In today's NYT, Ken Pollack, in lieu of the Bush administration, seems to take
up Tom Friedman on his recent challenge to "tell the truth," i.e., make an
argument for war on purely realist, power-political terms. In my judgment, he
throws everything he has at it (something problematic in itself) but falls
(See "A Last Chance to Stop Iraq" at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/21/opinion/21POLL.html )
An itemized list:
1) The argument from ignorance. KP argues that we ought to fight because we
don't know (and perhaps can't know) much about Iraq's progress towards a
nuclear weapon. This formula -- when in doubt, go to war -- should highlight
the dubious prospects of nonproliferation by brute force. There are limits to
how many wars even the US can fight in a given space of time, and there are
costs and risks involved in fighting them. Or should American nonproliferation
efforts stop with Iraq? The most reasonable answer seems to be that we should
not exclude the possiblity of war, but should reserve it for the most urgent
and threatening cases. Yet Iraq doesn't seem to meet that test, either.
It's worth adding that KP spins his analysis here towards the fear of the
unknown. Following his chronology, Iraq is always closer to the Bomb in
retrospect than it seems at the time, yet, like Achilles chasing the tortoise,
never quite manages to get there. It could be that he's shortchanging
containment by focusing exclusively on the limited tool of inspections, while
excluding the contribution of defectors' intelligence bonanzas and periodic
2) Saddam the undeterrable aggressor? KP starts off by conceding that Saddam
was deterred from using chemical weapons during the Gulf War, and then goes on
to list areas in which he was apparently not deterred -- a selective list that
excludes relatively clear-cut examples of deterrence such as 1994, while
including dubious cases such as 1999 (the latter an instance of weakening one's
argument by throwing in the kitchen sink). This approach seems designed to
obscure recognition of the fact that Saddam's Iraq was almost continuously at
war from 1979 to 1991, but has not attempted to trespass on any neighboring
state's territory since that time.
Without dwelling on the ins and outs of any of KP's cases, it should suffice to
say that any decisionmaker will find some deterrent threats more credible than
others. Certainly, a war for "regime change" will minimize the value of any and
all deterrent threats. The failure of this argument is particularly damaging,
since it is KP's only argument based on empirical evidence as opposed to
3) The stopped-clock argument. "America has never encountered a country that
saw nuclear weapons as a tool for aggression." KP wisely concedes that this
wasn't how it seemed to likeminded analysts at the time, but argues that it is
indeed the case this time around. Even a stopped clock is right at a certain
time of day. Even the boy who cried "wolf" might actually meet one. Even
paranoids have enemies.
At different times, hawkish analysts have applied this view to the Soviet
Union; Communist China; the "rogue states" of Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and
sometimes also Libya or Syria; and now Iraq alone. KP assures us that American
experts agree that North Korea "wants nuclear weapons for defensive purposes —
to stave off the perceived threat of an American attack." But it wasn't so long
ago that many experts made the exact opposite argument about North Korea in
order to justify the deployment of an untested ballistic missile defense
system. Where have they gone all of a sudden?
KP seems so seized with Saddam's uniquely threatening character that he
downplays the seemingly far more urgent North Korean problem, at some cost to
his credibility. "The worst that anyone can suggest is that North Korea might
blackmail us for economic aid or sell such weapons to someone else (with Iraq
being near the top of that list). Only Saddam Hussein sees these weapons as
offensive — as enabling aggression."
Only Saddam? What happened to Usama bin Ladin? (Hidden away with the North
Korea hawks, perhaps?) What happened to the nexus of terrorism and nuclear
weapons that we've heard so much about? Here is one kitchen sink that KP
doesn't throw in, perhaps because it remains speculative -- not that this stops
him elsewhere -- but more likely because it seems liable to materialize in
North Korea well before Iraq.
KP does not invoke by name the problem of "mirror-imaging," or erroneously
assuming that others think the same way as oneself. But awareness of the mirror-
imaging fallacy permeates his analysis. Saddam, he tells us, is not like you
and me. So it's scarcely worth dwelling on why hawks like KP -- leaders and
opinionmakers who seem to prefer war whenever the choice is apparent -- also
regard our adversaries as preferring war whenever the choice is apparent.
I don't doubt that there are valid argument for going to war with Iraq --
realist arguments, powerful moral arguments not discussed here, and probably
others I haven't thought of. But there are also powerful reasons not to go to
war, also not discussed here. If KP's are the best arguments that the bottom-
line realists can muster, then their case for war is alarmingly weak.
"Alarmingly" because it seems we are past the point of no return.