As Congress and the president move us closer to war, opponents of military action become more desperate in their insistence that toppling Saddam is not only dumb, criminal and immoral, but pretty much everything else bad you can imagine. Since so many of these charges amount to unthinking clichés rather than actual arguments, I thought it might be helpful to provide a little cheat sheet of rebuttals to these knee-jerk outbursts. It's by no means exhaustive, but it's a start.
-This is just about oil: This is a particularly popular argument, especially among Europeans.
Allegedly, our president and vice president are doing the bidding of the oil industry they once worked for. The problem with this argument is simple: there's no evidence for it.
First of all, oil prices go up when the war seems more likely and down when a peaceful solution seems imminent. Second, up until 9/11 the oil industry, via the American Petroleum Institute, was lobbying for the lowering of sanctions against Iraq. As Peter Beinart of the New Republic writes, "For their first nine months in office, Cheney and the Bush team didn't propose invading Iraq; they proposed scaling back the U.N. sanctions regime."
Besides, if the Bushies just wanted access to Iraq's oil fields, all they'd have to do is, well, ask. Saddam has made it clear that he would work with the U.S. oil industry if we'd just lift the sanctions. Meanwhile, Saddam has forgone some $160 billion in oil revenues precisely because he won't open his country up to weapons inspectors.
-We helped Saddam in the 1980s: This argument takes many forms, but very few of them are particularly coherent. The charge seems to be that the United States supported Saddam in the 1980s while he gassed Kurds and accumulated weapons of mass destruction and, therefore, the United States is hypocritical or inconsistent for wanting to attack him now.
The short answer is: So what? A slightly longer answer is: Even if all that is true aren't we obliged to remedy our mistakes? Isn't that the lesson of Frankenstein and every other "we've created a monster!" argument? Moreover, even if we did create the monster (we didn't really, by the way), that doesn't mean we were wrong to do what we did in the 1980s, and it certainly doesn't mean we shouldn't fix the problem just because we had a hand in creating it.
We helped Stalin in the 1940s and waged the Cold War against him in the 1950s. We were right on both counts. Consistency in foreign policy is nice, but reality sometimes demands you do what's necessary.
-War with Iraq will distract from the war on al-Qaida: Right now this is the Democratic Party's favorite argument. It was best articulated in al-Gore's San Francisco speech. It's so popular because it allows Dems to sound hawkish even while they vote dovish.
Unfortunately, there are any number of problems with this argument, but let's cover three quickly. First, there's no evidence it's true. On the international stage the war against al-Qaida and the pending war against Iraq seem to be on completely different tracks. For example, even as Germany announced it wanted nothing to do with our campaign against Iraq, it redoubled its efforts against al-Qaida. The same holds true for many Arab states, including Syria, that are against war with Iraq but continue to help us with al-Qaida.
Second, the U.S. military was designed to fight to full-blown wars at once, i.e. defend Taiwan and fight Iran simultaneously. The suggestion that it can't handle one war with a relatively weak Iraq and a second conflict with al-Qaida, when that conflict requires very few troops, tanks, planes, etc., strikes most experts as a non-issue.
But the most important retort is that the charge works on a false assumption, as do so many anti-war arguments. The question isn't whether toppling Saddam will distract from the war on al-Qaida, or whether Saddam had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks, the question is whether toppling Saddam is warranted.
A war on Germany certainly distracted us from our war on the perpetrators of Pearl Harbor. And a war on Iraq may distract somewhat from our war on the perpetrators of 9/11, but that doesn't mean it's not worth doing.
After 9/11, America said with almost one voice, "Nothing like this can ever happen again." If you really believed that, then, in my opinion, toppling Saddam is worth doing. If you disagree, fine. Just don't use any of the above arguments.