Along the Tracks

Friday, February 14, 2003

Beware: Long leftist hatchet job ahead

Over at The Nation, Jonathan Schell takes a seven-page stab at ripping apart Bush foreign policy, and in particular, the concept of pre-emption. While its length overwhelms, its arguments do the opposite.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem: Iraq is not an example of pre-emption as laid out in Bush policy documents. Saddam Hussein is a boil allowed to fester for over a decade. There is no peace treaty in place from Gulf War I, and the ceasefire agreement has been fully and repeatedly violated. The “U.N. path” taken by Bush is the strongest proof that this is not pre-emption. Iraq’s disarmament has been a stuttered process which began in the Security Council after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Bush merely pushed the problem up on the agenda, hoping to “wrap it up” before Saddam has a chance to take more lives. You can’t “pre-empt” a war which has been on slow burn for 10 years.

Another difficulty in Schell’s piece is the mingling of two terms best kept separate: “pre-emption” and “preventive war.” These are not in any way the same thing. “Pre-emption” is a military strike to stop a declared enemy from acquiring the capability of inflicting a first strike, where delay would allow the threat to establish. “Prevention” is more ambiguous. It indicates a willingness to use force before there is any indication of a real threat. Let’s show how these terms contrast through a fictional example: If, by some strange twist, Mexico’s government were overthrown by Islamofascists, and the U.S. immediately attacked, that action could be considered a “preventive war,” an effort to remove a potential long-term threat to security. A “pre-emptive war,” however, would be further down the pike. If, after a decade of icy relations with an Islamic Republic of Mexico, intelligence indicated the Mexicans were close to building an atomic bomb, and we immediately struck the facility and removed the usurpers from power, that would be a “pre-emptive war.” For the term pre-emption to apply, the threat does not need to be imminent, just inevitable if not stopped.

Schell hammers the administration for inconsistency in its responses to “axis of evil” members - and other nations. This is one of the weakest lines of thought the left chooses to follow. The stated policy of “pre-emption” indicates that such action might be taken if no other options were available to remove the threat. Yet, Schell and like-minded leftists basically argue: pre-empt one, pre-empt all. Again, Iraq is not an example of pre-emption, but let’s change the scenario a bit. Suppose there was no Gulf War, and Kuwait was now Iraq’s 13th Province. No American troops in the Gulf, no Saudi air bases. Further suppose that new intelligence indicated Saddam had developed chemical and biological weapons, some medium range missiles, and was working on nuclear capability. Suppose also that he seemed to have some loose ties with al Qaeda. If all those things were true, and the U.S. attacked Iraq, it would be a case of pre-emption.

In light of that “pre-emption” scenario, should the U.S. immediately begin military action against North Korea? Some might say yes, some might say no. But all honest thinkers would hold the same positions on North Korea whether Iraq is a case of pre-emption or not, because each threat must be dealt with on its own merits, not on parallels drawn with other threats. This would seem to be obvious, particularly to critics who regularly berate the president for using “black and white” distinctions in a world drawn in “shades of gray.” The stated policy of pre-emption merely informs adversaries of one tool the U.S. is explicitly keeping in its arsenal, a cautionary note to aggressors. It is not an order to fuel up the bombers every time a potential enemy makes a disturbing move.

Schell claims the “war” has already been lost, because North Korea has a nuclear capability and a variety of other unsavory states are proliferators and terror-dealers. For this reading of the present situation to be true, a few assumptions must be made. First, we must assume the goal of the war is to deny all enemies or potential enemies the ability to manufacture and use WMDs. That is a most worthy foreign policy goal; it is not, however, the goal of any “war” I have heard about. Indeed, if Saddam changes heart tomorrow and lays bare his arsenal for inspection and destruction, the “war” so far will have involved a routing of the Taliban and a few dangerous but effective police actions, none of which were directly aimed at weapons of mass destruction. Assumption one proven false.

A second assumption is that we are hereby stuck in a world with a nuclear North Korea. There are two problems with this assumption. First, North Korea was just as “nuclear” in 1993 (or earlier) as it is today. So this would appear to be an ex post facto indictment of the Bush policy - you can’t “pre-empt” something which already exists. Second, who says the North Korea situation is permanent? The Kim regime is creaky, as well as cranky. We could yet make a deal with Kim where he allowed the removal of all nuclear materials in return for aid or, if the danger becomes intolerable (heaven forbid), we could take out his regime. It’s a little early to call the North Korea situation a “defeat.”

