A Plume of Smoke, A Vision of Horror

As I crossed Union Square on the morning of Friday, Feb. 21, I saw the black, hard-edged plume of smoke to the south. The weather had been odd enough recently that it might have been responsible for the apparition. Yet, inevitably, the half-thought crossed my mind: Could this be terrorism? (From Union Square, south had been direction of the World Trade towers.) When I got to my destination, I saw on TV the live feed from New York 1 of the Staten Island refinery fire. The authorities are calling it accidental, though who knows what we will ultimately find: Big city refineries would make an obvious terrorist target.

Suppose Al Qaeda got its hands on a weapon of mass destruction? When mere accident can produce a cloud twice the size of a skyscraper, what could Islamist zealots do with a nuke, or a shovelful of ricin? Think of the Staten Island fire as a word to wise-a peek at Saddam Hussein’s to-do list. How anyone-especially any New Yorker-can contemplate his weapons program, and the likely fate of his machines infernales , is beyond me.

There are those who acknowledge the danger that Saddam Hussein poses, yet do not believe that a war against him is necessary. Michael Walzer, co-editor of Dissent , writing in the current issue of The New York Review of Books , argues for international pressure: “[W]hat internationalism requires [is] that other states, besides the US, take responsibility for the global rule of law and that they be prepared to act, politically and militarily, with that end in view …. When we campaign against a second Gulf War, we should also be campaigning for that kind of multilateral responsibility. And this means that we have demands to make not only on Bush and Co. but also on the leaders of France and Germany, Russia and China ….”

This, at least, is clear-eyed peacenik-ery: It reads the situation correctly, and it states the only alternative to American-led action. But how likely is that alternative? China will sit this one out and let the foreign devils tear each other. Germany is led by a feeble Social Democrat at the head of a lefty coalition, who has said that he would not take action against Iraq even if the U.N. mandated it. If we move, Russia’s President Putin, considering his strange friendship with President Bush, will probably tacitly support us. But why should he tear up his valuable oil contracts with Iraq on his own? This leaves France, which is determined to support its Iraqi business partner, both as an ally and as an irritant to the United States. Yes, it would be nice if other nations disarmed the tyrant. But if they like the tyrant and dislike us, that isn’t going to happen.

What of the multilateralism that the United States has already brought to bear? France and Germany do not support us. But Britain, Spain, Italy and Australia do. So do the nations of Eastern Europe (which so enraged French President Jacques Chirac that he threatened to keep them out of the European Union as punishment). So do Israel, Qatar and Oman-which, being in the neighborhood, have a lot more to lose than the lands of brie and wurst. How many countries do you have to have on your side before anyone notices them? How many nations does it take to equal Susan Sarandon?

The left argues that the Bush administration, cynically or fecklessly, has changed villains, from Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein. Either because he wants to grab Iraq’s oil for Dick Cheney, or because he wants to finish his father’s feud, or because he can’t keep his eye on the ball, Mr. Bush is diverting resources from those who actually struck us to those who might.

The news does not bear this interpretation out. We just sent 1,300 troops to the Philippines to help deal with an Islamic insurgency in the Sulu Province, which appears to be linked to Al Qaeda. That is a headline item. The hidden work of rolling up enemy assets and monitoring their communications continues apace. Even such a spastic action as raising the warning level to orange reflects our ongoing attention to Al Qaeda’s doings. World wars, by definition, have to be fought on many fronts. The Allies gave priority to beating Nazi Germany in World War II. That didn’t mean that General MacArthur and Admiral Halsey did nothing until the fall of Berlin. Sometimes you have to walk and chew gum at the same time.

We quail, with good reason, at the prospect of our own casualties, and the loss of life of Iraqi civilians. Some of our own casualties will be incurred in the effort to diminish the loss of innocent Iraqi lives. Saddam will have no more sympathy for his people than he has shown in all the years of reign, or than Hitler showed in his bunker. Just as the Taliban stored military supplies in mosques, expecting their destruction to rouse the anger of the Muslim world, so Saddam will pin his feeble chances on an urban rope-a-dope strategy, thrusting the people of Baghdad to the fore in the hope that revulsion over their deaths will spare him. We know what he has in store. Unlike him, we do not go to war with clouds of poison gas. The soldiers who fought with such bravery and skill in the streets of Somalia will execute their missions in Iraq with maximum speed and precision. The ultimate effect will be merciful.

When Saddam Hussein has been strung up by the heels, or allowed to move next-door to Idi Amin in Saudi Arabia, then the long-suffering Iraqis will finally be able to rip down his omnipresent posters. They will at last be able to look forward to a life free from the threat of their wives and daughters being raped and tortured to death if they say or do the wrong thing. Will the Catskills hippies and the campus peace chicks who have gone to Iraq to be human shields express any regret over shielding a tyrant? Will they have any second thoughts about hating their own country so much that they could do the bidding of a mass murderer? Not likely. Irresponsibility is the pollution of freedom, a noxious but inevitable side effect. The soldiers and the politicians-and yes, Michael Walzer-will have to go on, trying to make choices in a hard world.

A Plume of Smoke, A Vision of Horror