WASHINGTON--There are two logically coherent positions one can take on war with Iraq.
Hawks favor war on the grounds that Saddam Hussein is reckless, tyrannical and instinctively aggressive, and that if he comes into possession of nuclear weapons in addition to the weapons of mass destruction he already has, he is likely to use them or share them with terrorists. The threat of mass death on a scale never before seen residing in the hands of an unstable madman is simply intolerable--and must be pre-empted.
Doves oppose war on the grounds that the risks exceed the gains. War with Iraq could be very costly, possibly degenerating into urban warfare. It would likely increase the chances of weapons of mass destruction being loosed by a Saddam facing extinction and with nothing to lose. Moreover, Saddam has as yet never used these weapons against America and its allies because he is deterred by our overwhelming power. Why disturb the status quo? Deterrence served us well against such monsters as Stalin and Mao. It will serve us just as well in containing a much weaker Saddam.
Pre-emption is the position of the Bush administration hawks. Deterrence is advanced by a small number of congressional Democratic doves. But, ah, there is a third way. It is the position of Democratic Party elders Al Gore, Ted Kennedy (both of whom delivered impassioned speeches attacking the president's policy) and, as far as can be determined, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. This Third Way accepts all the premises of the antiwar camp. It gives us all the reasons why war could be catastrophic: chemical or bioweapon attacks, door-to-door fighting in Baghdad, alienating allies, destroying the worldwide coalition of the war on terror, encouraging the recruitment of new terrorists, etc.
Moreover, they argue, deterrence works. ``I have seen no persuasive evidence,'' said Kennedy, ``that Saddam would not be deterred from attacking U.S. interests by America's overwhelming military superiority.'' So far, so good. But then these senior Democratic critics, having eviscerated the president's premises, proceed to enthusiastically endorse his conclusion--that Saddam's weapons facilities must be subjected to the most intrusive and far-reaching inspection, and that if he cheats and refuses to cooperate, we must go to war against him.
This is utterly incoherent. In principle, a search for genocidal weapons that can be hidden in a basement or even a closet cannot possibly succeed without the full cooperation of the host government. There is not a serious person on the planet who believes that Saddam will give it.
More important, why are these critics insisting on inspection and disarmament anyway? They have just elucidated all the various costs of attempting to disarm Iraq forcibly, and told us that deterrence has worked just fine keeping Saddam from doing us any harm. If deterrence works, by what logic does Kennedy insist that Saddam ``must be disarmed''?
The enthusiasm of these senior Democrats for inspections is really nothing more than an argument for delay. Yet what advantage is there to delay? The war will be just as costly tomorrow as today. Even assuming that delay gets us a few extra allies, how does that prevent Saddam from launching his awful weapons or resorting to urban warfare?
The virtue of delay is that it gives Democrats political cover. Ever since George McGovern, Democrats have been trying to escape their reputation for being soft, indeed unserious, on foreign policy. Last time Saddam threatened the peace (by invading Kuwait), seven out of 10 Democrats in Congress voted against authorizing the use of force and in favor of the useless pseudo-solution of sanctions. So this time, the Democrats' leaders make the antiwar argument, but have the political savvy to conclude by running up the flag and sounding the bugle.
I happen to believe that the pre-emption school is correct, that the risks of allowing Saddam to acquire his weapons will only grow with time. Nonetheless, I can both understand and respect those few Democrats who make the principled argument against war with Iraq on the grounds of deterrence, believing that safety lies in reliance on a proven (if perilous) balance of terror rather than the risky innovation of forcible disarmament by pre-emption.
What is hard both to understand and to respect, however, is the delay school. They tell us that this war will be both terrible and unnecessary--and then come out foursquare in support of starting it later, after Saddam has refused to play nice with inspectors. They manage to criticize the war, and still come out in favor of it. A neat trick--and, given the gravity of the issue, an unseemly one.