Conservatives fancy themselves to be hardheaded realists, immune to cheap emotional appeals. But last week, you could barely recognize them. Hearing George W. Bush rail theatrically against the savagery of Saddam Hussein in his State of the Union address, members of the war party practically quivered in ecstasy.
“The president was able to show his resolve, his sober determination, his moral vision,” exulted David Brooks in The Weekly Standard. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial writers got a thrill from “the look in his eyes” as he “seethed with determination.”
Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for President Reagan and the first President Bush, wrote in perfect seriousness, “For a moment I thought of earnest Clark Kent moving, at the moment of maximum danger, to shed his suit, tear open his shirt and reveal the big `S’ on his chest.”
Well, there is no accounting for what goes through Peggy Noonan’s mind in the presence of a Republican politician. But it’s understandable that conservatives responded to the speech with their hearts, because it didn’t have much to appeal to the brain. All the inflammatory denunciations and ostentatious muscle-flexing couldn’t disguise the flimsiness of Bush’s case.
Consider the reasons he cited:
– Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and hopes to get more. The president unrolled a list of nasty weapons that Iraq has long possessed–anthrax, mustard gas, sarin, and VX nerve agents, which could be used to kill millions of people. But that raised an inconvenient question: Why hasn’t he used them against us? Answer: He knows he would be destroyed. That hasn’t changed.
– The only reason Hussein wants such weapons is for aggression. Bush says that’s “the only possible use” they could have. Nonsense. Half a century of experience with the Bomb makes it clear that weapons of mass destruction are valuable only for deterring attack, not facilitating it. That’s why we spend billions on nuclear missiles we never use. Given our desire for “regime change” in Iraq, Hussein has understandable motives for wanting such protection. It’s worked for North Korea, hasn’t it?
– Hussein is too crazy to control. Bush got a rousing ovation when he declared, “Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.” In fact, Bush himself has relied on it for more than two years. If it’s not an option, why didn’t Bush set out to attack him immediately after taking office?
The truth is, Hussein has sometimes been aggressive but never suicidal. We don’t have to wonder if he can be deterred. He already has been, over and over. He could have used his chemical and biological armaments during the Gulf War or anytime in the last 12 years. But he didn’t. Trusting Saddam Hussein to place his personal and political survival first has not only been a strategy, it’s been a successful one.
– He might give unconventional weapons to Al Qaeda. “Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans–this time armed by Saddam Hussein,” said the president. This is a fantasy. The administration has tried in vain to prove that Iraq had a hand in the Sept. 11 attacks. And the Central Intelligence Agency, in a classified assessment last fall, dismissed the possibility that Hussein would give his most lethal weapons to an uncontrollable terrorist organization that might turn against him.
The only instance in which he might do that, said the CIA, was if the U.S. were to launch an all-out war–because he would no longer have anything to lose. Bush’s solution is the surest way to precipitate the very nightmare it’s supposed to prevent.
– He’s a sadistic dictator who tortures his people in horrible ways. A recent report from Amnesty International found, “Detainees in their custody are tortured with electro-shocks, suffocated with plastic bags over their heads, burned by cigarettes, beaten with metal pipes and gun barrels, and have chili peppers put in their eyes or on their genitals.” But that wasn’t Iraq–it was the Philippines, where U.S. troops were sent last year to train government soldiers in fighting Islamic extremists.
We work with a lot of countries where torture is reportedly common–including Turkey, Pakistan, Russia and Egypt. Amnesty International says there are about 70 around the world. There is only one, though, that bothers Bush enough to invade. Reciting gruesome tales from Iraq is good for stirring an audience, but as grounds for war, it’s completely bogus.
This State of the Union address resembled one of those fast-paced thrillers that manages to keep you on the edge of your seat even though the plot is full of holes. It was easy to get swept away by it, but only if you didn’t think too much.