Schell drifts into hyperbole (aside - thanks, Toastmasters!) both in trusting Saddam (he thinks he is “deterrable” despite the evidence to the contrary) and in questioning what Bush will do (nuking Iraq is Schell’s expectation) should Iraq use the chemical or biological weapons Schell doubts Saddam has. He accuses Condoleeza Rice of “threatening genocide” by repeating long-standing policy that use of WMDs would result in “national obliteration” - a “threat,” perhaps, but one meant to prevent slaughter by giving pause to the field commanders who would order the use of such weapons.

It seems a left-leaning critic can hardly say “Iraq” without tossing out the accusation that any war’s hidden motive is “oil.” Nothing new is added by Schell, so I’ll leave the fact that he made the ludicrous claim as its own rebuttal.

The next Schell criticisms involve any “forced democrotization” of the Arab world, starting with Iraq. Schell cannot bring himself to admit this would be an improvement for the people of the region (other than to say of a benign, pluralistic government, “can we have one here?”), instead focusing on the “empire” supposedly required to establish such a regime. Let’s see, years of expense and building, all to give the Iraqi people freedom and the right to choose their own directions, including the distribution of oil wealth we wrested from their oppressor then handed over to them. Some empire.

After flaying the “democratization” advocates, Schell turns and states that Bush won’t democratize anyway. This claim is based on administration “silence” over postwar plans for Iraq and a long historical listing of non-democratic regimes with which America has done business. First, the question of Iraq’s postwar dispostion has been ignored by an antiwar movement to focused on conjecture and conspiracy in an attempt to derail Saddam’s removal. The administration has not been “silent” on the issue - the left hasn’t been listening. Second, just because America has done and continues to do business with unpalatable regimes does not mean it is our preference, or that we would not help a nation where we held influence democratize. It won’t happen overnight in Iraq, as it didn’t happen overnight in any other “nation-building” example, but Schell would have a hard time listing countries America once occupied which are not democracies or at least headed down that path. Schell carries this leaky bucket a block too far, though, when he posits this scenario: What would America do if a free Iraq’s people voted to build nuclear weapons because “their enemy” Israel already has them. Ah, yes, those damn Zionists again. It does not occur to someone like Schell that a free and democratic people might have no interest in being the bitter enemy of another free and democratic people. Schell also makes it quite apparent that he considers the Non-Proliferation Treaty as little more than a ploy by the declared nuclear powers to keep the Third World down. Here he lets slip more overtly a subtext of the entire piece: Possessing weapons of mass destruction is among the sovereign rights of any nation, and a policy which attempts to deny this is anathema to international relations. The “two-tiered system” Schell decries is exemplified, in his rationale, by America’s claimed right of pre-emption; its policy of blocking proliferation; and its intention to maintain its military strength above the point where any other power might consider challenging it.

While waxing eloquent on “democracy,” Schell redefines its bases of authority and its execution in individual state actors and across international lines. Thus, the United Nations contains the “representatives of the world’s peoples” despite the fact half these “representatives” are the faces of nondemocratic governments. Yet, opinion polls across boundaries count in deciding the foreign policy where America is concerned, since most oppose a war with Iraq. Sovereignty for them, but not for us, I guess.

In the latter half of the essay, Schell turns to questions of proliferation, arguing (now) ostensibly that, yes, non-proliferation would be a good thing. But the problem is, as always in the eyes of the left, laid at the feet of America. We gave in to our fears that Hitler would develop a bomb, and built one, then used it, ourselves. Schell is correct that the Cold War policy of deterrence “taught” the world the value of possessing WMDs, and particularly, nukes. Get one, and you can deter anybody. Yet rather than taking the next step to say that, in an age of multiple (and often irrational) state and non-state actors versus the two sides of the Cold War, deterrence has become untrustworthy and obsolete, Schell slips into dreamland, arguing for a “comprehensive solution” in which WMDs face “universal prohibition.” No discussion of how that might be enforced, even if all the present possessors were to bring the weapons all forward for a big bonfire. This is the classic utopianists failure: Imagine a world where X does not exist - but don’t think one step further, the step where a nascent Saddam or Osama or Stalin or Hitler decides to sneak off to a corner, make a big bomb, then threaten to use it. Either a) a new dictator gets to oppress everyone in his reach, or b) proliferation and deterence begins anew.

Why does the left never see this inevitable result of utopianism? Because the left doesn’t “believe” in evil. It’s an obstacle these “thinkers” cannot overcome. But, as the world today shows, evil does indeed exist. Weapons of mass destruction are just one manifestation of the results of evil. Successful eliminate them, and a new evil will arise. The “war” against this foe never ends.

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