As the debate about the war with Iraq unfolds on the op-ed pages, on the airwaves, and lately in the streets of cities across America and Europe, I can only be grateful that I don't have to make the decisions. Both the prowar and the antiwar camp have some solid arguments—and sometimes each camp acts and talks in a way that is likely to make one root for the other side.
The strongest argument in support of the war is that the Iraqi regime is developing weapons of mass destruction, is almost indisputably in violation of the peace treaty it signed at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, and has been repeatedly demonstrated to harbor aggressive intentions. It makes no sense, war proponents say, to wait until Saddam Hussein's potential ability to cause us serious harm becomes real. Critics of the war ask, "Why now?" pointing out that we have tolerated this situation for more than a decade without launching an all-out war. But past inaction is not a valid reason for present inaction.
The wakeup call of Sept. 11, 2001, has legitimately heightened our awareness of the dangers posed by Iraq's weapons buildup and its sponsorship of terrorism. There may be no evidence directly implicating Saddam Hussein in the attacks, but it seems clear that a shared hostility to the West, to Israel, and especially to the United States has made bedfellows of Hussein's secular, socialistic regime and terrorist groups espousing radical Islamic fundamentalism.
The threat to the United States may not be immediate, but a solid case can be made for neutralizing it before it's too late.
Other arguments for military action seem more dubious. Many supporters of a US-imposed regime change in Iraq, such as neoconservative commentator William Kristol, believe that America has a mission to overthrow evil tyrannies and champion liberty everywhere around the world. As someone who knows what it's like to live under a totalitarian dictatorship—I was raised in the Soviet Union until the age of 16—I am instinctively sympathetic to this idealistic vision; as an American, I fear that it can impose an intolerable burden on the United States.
If nothing else, a worldwide crusade for freedom will have staggering financial costs. It may also mean sacrificing American lives to liberate people in remote corners of the planet. Last but not least, trying to be a global liberator is likely to entangle us in complicated, morally shady conflicts. In many places, the opposition to tyrannical regimes consists not of Jeffersonian democrats but of nationalist, religious, or ideological fanatics of various stripes. Our intervention could bring to power groups that are as bad as the ones they replace—and that may eventually turn against us.
Some believe that if a US invasion leads to the establishment of a viable democracy in Iraq, this will ultimately have a stabilizing effect on the entire region and encourage democratization throughout the Arab and Muslim world. But that's a very big "if." It seems reckless to base key policy decisions on an assumption that may be nothing more than a pipe dream.
In fact, the consequences of a war against Iraq are highly unpredictable. We don't know who may replace Hussein, or in whose hands some of Iraq's deadly weapons may end up. And that's the most powerful argument against the war.
Unfortunately, the antiwar movement, in Europe and even here at home, is dominated by very different arguments. While no one should be called unpatriotic for opposing the war, the protesters' cause is inevitably tarnished by the fact that they have allowed their demonstrations to be coordinated by hard-left, anti-American front groups such as ANSWER (a fact exposed by Salon). Watching television coverage of the protests, it's easy to spot placards making the Orwellian claim that President Bush, not Hussein, is the unelected war-mongering tyrant.
Anti-Americanism aside, many war opponents seem to argue that all war is wrong, at least if it results in civilian casualties. (Including our war against Nazi Germany?) Often, the antiwar mindset reflects a stunning naiveté: A few days ago peace activist Bianca Jagger declared on CNN that France and Germany should "put pressure on Saddam Hussein to begin a process of democratization." That's even more of a pipe dream than that of a US invasion turning Iraq into a model Arab democracy.
Lofty ideas, be it pacifism or championing freedom around the globe, are well and fine. But the debate about the war should focus on practical realities.