(The Anti-War Arguments Based on the President’s Supposedly Exaggerated
In December 1998, the University
of Rhode Island made headlines based on an entirely fabricated controversy.
The student paper, The Good 5¢ Cigar, ran a cartoon forewarning
of the racism that would engulf the University of Texas were it to end
its affirmative action practices, a topic that had been in the news. The
newly constituted Brothers United for Action (BUA) took offense, protested,
listed demands, and inspired various conciliatory gestures — including
a budget for themselves — from the school’s authorities. Among
the appeasers was the Student Senate, which cut the Cigar’s
After a few days of limited
protests and extensive coverage, the university hosted a forum to address
the issue. During his opening statements, BUA leader Marc Harge explained
his group’s position thus: “The Good 5-Cent Cigar
has lost its ethical and moral mandate.” When the floor was opened
for questions from the audience, it became his all-purpose response:
Why do you believe that
your group can decide what activities the university funds?
“The Good 5-Cent Cigar has lost its ethical and moral
Does it matter that your group misinterpreted the meaning and intent
of the cartoon?
“The Good 5-Cent Cigar has lost its ethical and moral
Although the underlying issues
are entirely different, the mentality behind this mantric rebuttal brings
the controversy to mind in the context of the questions, rife with innuendo,
about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The “rhetorical questioning”
has devolved into little more than a legitimacy drop cloth thrown over
underlying ulterior motives. One can make deductively reasonable guesses
as to what those motives might be — political ambition, moral insecurity,
ideological intransigence — but the questions themselves persist.
That they require repeated
and prominent asking to maintain relevance is obvious from the minimal
amount of new information required to spark repetition. Indeed, to keep
the topic in the public conversation, various media outlets, from the
to the New
York Times to the Associated
Press, have misrepresented statements of Bush administration
officials, cited anonymous “analysts,” and selectively quoted
from the broad pool of intelligence documents available before the war.
The reason that such tactics
are necessary is that there is no real basis for the theme to be pounded
for so long a duration. To be sure, the search for the WMDs ought not
be allowed to peter off — if only because any weapons that still
exist may have been, or soon could be, dispersed to dangerous parties.
However, while the United States is shoulder deep in the mire of helping
a nation to learn to be free, as a preface to reconstruction after a decades-long
decomposition, it is premature and counterproductive to begin sowing seeds
This is particularly true
considering that WMDs were not the sole justification for war, and the
argument about them focused on Saddam Hussein’s unwillingness to
prove his relinquished ambitions. The broader context of the war included,
of course, the War on Terrorism and the faltering credibility of the United
Nations, as well as Iraq’s significance to the global economy and
its strategic position, both geographically and for diplomatic purposes,
to increase leverage and decrease the likelihood of more-dangerous wars.
However, three distinct arguments were made for war based specifically
on the country and its leading regime, with different people emphasizing
different aspects to varying degrees.
Before the war, the administration’s
appeals to the human atrocities in Iraq were often dismissed as lip service.
Even those who attributed some degree of sincerity to them tended to move
discussion on with a “yeah but.” Plenty of regimes abuse their
people, the argument went, why attack Iraq? Now that the extent of those
atrocities is being revealed in heart- and gut-wrenching detail, some
post-war-anti-war advocates require reminding that President Bush mentioned
the humanitarian crisis in every speech in which he made the case for
war. He did so to illustrate the loathsome nature of the regime. He did
so in the context of enumerating the many United Nations mandates at which
Hussein had thumbed his nose. And he did so as a simple matter of moral
principle, apart from international relations.
The other two specific justifications
for war served to highlight Hussein’s regime among the too-crowded
field of monsters. Before the war, those who positioned themselves against
the administration found it necessary to express doubt about Hussein’s
links to al Qaeda, despite the evidence, and to disregard the explicit
links and support that the dictator gave to “lesser” terrorist
groups. To assist in this, they postulated an ideological wall that they
insisted would prevent Osama bin Laden and Hussein from working together.
Furthermore, they simply wrote off all explanations of the ways in which
international terrorist organizations operate: obscuring connections and
allying with each other and with sympathetic nations in a fluid fashion.
Finally came weapons of mass
destruction. While there were undoubtedly some Westerners who seized on
the possibility of a vaguely “imminent” threat from weapons
already in existence in order to reconcile conflicting humanitarian, pacifist,
and even anti-American sentiments, the argument for war was not presented
with that level of specificity. For this reason, those who argue that
the inability to unearth adequate evidence of WMDs belies the imminence
of the threat are merely using the lack of discovered stockpiles to continue
their antebellum tirades. “Stockpiles,” in their view, were
not enough to justify war; only evidence of intent to use them would have
WMDs also became a point of
emphasis because they were the only issue that anti-war voices were willing
to address with credulity. Indeed, their credulity was such that the discussion
centered around the UNMOVIC inspectors’ ability to find and destroy
the weapons that everybody believed Iraq to have. Lost in the more-recent
chatter is the fact that those who argued for war found it necessary to
state and restate that the inspectors were not employed to find and destroy
weapons, but to act as the medium through which the Ba’athists could
prove that the weapons and programs had been dismantled. The term “smoking
gun” before the war meant obvious refusal to cooperate, not a missile
loaded and ready to fire.
Given that very few prominent
players, from world leaders to Hans Blix to reputable commentators, objected
to war on the basis of there being no WMDs, their objections had to be
constructed around the assumption of the weapons’ existence. Perhaps
the most germane “Where are they?” would refer to the anti-war
arguments that took the best available information, as well as common
sense conclusions drawn from Hussein’s actions, into account and
still concluded that war was not justified.
The answer to this question
is simple: recalling the disconnected, sharply parsed statements that,
a few months ago, had a veneer of plausibility now, after the discovery
of mass graves for children and their dolls, would surely leave one open
to accusations of having lost his or her ethical and moral mandate.