A U.S. attack on Iraq, which seems inevitable, will be the most craven abdication of democratic principles in our country’s history. As I write, the House has approved, and the Senate is debating, a resolution that gives President George W. Bush, in Sen. Robert Byrd’s words, “virtually unchecked authority to commit the nation’s military to an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation.” The Bush Administration recently articulated its foreign policy plans this way: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” This means that the United States of America may invade any country, anywhere, any time, before it becomes a threat. Bush’s National Security Strategy makes the United States an imperial power in the most sinister sense of the term, and Congress’ resolution will finally and unabashedly give George W. Bush the job he seems so sure he deserves: emperor.
Invading Iraq without immediate provocation is the first step in Bush’s plan to transform our country into an aggressor nation that cannot tolerate opposition. In fact, to Bush’s thinking, our country should not tolerate the possibility that other nations might someday oppose us. This is contrary to every principle on which we structure our society, not to mention every value by which we live our lives. Hendrik Hertzberg calls it a scheme for “world domination,” Anatol Lieven declares that the United States “has become a menace to itself and to mankind,” and Sen. Byrd predicts that Americans “will pay for a war with lives of its sons and daughters.” That’s you, Yalies. The situation before you is grave.
If the United States invades Iraq without provocation on the grounds that Saddam Hussein might hurt us in the future, we will forever change our national character. Who are we? Aren’t we the nation that deplored Japan’s pre-emptive strike against Pearl Harbor and denounced Hitler’s invasion of Poland? Even in wars that provoked much internal criticism, we responded to what we asserted were invasions of South Korea, South Vietnam and Kuwait. This time we are the invaders. No matter how much Bush tells us we are the good guys and Hussein is the bad guy, the president will not be able to change the historical fact that we attacked another sovereign nation without provocation. We are the good guys. But good guys don’t invade other countries, unless they have exhausted every other option for self-preservation. If they do, they become the bad guys.
Bush has failed to make a case for an immediate need to act in our own self defense. So many alternatives to invasion exist that there is not space to list them. In fact, in the words of columnist Charley Reese, “Bush Won’t Take Yes for an Answer.” First, the president demanded U.N. weapons inspectors go back into Iraq. In the smartest move of his life, Hussein agreed. Any reasonable statesman would have then thrown his weight behind getting inspections under way, but Bush whined; now that he had what he asked for, that it wasn’t good enough. Any other leader might have been embarrassed to lay bare his real motive: an unrelenting desire to start a war with Iraq. Not Bush. He simply undercut the United Nations by continuing to threaten Iraq, even as he dragged a gutless Congress behind him. Meanwhile, chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix has reminded Bush that he works for the U.N., not the U.S., and Blix is proceeding to send inspectors to Iraq. “Will we kill the inspectors too?” Reese wonders.
Not simply a miserable venture into statecraft, Bush’s strategy defies common sense. He is seeking to eliminate the threat of war by waging war. How many Americans and innocent Iraqi civilians will die? Notwithstanding that a pre-emptive strike without immediate provocation is the moral equivalent of murder, it is also just plain stupid. George F. Kennan, the statesman who best articulated the policy of containment that drove Cold War diplomacy, knows that. Speaking against a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, he said, “I could see justification only if the absence of it would involve a major and imminent danger to our own country, or, at worst, to our most intimate and traditional allies. Of this I have seen no evidence.” It is not enough for Bush to be President of the United States, he must become the Emperor of the World. This unclothed emperor is, as they say in Texas, all hat and no brains.
In the years before us, I fear there will be causes worth dying for. There will be tyrants so unstoppable that we will have to fight them to preserve our own freedom. But that is not the case now. Instead of standing up against tyranny, we are bringing it to our own doorstep. We have met the enemy, and it is us.
Glenda Gilmore is the Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History.