A pretence of deliberation
Don't mistake infighting within the Bush administration for opposition to invading Iraq.
Speaking from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President George W Bush recently stressed the importance of ‘consultation and deliberation’ about plans to attack Iraq.
But this wordplay is little more than an attempt to recast internal dissent and party fragmentation as democratic deliberation.
Administration infighting was most recently highlighted by the tiff between secretary of state Colin Powell and vice president Dick Cheney. Powell advocated a diplomatic push for UN weapons inspections in direct and purposeful contrast to Cheney, who argued in a series of speeches that an invasion was necessary (1).
In fact, neither the Democrats nor the public are providing any real opposition to invading Iraq. The only question up for debate is what to do about Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Powell and Cheney’s spat was only the most recent in a series of publicised disputes. Over the past few months, Bush’s tentative plans for attacking Iraq have come under increasing criticism from other Republicans. In part, criticisms were spurred by the loss of allies who supported America in the 1991 Gulf War: Germany, Japan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar and the Kurds. Secretary of state Colin Powell and General Wesley Clark have cautioned against any unilateral action that might destabilise the region and estrange potential allies (2).
Former secretary of state James Baker, the chief architect of the first coalition against Saddam, wrote in a recent comment piece that the USA should seek a UN resolution permitting aggressive weapons inspection, rather than resort to unilateral invasion (3). And former secretary of state Henry Kissinger recently weighed in with his own little anti-unilateralist twist – throw out international law and bring in a new system of great power cooperation capable of making pre-emptive strikes against potentially hostile weak powers (4).
Others, like Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, have pointed out that there is no hard evidence that Saddam possesses any weapons, nor that he is mustering for an attack (5). Lawrence Eagleburger, former secretary of state under George Bush senior, and Brent Scowcroft, Bush senior’s national security adviser, have argued that, in the absence of concrete facts, the potential diplomatic and economic costs of unilateral invasion outweigh the psychic benefits (6).
But none of these criticisms takes issue with whether Saddam is a threat or not. Discussion remains within the terms Bush has laid out: ‘…regime change (in Iraq) is in the interest of the world. How we achieve that is a matter of consultation and deliberation.’ (7) Everybody come up with a plan for getting at Iraq, and then let’s talk about it.
The closest thing to a principled objection has come from Dick Armey, Republican congressman from Mississippi. Armey argued that a pre-emptive invasion in the absence of hard evidence would set a dangerous precedent for violating international law and national sovereignty.
Armey points to a serious problem with Bush’s newly minted doctrine of pre-emption. What is new is not the concept of pre-emption, but how it is understood. Some 80 years ago, Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes defined acceptable constraints on freedom of speech in terms of ‘clear and present danger’. This standard has been widely interpreted as the basis for judging when a threat legitimates infringements on legal rights. While hardly airtight, it does at least demand some kind of objective measurement of capacity to do harm – such as, say, nuclear missiles off the coastline.
But Bush has rewritten ‘clear and present danger’ to read baseless fears and unwarranted suspicions. As Armey puts it, ‘What if the French decided they wanted to inspect American military facilities?’ (8). Or what if India decides Pakistan is a threat, or vice versa? Since no evidence is required, all anyone really needs is a bad feeling and some colourful ways of describing the enemy.
Meanwhile, the more Bush tries to turn Saddam into a terrifying international demon, the more pathetic and weak Saddam looks. A recent intelligence report noted that Saddam’s attempt to send 4000 troops to his western border to show solidarity with the Palestinians collapsed in a three-month mess of confusion and bad organisation. It also found that Saddam has poor control over most of his troops, has few supplies, and is operating with an army around one third of that of 1991 (9).
Yet none of Bush’s detractors disputes the principle that Saddam is a threat. And every one of these dissenting voices is Republican. This is not so much democratic debate as theatre of the absurd, without speaking parts for the Democratic opposition nor a chorus for the public. The Democrats cower in craven silence, and the public waits passively for a decision from on high. One wonders why Bush even bothers to maintain the pretence of ‘democratic deliberation’ – who would care either way?
In an unguarded moment, Richard Perle, a hawkish former member of the Reagan administration, betrayed how none of this is really about Saddam, saying that: ‘The failure to take on Saddam after what the president said would produce such a collapse of confidence in the president that it would set back the war on terrorism.’ (10) Apparently it no longer matters whether Iraq is a threat or not – Bush has to attack simply to save face.
A decent opposition to attacking Iraq would show the war on terror to be a desperate political project. It would also call into question 10 years of sanctions and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths. Condoleezza Rice’s ‘moral case’ for attacking Iraq (that Saddam is willing to gas his own people) would be revealed as hypocrisy – ex-military officer Shave now said that America knew Iraq was using chemical weapons in the1980s, but still gave it satellite photos that helped it pinpoint targets (11).
But these arguments are rarely put forward – and it is clear that Bush is desperate to avoid any serious discussion that might raise these issues. Bush’s skin-deep commitment to debate is revealed in the mixed messages coming from his administration. Even as Bush claims he is a ‘patient man’ interested in discussion (12), Dick Cheney says that ‘time is not on our side’ (13). True – the longer the Bush boat remains in dry dock, the more leaks it springs. Which is why even as Bush tries to look like a democrat, his legal team is looking for ways to bypass Congressional approval of an attack on Iraq (14).
Not that Congress looks prepared for much of a fight. Without much coherent opposition from Democratic leaders like Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Senator Patrick Leahy’s democratic efforts to thwart Bush’s legal manoeuvres look more like a desire for a piece of the action than any defence of democracy (15).
Given the erratic behaviour of the Bush administration and the absence of organised opposition, it is impossible to predict what will actually happen. Bush has staked everything on the war on terror, but lacks anything resembling the leadership required to sustain an invasion and occupation of Iraq.
One thing is for sure: this debate is anything but. The culture of leaks and dissent from within the Republican party is an undemocratic performance of a very public drama.
Alex Gourevitch is a writing fellow at the American Prospect.
spiked-issue: War on Iraq
‘A link between Saddam and bin Laden? No way’, by Brendan O’Neill
What ‘anti-war’ movement?, by Mick Hume
Bush’s Gulf War syndrome, by Brendan O’Neill
When in doubt, attack Iraq, by Mick Hume
(1) US in disarray over Iraq as Powell backs call for weapons inspectors, Independent, 2 September 2002
(2) White House push for Iraqi strike is on hold, Washington Post, 18 August 2002
(3) The right way to change a regime, New York Times
(4) ‘The war Option’, San Diego Union Tribune, August 11, 2002
(5) Top republicans break with Bush on Iraq strategy, New York Times, 16 August 2002
(6) Top republicans break with Bush on Iraq strategy, New York Times, 16 August 2002
(7) Administration quotes about Saddam, AP on the New York Times
(8) ‘Iraq is defiant as GOP leader opposes attack’, New York Times, 9 August 2002
(9) Iraq said to plan tangling the US in street fighting, New York Times, 26 August 2002
(10) Top Republicans break with Bush on Iraq strategy, 16 August 2002
(11) ‘Officers say US aided Iraq in war despite use of gas’, New York Times, 18 August 2002
(12) Bush promises patience on Iraq, New York Times, 21 August 2002
(13) Cheney says peril of a nuclear Iraq justifies attack, New York Times, 26 August 2002
(14) ‘Bush aides say Iraq war needs no hill vote’, Washington Post, August 26, 2002
(15) Cheney says peril of a nuclear Iraq justifies attack, New York Times, 26 August 2002
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