Remember the Cassandras

Posted: Sep 13, 2002 12:00 AM
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was asked, following President Bush's address to the United Nations, whether he thought Bush had made the case for pre-emptive action against Iraq. Daschle allowed that each time the president addresses the matter, he strengthens the case. Still, Daschle insisted, there remain unanswered questions. These are: 1) what would be the response of the "international community" and 2) how would the war against Iraq affect the war against terrorism? Democrats worry a lot about the "international community." They believe that the views of world leaders, elected and unelected, carry more moral weight than those of Americans. And their tendency is to seek not just the advice of "allies" but their permission for American action. Who can forget the spectacle of Secretary of State Warren Christopher scurrying from one European capital to another "consulting" about Bosnia and being rebuffed as often as not? Or the memory of the same fellow cooling his heels outside Syrian dictator Assad's office, hoping for an interview. What Democrats almost never seem to grasp is that steadfast American leadership can affect world opinion. Just one recent example: After the latest round of Palestinian terror and Israeli response, rumors circulated that President Bush might call for the replacement of Arafat. Any number of voices were raised in opposition, arguing that Arafat was the legitimate leader or at least the devil we know, and it was no business of the United States to tell others whom to choose. Bush did it anyway. And within a few weeks, European foreign ministers and even some Arab leaders were announcing that Arafat's day had passed. Daschle's second objection has been voiced by Brent Scowcroft and other war-wary former officials. But, as the president carefully spelled out, far from distracting us from the war on terror, dealing with Iraq is an urgent and essential part of the war on terror. With Iraqi cooperation, the worldwide terror network can inflict catastrophic damage on us. Mere retaliation is an empty threat. As Vice President Cheney put it, "Who launched the anthrax attacks?" We don't know, and that's the point. Deterrence made sense against an enemy in possession of thousands of ICBMs. It does not make sense against an ally of terrorists cooking up vats of poison in the desert. History is replete with examples of stupid prewar boasts: North and South in the U.S. civil war predicted rapid victory. Most of the nations who fought World War I imagined the war would be over in a few weeks. But it is also possible to be overly pessimistic about what war can achieve. Remember the Cassandras who predicted disaster before the Gulf War? "We stand on the brink of catastrophe," said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. "An effort to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait would, according to estimates, cost the lives of 20,000 American soldiers," reported Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I. "If war comes, Iraq's fondest hope is that the United States will commit substantial ground forces to frontal assaults, thus giving Iraq a chance to inflict heavy casualties," cautioned Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga. Others were certain that by attacking Iraq we'd ignite a fuse that would cause the entire Arab world to take up arms against us. Evans and Novak wrote, "One very high official told us that every Arab head of state except Saudi King Fahd (and the tiny Gulf states) ... agrees that that if a single Iraqi soldier is killed by an American, it would be taken as 'an aggressive act against us.'" In the event, members of the vaunted Republican Guard were surrendering to CNN crews, and the war was a walkover. But even if the next war is not, it is still worth fighting. Churchill famously said that the Second World War was the "avoidable war." If resolute action had been taken against Hitler earlier, millions of lives would have been spared. Churchill's words are particularly apposite now: "If you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed. If you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not so costly, you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance for survival. There may be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no chance of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves."