Iraq and the promptings of responsibility

Posted: Sep 04, 2002 12:00 AM
With privilege comes responsibility. Well, I mean, isn't that what we used to hear all the time -- from parents and principals, likely as not -- when the topic was private life and the means of leading such? What about public life? What about, specifically, life in the most privileged and powerful nation ever: the United States, which, not so incidentally, is pondering its next move vis a vis Iraq while taking heat and heckling from foreigners (e.g., the French and the Saudis) who ask what inspires us to stick our fat noses into other people's affairs, and that's just for starters? President Bush may be a ways yet from declaring his intentions as to an Iraqi invasion and laying out the requisite proofs, but one thing is plain: Human nature never changes. Nobody loves a Top Dog. Not a chance. Since World War II, the United States has been Top Dog in the West, but only in the last decade, since the Evil Empire's collapse, did it assume this mantel in the East as well. And as Top Dog, it has heard the normal criticism, with exceptions like the post-Sept. 11 period, when the world rallied to the American cause. Regarding the prospect of a U.S. attack on Saddam Hussein, much of the world wants the United Nations or world opinion -- whatever -- to leash the Top Dog. The animus of the Europeans in the Iraqi matter is especially fascinating. In the old days, Europe never held back from intervening in a scrap where intervention seemed warranted. Apparently, the operative phrase is that was then, this is now. It is not, the way I see it, that we must intervene in Iraq. It is that, well -- with privilege and power comes responsibility. Responsibility for what? In part, for shielding the weak from destruction by the strong. This sounds idealistic. Whatever happened to good old realpolitik, with the constant emphasis on what's in it for us? Nothing happened to it, really. The sometimes-costly defense of the weak from destruction often turns regularly in a realpolitik direction. There is possibly everything in it for us, including domestic security. When the weak have been dumped and clobbered (e.g., Europe, September 1939), the power doing the clobbering is likely to reveal itself as very strong indeed. Not up to Top Dog level, possibly, but equipped with sharp and shapely fangs. That would seem a likely role now for a small Middle Eastern nation with large capacity to wreak destruction through what we are habituated to calling WMDs -- weapons of mass destruction, nuclear or biochemical. Whether Americans like it or not, their country is unrivaled Top Dog, with concomitant responsibility for situations once unimaginable: an imperial power without colonies. There has never before been such. This helps to explain our perplexity over what to do. Why are the Europeans, with honorable exceptions, like Britain's Tony Blair, yelping at us? Why doesn't the Arab world acknowledge its need for our military support? The reasons are complicated -- jealousy, fear, anti-Americanism. It is not presently useful to worry why. It is useful mainly to ask what needs doing. Can the world live comfortably with Saddam as a neighbor? If so, let's have him in for tea and hummus while we entreat his friendship. If not -- that is to say if he holds strong cards in the military poker game -- other questions arise, such as, do we need a war to get rid of him? The question is immensely relevant. Would someone show us a way more plausible than war -- not just to learn, via inspections, about Iraqi war-fighting capabilities but to end those capabilities? We listen; no answer comes so far. What we hear in the headlines is whining and anger: Don't fight, that would alienate the Arabs/alienate Europe/drive up oil prices/hurt the economy/goodness knows what else. It all sounds bad enough until, as with the standard joke about old age, one considers the alternatives. With privilege comes responsibility, and every day, responsibility squeezes harder.