I don't normally say such things when I haven't been sniffing airplane glue, but: Hooray for Joe Biden! The Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee is launching hearings on a possible war with Iraq. The hearing and, hopefully, the debate it will encourage are long overdue.
In fact, I recently wrote a column denouncing the lack of a debate, and I received a hail of angry letters from readers who criticized me for not making the case for war myself. Fair enough. Here are some of my reasons.
First: Finish the job. Leaving Saddam Hussein in power seemed like the right decision at the end of the Gulf War. In hindsight, it wasn't.
Initially, the Gulf War was a stupendous American propaganda victory -in the most positive sense. Our influence was supreme; democracy seemed like an idea whose time had come; Kuwait even implemented democratic reforms, and the world was put on notice that cross-border aggression would not be tolerated. It's no coincidence that peace between Israelis and Palestinians seemed at hand; America had earned the right to impose its will.
Since then, our decision to leave Saddam in power has been translated by Arab propagandists into an example of American spinelessness. Osama bin Laden asserted that the United States begged off from Iraq out of a crippling fear of casualties, an impression amplified when Bill Clinton yanked American troops out of Somalia after the "Black Hawk Down" incident.
Then there's justice. Saddam defied the peace terms by, among other things, trying to murder the senior George Bush. More important, however, Saddam gassed his own people and has murdered countless others.
There seems to be a sentiment that it's unfair to topple Saddam now because we had our chance 10 years ago. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. In America, there's no statute of limitations for murderers, and there shouldn't be one for mass-murderers, either. Justice delayed need not be justice denied (of course, for the thousands murdered by Saddam since 1991, justice has been denied).
Critics respond, correctly, that the United States used to help Iraq and therefore it would be hypocritical to topple a monster we helped create. So what? Hypocrisy is a minor sin, if it is the result of doing right. It was hypocritical for all sorts of nations to stop supporting South Africa's apartheid after decades of good relations. Does that mean it was wrong to reverse course?
When it comes to the Middle East, realist and idealist foreign policies overlap. It's in our interest to bring democracy to the Arab world. Of the roughly 57 majority Muslim countries in the world, only one, Turkey, is a democracy, and it is our staunch ally. That's no coincidence. It is now quite clear that theocracies like Saudi Arabia and tyrannies like Syria breed terrorism and foment hatred of the West.
If we do nothing as demographic forces swamp these nations with surging numbers of poor young men with no prospects, we are inviting a generation of suicide bombers, some of whom might prefer Toledo to Tel Aviv. The quickest way to let the steam out of the so-called clash of civilizations is to encourage a "third way" for the Islamic world, along the lines of the Turkish example.
And, oh yeah, bringing democracy and the rule of law to these oppressed and impoverished societies would be the humanitarian thing to do, too.
Democratizing Iraq would be hard, probably requiring military rule similar to Douglas MacArthur's post-WWII Japan. And the goal would be the same: to transform a belligerent enemy into a valued democratic ally and trading partner. This would be deeply subversive to the crapulent tyrannies of the region, which is precisely why Saudi Arabia et al. oppose the idea so much. Then again, Saudi Arabia's opinion would matter even less if we could rely on oil from our new ally Iraq.
Obviously, Saddam's overthrow could destabilize the region, but since when is stability the highest standard for American foreign policy? Destabilizing a stable system of cruelty and oppression sounds pretty good to me. We're all for destabilizing the mob, right?
There's also the more immediate threat. It's indisputable that Saddam wants weapons of mass destruction; that he's willing to develop them over the most severe military and economic obstacles; and that he would be willing to use them if he got them.
Biden says we were right not to go into Baghdad in 1991 because if we did, we would have had to stay there for five years. Well, if he's right, that means it's at least possible -though hardly assured -that since 1996, we could have had Iraqis living free, Saddam's weapons on the scrap heap, peace in the Middle East, democracy on the rise, terrorists on the run, an alternative to Saudi oil, Israel and Palestinians at the negotiating table, and Saddam Hussein hanging from a rope.
That sounds like an argument for marching into Baghdad to me, even in 2002.