The U.S. Invasion of Iraq: Swatting a Hornets’ Nest with a Bat

This was written in September, 2004, recalling a debate with a friend in the spring of 2003, just before the U.S. vote to invade Iraq. It is now 2017 and we are still fighting in Iraq.

About a week before the US invasion of Iraq, I got into a heated argument on the phone with a close friend, an American who lived at that time in Australia. I was against the invasion. For starters, I said, as a matter of national honor, the US does not attack first. True, we have a few times concocted a pretext for getting into a fight, but in general we’re defenders, not aggressors. Instinctively, most Americans would prefer to react to an attack, after diplomatic means have been well and truly exhausted, even if it means suffering the first blow, and for one simple reason: We know (and everyone else knows) that if we really fight with the gloves off we’ll win in the long run, and that if we, as the stronger party, throw the first blow, we’ll look bad. A fancy way of saying this is that by striking first we lose moral authority, a notion upon which we, as a nation, need to rely. While that notion itself is ethereal, it’s embodied in real, tangible things like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to vote.

Even assuming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (and a week before the invasion there was no convincing evidence, much less proof), those weapons posed no immediate threat to the population of the US. In any case, Saddam certainly knew that if he did have any WMD, and he unleashed one at us, we’d simply wipe him out, with the full support of most of the world.

More pragmatically, I was against the invasion because after we deposed Saddam (that was a foregone conclusion) we would still have to hunt down the terrorists, and to try to do that with a standing army, warships, and fighter planes was, I said, like trying to corral fog in a cage. It was like trying to eliminate hornets by swatting at their hive with a baseball bat. No good could come of it. All it would do — this loosing of the dogs of war — would be to create thousands more terrorists, a couple of generations of them, probably, to plague our lives and our children’s lives.

Better, I said, to be patient and work quietly to root out the slinking fanatics with a program of infiltration, cooperation with Muslim allies, hearts-and-minds campaigns, and steady pressure by special operations forces, supported by high-tech weapons and precise forward observation.

My friend said, “Listen, pal, half-measures won’t fly. If we take it slowly now, it’ll just give them time to get better organized and hit us again. When it comes down to it, I’d rather be the hitter than the hittee. Saddam Hussein is a proven bad guy. He’s been thumbing his nose at us and at the UN for years, and mass-murdering his own people. He’s certainly sympathetic to the terrorists, and probably helping them. He’s got to go. We’re the only country with the guts and the means to get rid of him — us and the Brits, God bless ’em — and we’re absolutely obliged to do it, because if we back down and let him slide on these UN resolutions, he’s just going to get worse, and it’ll encourage all the rest of these *%^&$# to have a go at us, too. This is already a war, my friend, and Iraq will just be one battle in it. If you want to wait around for another 9/11, you’ll get one. I’d rather do something to prevent it.”

There was much more to this argument, but that was the gist of it. My friend, who has lived and worked all over the globe since joining the corporate world 25 years ago, has grown ever more conservative, more convinced of the superiority of the American form of government, and more willing to see the United States throw its weight behind good causes — the relief of oppressed peoples and the spread of democracy. I, on the other hand, was more doubtful about these things. I was embarrassed at the thought of exporting our popular culture, embarrassed by George W. Bush (and by Bill Clinton before him, by the way), and am generally of the opinion that we ought to tend to our own business before charging off on open-ended, poorly-planned missions on behalf of others. An urgent, central focus of our business should be the development of alternative energies and renewable energy resources, and the enforcement of strong conservation measures, so that we can afford not to buy oil from the Middle East. It’s best not to stomp around making boastful noises when your potential enemy has his finger on your shut-off switch.

Both of our positions were decently reasoned, and both could be claimed by practitioners of realpolitik. Unfortunately, the debate was not and is not academic; it’s at the center of the American conscience, although swathed in all sorts of side issues and distractions. The populace is in firm and sometimes bitter disagreement with itself. The terrorists are probably quite pleased about that, but I’m hoping we can pull our act together and disappoint them by showing them some of the real benefits of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to vote.

Let’s leave out the two extreme viewpoints for now. On one side there are people who will not countenance fighting, killing, and dying for any man-made cause, no matter what. The world is, unfortunately, not ready for these people yet. On the other side are those whose hearts and brains are thoroughly devalued by the authoritarian, fundamentalist religious causes they serve, and who are so full of hatred that they remain a big part of the problem, whether they’re Muslim, Jew, or Christian — and never mind who’s worse or who started it. The world, I think, has moved past these people. They won’t be of much help to those of us who need to think objectively and work seriously for the future of American democracy in the coming weeks.

In order to preserve this democracy, people with no ideological axes to grind need to be able to get to the heart of important issues, and then debate them. Unfortunately, the only way for us to access the issues is through the media, in particular the mass media, and here my friend and I are not at all at loggerheads: Neither of us thinks the mass media are doing us any good. He accuses them of a strong liberal bias, and of playing into the hands of our enemies by constantly trying to poke holes in our policies and introducing doubts where there should be confidence, strength, and unity. I accuse them of being pathetically inept hole-pokers — shallow, lazy, merely reactive, and possibly incapable, intellectually, of asking questions and covering details that might lead to a better understanding of what’s going on. The media are mostly focused on bombs and blood, because gore and tragedy attract attention and sell ads.

