War from 30,000 feet

If the only thing we still have to fear is fear itself, there is more than enough to go around.

When President Roosevelt coined the phrase in his inaugural address in 1933, he used it to banish fear and steel the nation’s courage in facing down the Great Depression.

Seventy years later to the month, President Bush is using fear as a weapon, not to build courage among Americans but to stampede them into endorsing a case for a war that has been built literally on a grab bag of possibilities, contingencies, ifs and maybes, of things that haven’t happened but could happen, of bad guys who might hit us if we don’t hit them first.

This is a created crisis. Now that the crisis is upon us, we can only hope that it passes quickly, with minimum loss of life on either side, and that our native skepticism prevents it from happening again.

Supporters of the war have presented some strong arguments–Saddam Hussein’s repeated flouting of UN resolutions, or his reign of terror over the Iraqi people. But when Bush made his final case for war in his ultimatum speech to the nation Tuesday night, what came through instead was the voice of a frightened man trying to infect the nation with his fear.

In the short term, this fear is working. In times of crisis, it often does. When the president of the United States sounds the alarm, the natural instinct of Americans is to rally to his side, to assume that he knows the facts and is reacting to a real danger.

The hunch that the danger is mostly imaginary is as unproven as are most of the administration’s justifications for this war.

Fear has finally given Bush the popular backing for the war that had eluded him since he first began campaigning for it. Less than six months ago, barely 20 percent of Americans told pollsters that they would approve a war on Iraq without the backing of allies or the UN. Now that support is more than 70 percent, even though the UN has refused its backing and the allied support ranges from the plausible, like Britain, through the symbolic, like Iceland, to the ludicrous, like Azerbaijan or Eritrea.

Most of the rest of the world remains unconvinced, not out of affection for Hussein but out of conviction that Bush and his neoconservative advisers have manufactured an unneeded war, for reasons of their own, and are leading an America that, with its power and lack of restraint, is more dangerous to world order than Hussein ever could be.

“As much as one would like to get Saddam Hussein out of power, this is going to be George Bush’s war,” said the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

Too many Americans, cheered on by the administration, blame this attitude on the French. But it takes more than Gallic lures to persuade so much of the world, including allies who have stood beside us in conflicts through the past half-century, to desert us on this one.

National hysteria

The fact is that national hysteria does not translate well. Americans not only are afraid but they are isolated in their fear, with a few scattered sympathizers, like Albania and Uzbekistan, arrayed against the overwhelming opinion of a world that thinks we have gone collectively nuts.

Most commentators, noting the macho strutting of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the president’s insistence that the world is either for us or against us, have blamed the Iraq policy more on testosterone than terror, with an unhealthy dash of hyper-religious certainty mixed in. But Bush often comes across as truly frightened, convinced of threats that the rest of the world just doesn’t see.

These presidential fears were on full display in his ultimatum speech.

The president claimed that Hussein has “some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” By any reckoning, this just isn’t true. No one doubts that Iraq has developed chemical and biological weapons of uncertain effectiveness, as have many other nations.

But effective anthrax? Not known. Smallpox? No evidence. Nuclear weapons? Certainly not now.

“The danger is clear,” Bush said. “Using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq . . . terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in one country or another.”

“Clear dangers” seldom contain so many ifs or coulds, so many varied weapons in the hands of so many unidentified terrorists intent on acting “one day . . . in one country or another.” If we don’t attack Hussein, the president surmised, he “might try to conduct terrorist operations.”

“These attacks are not inevitable,” he conceded, but “they are . . . possible. And this very fact underscores the reason we cannot live under the threat of blackmail.”

A possibility is not a fact but a guess, a worst-case worry that could be applied to any cloud on the international horizon. If there is a threat of blackmail here, it is self-imposed.

If the U.S. does not attack now, “in one year or five years the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over,” Bush said.

No sane analyst believes this. After 12 years of international sanctions, Iraq is weaker now than it was before the 1991 gulf war. Five years from now? Who knows? No one does, including the administration. But the thought that a Third World international pariah could multiply its strength and turn itself into a power sufficient to blackmail the most powerful nation in the history of the world is nothing but panic-mongering.

The result is a “pre-emptive” war that, by the administration’s own admission, breaks international law.

International law permits every nation to defend itself, by force if necessary. If a nation has evidence that an attack is imminent, it is legally justified in acting first, to hit before it is hit.

But no one, not even the administration, argues that an attack by Iraq is imminent. The president himself says the danger may be five years away. To strike Iraq now is to strike against a will-o’-the-wisp, not a certain danger, to hit the other guy before he even gets the gloves on. International law forbids this.

The Bush administration knows this and says the solution is not to obey the law but to change it.

The administration’s National Security Strategy, issued seven months ago, reads now like a preplanned justification for this war in its rejection of “traditional concepts of deterrence.”

The paper grants that international law “conditions the legitimacy of pre-emption on the existence of an imminent threat–most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack.”

Obviously, the Iraq situation doesn’t meet that definition, so the paper says that “we must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries.”

In other words, if international law does not let us chase mirages, then we rewrite the law.

Spreading the fear

This is the codification of fear, which seems to be in the saddle of national policy right now.

A policy based on fear works only if the fear is widely spread. The administration has worked hard to spread it, through repeated “orange alerts” and the recommended hoarding of emergency items such as duct tape. Terrorist threats exist, as 9/11 proved, but a terrified population is in no condition to sort out the real from the imaginary and take realistic precautions.

In times like this, we look to elected officials for leadership, but some seem almost unhinged by the terror in the air. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a physician, wrote that “physicians and policymakers have a duty to help keep people healthy and alive.” The threat from Hussein is so great and immediate, Frist said, that “preventive care” is needed now “to protect humanity. . . . Getting rid of his regime is our best inoculation.”

Frist does not seem to have realized that this “inoculation” will kill thousands of people, most of them Iraqis. Or perhaps he feels that the Hippocratic oath doesn’t apply to foreigners.

National hysterias come and go, leaving a great deal of damage and creating a sense of communal shame when the panic wears off: The McCarthyite era is an example. Invariably, the cause is fear–of foreigners, of nameless threats, of Reds under the bed.

The United States is going through such a hysteria now. We can only pray that not too many lives are sacrificed to it.

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