In the debate about America and Iraq, two questions keep getting confused. First, does the United States have grounds to remove Saddam Hussein? And second, is an American invasion the best available course of action, after we balance all the likely
risks and gains? The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. The Iraqi dictator ranks with history's worst. And he has violated both the letter and spirit of the truce following the 1990 Gulf War, which allowed him to stay in power in exchange for disarming and agreeing to an inspections regime.
But it doesn't automatically follow that war is sensible policy. And here, the critics are the realists and the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz contingent the naïve utopians. Look back at the past half-century. The United States has co-existed with numerous loathsome regimes -- but for good strategic reasons decided not to go in and "take them out."
The list begins with Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, whose assaults against both citizens and neighboring nations make Saddam Hussein look minor league. But even though the spiritual ancestors of Cheney et al. taunted the Truman administration as "Dean Acheson's Cowardly College of Communist Containment," the Kennan-Acheson strategy of hemming in Stalin rather than starting World War III was the right policy. President Eisenhower overruled ultra-hawks who wanted preemptive nuclear war. It helped that Ike had been a five-star general and outranked all of them. There was fierce lobbying urging intervention when Khrushchev brutally put down the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and again in the Czech Spring of 1968. But wiser heads grasped that the Soviets considered Eastern Europe a sphere of influence, and U.S. military intervention, however justified, risked a nuclear exchange.
Anyone who lived through the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (or saw the highly accurate movie Thirteen Days) should appreciate that even though we caught the Russians red-handed, so to speak, putting offensive missiles in Cuba, Kennedy's tough policy of blockading Soviet supply ships made more sense than either bombing the missile sites or removing Castro by force. We certainly had a basis for doing both. The only obstacle was the risk of nuclear war.
By being both tough and patient, we have seen one totalitarian regime after another fall. And the Strangelove generation, those of us who grew up doing nuclear air-raid drills in grade school, finds it miraculous to have gotten through 40 years of "mutual assured destruction" without a nuclear holocaust. Throughout the Cold War, the lunatic fringe -- people like Gen. Curtis LeMay, who wanted to bomb North Vietnam "back to the Stone Age" -- often served in government. But providentially, these radicals never seized control of policy.
That, finally, is what is so utterly alarming about the present administration. For the first time in the nuclear age, the radicals are in charge. Even among self-styled foreign-policy realists, Cheney, Wolfowitz and their doctrine of ubiquitous and unilateral rollback are considered lunatic fringe.
Invading Iraq does not directly risk nuclear war. But it imposes other grave risks. These include fracturing NATO, wrecking the United Nations, legitimatizing preemptive strikes, attracting more converts to Islamist fanaticism and warping America's conception of our own vital interests. Korea offers an all-too-timely warning of just how the Iraq obsession blinds the administration to the real hierarchy of dangers to the peace. Iraq itself demonstrates that the challenge of nuclear proliferation demands a multilateral system of arms control. This is hardly the time to blow up NATO and the United Nations as collateral casualties of the crusade to blow up Saddam Hussein.
Yes, he richly deserves ouster, but then so did Muammar Quaddafi, who really did sponsor global terrorism. But you haven't heard much about the Libyan dictator lately. That's because, after American warplanes nearly assassinated him, Quaddafi decided to abandon his terrorist enterprises in exchange for his life and his regime. Conversely, we could intervene militarily and save the Bosnians and Kosovars from brutal repression because there was no risk of wider war or global destabilization.
As much as the American crusaders may wish it were different, and as repressive as these dictators are, it is just not practical at acceptable cost to drain every political swamp. For two generations, our friends around the world have held their breaths in hopes that America's awesome power would be deployed responsibly. Despite abominations like Vietnam and sundry CIA-sponsored coups, on the whole the United States has borne its vast power with a strategic sense of proportion.
This issue of the Prospect, which is newly designed as a monthly, also includes a special report on a domestic counterpart to the administration's rogue foreign policy: the systematic takeover of the federal courts and the abridgment of liberties. Here, too, we are living under something wholly new in America: an administration as ruthless and wrongheaded as it is radical.
-- Robert Kuttner