This is not an issue of liberal versus conservative: I, too, think that reporters, if they left the killing zones and went out into the countryside, would find that the United States is doing steady work, building and guarding a new infrastructure, and building and guarding new alliances among the populace. However, I question whether we have any legitimate national security interest in being there in force, doing these things, especially after arriving in what can only be called an invasion, no matter how welcome it was for its initial stated purpose, which was to topple Saddam and find the WMD — period. The overall benefits of our being there depend on who really profits in the long run, and what we expect in return. I don’t know the answers to these questions. I have my suspicions, but I don’t know. These questions are the ones to which the media should be applying themselves — not whether George Bush blew cocaine at Camp David, or John Kerry didn’t deserve one of his purple hearts.

People say this war is all about oil. Well, how much of it IS about oil? Others say it’s about Christianity versus Islam. How many people really believe this? Is President Bush one of them?

My friend and I also agree that the nation would be better served if the media would greatly reduce their coverage of politics, which is merely the story of how the election game is being played, and greatly increase coverage of the candidates’ opinions and stands on the major issues — their platforms — including proposals of exactly how their plans for the future could be carried out. Of course we understand that the candidates will be extremely reluctant to reveal specifically how they would carry out their proposals, because specifics reveal who will be the beneficiaries and who will be the losers, and the candidates’ spin doctors will try hard not to allow their charges to lose a vote before election day. But the press needs to press, and press, and never give up, until the candidates can muster up the nerve to speak clearly.

A central topic of the debate should be George Bush’s reversal of a century and more of American foreign policy, a reversal that has been occasionally noted in the media, but not considered for its colossal implications, and certainly not presented as something for debate. Inherent in the reversal is not just a willingness but an intention to strike first, virtually anywhere in the world where we believe that terrorists live and are given safe haven. No matter whether we actually intend to invade and temporarily occupy any particular locale in our search for terrorists; our explicit message to the peoples of those nations is that we will not hesitate to strike if we decide it’s in our interest to do so.

This is a very big change from the message we’ve trying to send the world for many generations. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. For almost all of America’s history, the basic message has been, “You can trust us. We’re the good guys. If you don’t mess with us, we’re no threat to you.” And that meant no threat to anyone, including the Russians, as long as they didn’t fire first. (Remember MAD — Mutual Assured Destruction?) Now the message is, “If we think you might mess with us, or if you’re friends with anybody who wants to mess with us, we’ll come after you if we feel like it.”

Another issue is how to get out of Iraq properly. Another is –still — how to battle the true terrorists effectively. There are more anti-American warriors today in Iraq than there were directly after 9/11, but most of them would consider themselves soldiers against an occupier and oppressor; few will be interested in continuing the fight indefinitely. If we can leave Iraq and convince them that we really are not oppressors, most will stand down and leave us to fight the real fanatics. They might even help us. We will have to capture or kill the hard cases, no doubt about that. But we should have no beef with those who see themselves defending their homeland against occupiers. We need to make it clear to them that we have no interest in keeping troops there.

But wait…Maybe some of the people running the U.S. government really DO want to occupy that oil-rich land for some time to come. Is this true? Who are the people who want this? What are their arguments? Why are the big media not asking these questions directly? There’s a bumper sticker around that says “Kick their ass and take their gas.” How prevalent is this attitude?

I still assume that nobody likes bullies and braggarts. That may be a poor assumption these days, but even if the people currently running the United States prefer to be feared rather than liked, and couldn’t care less about the feel-good factor between the strongest nation on earth and a bunch of oil-rich tribes in the desert, it would be utter insanity to assume that the dislike wouldn’t spawn violent opposition, even martyrdom, against the loud-mouthed giant. And that’s what’s happening. So maybe it’s smart to be a bit humble and empathetic as well as respectable. Maybe trying to export American democracy and capitalism to the Arab world just isn’t a good idea right now, even if it seems obvious to us that our system is better than theirs. And even if people hungry for democracy are oppressed, maybe they need to be hungry enough to go through the sacrifice of a violent revolution without our help.

These are topics that should be presented and debated through the mass media.

When my friend and I argued, I think we were surprised and disappointed by each other’s viewpoint. I don’t know how much we swayed each other, but I suspect we did sway each other a little — not, perhaps, by the force of our arguments, but because we respect each other, and have for many years, so that when one of us has something to say, the other listens and tries to accept what he can of the other’s thinking.

If you can expand a microcosmic argument like that into a national security debate, and you have enough of the populace — the open-minded populace, that is — take sides after due consideration of all viewpoints, then you have real democracy in action, and whichever way the vote falls, it will be easier for all of us to accept.