The Summer of discontent

Posted: Aug 22, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--The country was already feeling knocked sideways. Then came this summer of discontent. Even before summer there had been a 16 percent decline in average household wealth in just two years. Now there have been unsettling events concerning iconic institutions, from the Catholic Church to Wall Street, from major airlines to major league baseball. And The New York Times, which hitherto has fancied itself, and been widely trusted as, America's ``newspaper of record." The incredibly shrinking Times, reinventing itself along the lines of a factional broadsheet of the 1790s, has been using its news columns to campaign against a pre-emptive U.S. attack against Iraq, regularly devoting portions of its front page to stories presenting the obvious with a sense of discovery. Such as: war with Iraq would cost a lot of money. And: America tilted toward Iraq during Iraq's war with Iran. Last week the Times went, as factional broadsheets tend to do, too far. It implied that Henry Kissinger was aligned with Brent Scowcroft, the first President Bush's national security adviser, in opposing the kind of attack the Times opposes. Then, perversity eliciting perversity, some conservatives, adopting something like Ring Lardner's riposte, suggested that not only are Scowcroft's views mistaken but his voicing of them is dishonorable. But even the majority of the public, which is, reasonably, of the ``If Rumsfeld Favors It, Get on With It" school of thought, should recognize that (BEG ITAL)someone must perform the function Scowcroft has shouldered, that of warning (as Ernest Bevin, Britain's postwar foreign secretary, memorably said) that ``if you open that Pandora's box, you never know what Trojan 'orses will jump out." Scowcroft is not, as Rep. Dick Armey (watch for a Times story reporting that he has ``grown") may be, of the ``economic school" of international relations. Like some of the 19th century's especially evangelical enthusiasts for international trade, a few Republicans believe that trade can tranquilize the world by sublimating turbulent passions in commerce. Arguably, that more or less worked--until it indisputably didn't, 88 Augusts ago. It is semantic vandalism to say that Scowcroft and others who share his apprehensions are ``appeasers." Appeasement is the policy of resolving a conflict by making concessions to the most truculent side. Scowcroft believes, probably mistakenly, that containment and deterrence--which when applied to the Soviet Union resulted in regime change--can suffice to make Saddam Hussein's regime something America can live with. Or at least Scowcroft believes that the risks of reliance on containment and deterrence are less than those of regime change by war and its aftermath. This may be wishful thinking; it is not appeasement. Perhaps Richard Perle, the unScowcroft who chairs the Defense Policy Board that advises Secretary Rumsfeld, was correct when he suggested on ABC's ``This Week" that regime change in Iraq will involve U.S. forces in a merely secondary role--in a task much less demanding than expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait 11 years ago. ``Millions of Iraqis have suffered for years under Saddam Hussein," Perle said last Sunday. ``They are eager to liberate their country and we are not talking about a massive invasion along the lines of 1991. We're talking about a much more modest effort in which the United States would assist Iraqis in freeing their country." If America goes to war--which is a realm of surprises--on Perle's cheerful surmise, any surprises will not be pleasant ones. Skeptics, including Scowcroft, forfeit much persuasiveness when they suggest impossible preconditions for regime change, as when they say that America should not try to solve the Iraqi threat until it has solved the insoluble--the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Or until planning for postwar Iraq is much more detailed than was 1942 planning for postwar Germany and Japan. However, although U.S. forces have not--yet--been on the Rhine as long as Rome's legions were, neither are they going to leave soon. Because America's victories generally involve a legacy of American burdens, the administration should present not a blueprint for postwar Iraq, but a sketch of what Americans should brace themselves for. Understandably, the Bush administration would prefer to wait until closer to the eve of the offensive to enunciate its refutation of the skeptics. But just as war quickly discombobulates war plans, a democracy's planning for war is subject to unruly contingencies. The debate about regime change through pre-emptive war is reaching a rolling boil before the administration is ready to respond, so the war's first surprise has already happened. It will not be the last.