nonproliferation laws, but to shelter, supply and encourage Islamic terrorists. But none of this changes the fact that we have no well-considered, thorough and positive plan for an adjusted American relationship with the Islamic world generally.
This is not the fault of America’s defense planners and warmakers; they are not diplomats, and it is not their job to be diplomatic. The American media-and our troublesome “allies”-have criticized members of our defense establishment for their blunt talk, but their brusqueness is notable only because the State Department has failed to provide a counterbalancing and convincing diplomacy: We have only a void where there should be statesmanship. Our vaunted Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has failed in this as in every recent regard, and this should come as no surprise. Consider his career, from the early whitewashing of the My Lai massacre to his insistence on ending the first Gulf War too early, to his formulation of the much-admired but in fact banal (to say nothing of brutal) Powell doctrine: He is a Pentagon apparatchik , not a statesman. The inverse racism that has thus far spared him from the kind of invective that would have been heaped on James Baker or Madeleine Albright had they been similarly ineffective may well protect him for as long as the Bush administration endures. But the fact remains that American diplomacy during this crisis has consisted of denying Iraqi claims, coercing and bribing allies and neutral nations, and threatening the world with the “end” of a diplomacy that never began.
Even those who most vociferously proclaim themselves “advocates”-the opponents of military action in Iraq-are in fact merely “anti-war.”
The movement is laced with intellectually pedestrian (and historically idiotic) negatives: “There is no good war and no bad peace”; “War is the failure of government”; “Pre-emptive war is not legal.” Neither these nor any other anti-war slogans address the simple question: If we spare Saddam Hussein, what proactive, assertive policy can the critics of intervention suggest to keep him in check and to prevent terrorist organizations from becoming ferociously emboldened? Saddam will not need to “go back” to producing his pet weapons of mass destruction-because he never stopped producing them. Weapons inspections have been a dismal and dangerous failure for the last 12 years, a fact ignored or denied by anti-war activists-just as most of them ignored, during those same dozen years, the bombardment and starvation of the very Iraqi people they now claim to champion. The anti-war movement has been brought to life not by ideals, but by fear-fear that attacking Iraq will lead to more terrorist assaults on the U.S.
There is no genuine and imaginative advocacy at work in this crisis. Forget the Bush administration’s vow-elaborated fancifully by Mr. Bush on Monday night-to make democracy in Iraq the “real” goal of its war: It is a ludicrous attempt at rationalization, as unreal and potentially destructive, in its way, as Osama bin Laden’s fantasy of a world ruled by Islamic fundamentalists. What the U.S. is actually doing in Iraq is completing the process it began in Afghanistan: establishing the price to be paid by rogue states that offer haven, funding or encouragement to terrorists. Honestly stated, this is a justifiable-indeed, necessary-action. The eradication of terrorism, root, trunk and branch, is an essentially negative job, and we ought to say so bluntly.
But we also ought to say that the job will not be completed until we have determined what alternative to terrorism we can offer those populations which now nurture terrorists. Wilsonian blather about exporting American democracy will not fit the bill; neither will an expanded program of globalized capitalism and free trade, no matter how fervently American politicians and business executives crave it.
What positive outcome should we strive for? Let the Iraqi population, like that of Afghanistan, construct whatever government it desires, so long as it meets our demand not only to reject but to combat terrorism. We will agree to become the advocates of who they are, rather than of who we wish them to be; and they can go a long way toward allaying the anxieties that are setting Americans at each other’s throats. It’s not a bad exchange, really-the criminally narcissistic Woodrow Wilson might have disdained it, but it would have appealed, I think, to our nation’s greatest conqueror of fear, Franklin Roosevelt.
Caleb Carr’s The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians (Random House), has been published in a revised and updated edition.