President Bush has called on Congress to give him authority to invade Iraq and topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. Despite some public dissension from a minority of lawmakers, approval of whatever the president wants is all but inevitable. Iraq and Saddam Hussein have somehow eclipsed Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden as the primary focus of the war on terror, despite actually attacks on the United States last year by Al-Qaeda, despite actual terrorist activity by Al-Qaeda, and despite the uncertain whereabouts of Osama bin Laden or the other leaders of Al-Qaeda.
The case for war against Iraq is a strained one, at best. Certainly Iraq, its neighbors, and the rest of the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein in power in Baghdad. But the impetus for the war is the war itself. War fever has taken over much of the United States. History reminds us that the passion of those clamoring for war does not always mean that their cause is wise, just, or sound.
Opponents of the war would appear to have a very strong case against invading Iraq. First, the toll to American soldiers, let alone Iraqi civilians, could be high, if Iraqi troops fought ferociously to protect their homeland. Second, invading Iraq could trigger a wider conflict in the Middle East, particularly if Iraq attacked Israel with something more effective than the punchless Scud missiles that it used a decade ago. Third, the Bush administration has provided only the flimsiest of evidence that Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons, the true weapons of mass destruction that would make Iraq instantly dangerous to all of its neighbors. Without weapons-grade uranium or plutonium, Iraq has no nuclear weapons. Fourth, the Bush administration can hardly single out Iraq for flouting United Nations Security Council resolutions, or for denying basic human rights to its citizens. The United States is in no position to invade Israel and Palestine to enforce the myriad resolutions regarding those two lands. It is also in no position to depose every authoritarian government to effect "regime changes," lest American troops invade nations worldwide, from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia to Zimbabwe.
American presidents have overlooked the nuclear program of Iraq and Saddam Hussein before, well before years of American air raids had pulverized much of his military infrastructure into so much rubble. During the 1980s, the Reagan and Bush administrations openly favored Iraq—and Saddam Hussein—in its long-standing war with Iran. The same men who ignored the Iraqi nuclear program when it was inconvenient also ignored the far more successful Pakistani nuclear program. For almost a decade, Republican presidents maintained the fiction that Pakistan lacked a functional nuclear bomb, until the Soviet Union pulled its troops from Afghanistan. Then, and only then, did the Pakistani nuclear program become conveniently evident to the first Bush administration.
This impending war will not be the first war of dubious merit born of war fever. The United States has engaged in conflicts full of righteous conviction but short on actual wrongs. Sometimes the casus belli was fabricated, and sometimes it was misconstrued. But war fever can keep the juggernaut of war far away from the actual facts.
In 1964, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which gave Lyndon Johnson broad authority to prosecute the Vietnam War, as a response to an alleged attack by North Vietnam on American warships. In reality, the only evidence for an attack was one round of machine-gun fire that hit one destroyer. The Johnson administration portrayed the incident as a grave breach of international law and an affront to the United States. In its zeal to stop Communism in Southeast Asia, it hid the truth from Congress and the people.
In 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and panicked American politicians and generals who knew that the same rockets that launch satellites could be used to deliver nuclear weapons over thousands of miles. Because the Soviet Union was apparently ahead in satellite technology, the Pentagon and politicians of both parties argued that the United States also faced a "missile gap." The United States redoubled its Cold War efforts to expand its nuclear arsenal, spending tens of billions of dollars to develop new missile systems and new warheads, and polluting the Oak Ridge and Hanford sites with the most toxic of wastes. The missile gap dominated American military policy through the 1960 election, when both Democrats and Republicans proclaimed their mettle for closing this gap. In reality, there was no missile gap: at the time of the 1960 election, the Soviet Union was far behind the United States in terms of operational long-range missiles. Fear of the Soviet Union kept the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations from confronting and disseminating the truth.
In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain, thanks in no small part to the mysterious explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor in February of that year. Newspapers, including the infamous New York Journal of William Randolph Hearst, attributed the explosion to Spanish torpedoes or mines and immediately called for war with Spain. President McKinley obliged public opinion only two months later. At the conclusion of the war, American claimed Cuba, the Phillippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam as territories of the United States. "Remember the Maine!", however, now has meanings that Hearst and his ilk never intended. A 1976 study by the Navy found that the explosion in Havana in 1898 was very likely to be the result of a coal fire, and not the fault of Spain after all. The impetus of war kept the McKinley administration from finding the truth.
When President Bush speaks of the urgency to attack Iraq, Americans and citizens of other countries should remember how war fever has led America astray in the past. In 1898, 1957, and 1964, the rashness and brashness of our politicians led America astray. Our current president received his undergraduate education in history, but is nonetheless doing nothing to staunch the fever now building in Congress and America at large.
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