Of course, the United States is safer now that Saddam Hussein is behind bars. Not nearly as safer as we'd be if the Saudi regime were supplanted by a more liberal, less Osama bin Laden-enamored one; or if our government had more diligently implemented the Nunn-Lugar Act and acquired more Soviet warheads that may now be in the possession of God-knows-who; or if we'd paid more attention to North Korea two years ago; or if we'd dedicated more resources to port security here at home; or if John Ashcroft stepped down as attorney general. But safer nonetheless.
The case for war in Iraq was never the safety of the United States, as the administration has acknowledged over the past several months by retroactively shifting its justification to building democracy in that unhappy land. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, no significant ties to al Qaeda and no army willing or able to wage conventional warfare against us. To be sure, the administration asserted the contrary on every possible occasion before, during and, for a time, after the war, despite the absence of any uncooked evidence to bolster its claims.
But for my liberal friends who supported the war, such as Mitchell Cohen, the co-editor of Dissent magazine, these claims were always as spurious and beside-the-point as they were for me. (Full disclosure: I'm a member of Dissent's editorial board.) The issue for friends such as Mitchell was always Saddam Hussein, and the murderous regime that he and the Baathists inflicted on the Iraqi people. Even if the Baathists were replaced by an imperfect democracy, that would be a huge step up from the republic of fear, as Kanan Makiya termed it, that Hussein had put in place. And in this, I agreed with Cohen. It was a terrible regime, and the argument for the war was always one of Iraqi freedom, not U.S. safety.
So the case against the war was necessarily a complex one. If the only factor had been ridding Iraq of its Baathist thugocracy, why, of course, the war merited support. But supporting the war also meant supporting a new national doctrine in favor of preventive -- that is, discretionary -- wars. It meant the shredding of the United Nations and NATO and the very idea of international institutions, the rejection of long-term alliances, the normalization of unilateral and discretionary wars in what was already a dangerous world. It meant acquiescing to the idea that the president can lie this nation into war. It meant an overextension of our armed forces that emboldened North Korea in threatening its neighbors and China in threatening Taiwan. It meant the transformation of the United States from a land admired throughout the world into a nation, by the evidence of all available polling, almost universally feared. Call those externalities if you will, but they sure do add up.
War is tragedy, and either supporting or opposing it involves tragic trade-offs. Most of the movement that emerged to oppose the war in Vietnam, for instance, did not welcome the prospect of a communist takeover of the South. The movement included such dedicated anti-communists as Robert Kennedy and Mitch Cohen's predecessor as editor of Dissent, Irving Howe. These were people with no illusions about communist regimes; indeed, Howe, a lifelong democratic socialist, was as trenchant a critic of those regimes as you could find anywhere on the U.S. political landscape.
During the Vietnam War, he continually condemned that portion of the antiwar left that glorified the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. But he opposed the war withal: The immensely bloody means required to win it, he believed, finally eclipsed, indeed subverted, the end.
And so it is for those of us who had no illusions about Hussein, and believed that if the United States went to war, it could surely overthrow him -- but opposed the war anyway. The ousting of the Baathists is not just good in itself; it's great in itself. But it was never simply "in itself," of course. Ousting Hussein as Bush undertook the task also required a rewriting of the norms of international conduct in favor of wars of choice, and the norms of domestic discourse in favor of systematic presidential deception, of waging a war on false pretenses. From the vantage point of any street corner in Baghdad, these changes, I acknowledge, may seem damned inconsequential. But we are not in Baghdad, and what were imperatives there were always choices here.
We do not know what will ultimately follow Saddam Hussein, whether in five years' time we will be opposing some militant, theocratic regime that has risen in its place. What's before us now, though, with all the irony of which history is capable, is a terrific consequence of a terrible policy. It should be cause for celebration from anti-warriors and pro-warriors alike, especially since the war's other consequences are a matter of general woe.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.
This column originally appeared in Wednesday's Washington Post.