Not safer, but better

Posted: Jul 14, 2004 12:00 AM

President Bush declared this week that America is safer today because we toppled Saddam. I think this is absurd. We are not safer today because we toppled Saddam, or at least I don't think we are.

Let me back up a bit.

Whenever I defend the invasion of Iraq or - gasp - say that I still think it was a good idea, I get a torrent of e-mail from readers saying that I'm a hack-mouthpiece-shill who parrots the administration's talking points. And these are among the friendlier anti-Bush readers. The problem - for me - is that I also saw the case for the invasion of Iraq slightly differently than Bush did.

In part because the media insisted that the White House give "one reason" - in Tim Russert's words - to invade Saddam, the administration focused on the WMD threat, which everybody agreed was real, by the way. By everybody, I mean pretty much everyone except Scott Ritter, Janeane Garofalo and Michael Moore. Jacques Chirac, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry, Bill Clinton: They all believed the WMD threat was real.

The only disagreement was over what tactics were the best to deal with the problem. Indeed, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz got in hot water in May of last year because he told Vanity Fair that the administration settled on the WMD issue for bureaucratic reasons. Bush critics denounced this as a sign the administration was cooking the intelligence books or . something. (Coherence from Bush critics back then was a lot to ask for). But all Wolfowitz meant - as demonstrated by a full transcript of the interview - was that the there were disagreements over all the other rationales for toppling Saddam. But everyone could agree that Saddam's WMD threat was real and serious.

And while I always thought the WMD problem was a major factor, as a journalist I never saw any reason to refine my rationale for going to war down to a bureaucratically or politically convenient ?er-Reason.

How many important decisions do you make in your life that boil down to a single reason? You don't buy a house just because it's near a good school. You also look at the cost, the condition, the size. You ask the seller if the basement foosball table conveys or whether the owners are taking it. And so on. In other words you weigh a bunch of factors and you make decision based upon the totality of variables. It's a real luxury to face decisions where one factor outweighs all others, but such situations are rare and, more important, such decisions are easy.

And that brings us back to President Bush claim that we are safer today because Saddam is gone. Bush is running for re-election, and presumably his strategists and advisors believe that he has to say it that way. He may also believe it. But I think it's simply not true. Of course, it's impossible to know for sure. Who knows what Saddam might have done while America focused on al-Qaida? The sanctions regime was falling apart, thanks to the active mischief of the French and others. We know now that the oil-for-food program was giving billions to Saddam under the table.

We also now know - thanks to the Senate intelligence report - that more than likely Saddam was trying to obtain uranium from Africa. (We also know from that report that the White House did not pressure the CIA to fabricate any evidence against Saddam.) Still, if you assume that the prewar status quo was permanently sustainable, we would probably be safer if Saddam were still in power, murdering thousands of his own people, rewarding suicide bombers in Israel, and cheering al-Qaida (Saddam publicly applauded the 9/11 attacks, if you recall).

But who cares? Seriously, time bombs are very dangerous when you try to defuse them. Does that mean cops shouldn't try? America was much less safe for years after FDR and the Congress decided to wage war against Germany, Japan and Italy. Does that mean he shouldn't have done it? The "Greatest Generation" was great precisely because they understood that the safety of their grandchildren was more important than their own safety.

John Kerry is claiming that George W. Bush has the wrong "values" because he went to war when "he didn't have to." Fair enough, for an election year. But it seems to me that Bush could turn that around on Kerry. I think President Bush can claim the right values precisely because he had the courage to do the right thing in the long run, even if it was the risky thing in the short run. Kerry values stability and alliances for their own sake, which is another way of saying he values popularity over principles. If Iraq becomes the engine of a prosperous and democratizing Middle East in 20 years, who in the next generation won't be grateful for the values of this generation?

Alas, that's my argument, not George Bush's.