Debating War, Debating Peace

December 06, 1990

Arguments for and against the use of force against Iraq should be judged against two standards: First, whether they make substantive sense and, second, what impact they will have on Iraq's willingness to get out of Kuwait. Because we are going through the world's first full-scale CNN crisis -- meaning a crisis of instant and constant visibility -- propaganda from all sides tends to overpower reasoned argument.

This problem has been all too apparent in hearings on Capitol Hill that have coincided with an outbreak of skittishness among legislators (especially Democrats) and retired military experts.

Anti-war sentiment is being heard in many quarters. Yet a poll this week shows that 67 percent of the American people approve the use of force if necessary to push Iraq out of Kuwait. This is even higher than the 64 percent who favored early U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

Robert McNamara, secretary of Defense during Vietnam, seemed to forget that big majority when he warned that a president should not initiate a war without popular support. He would have been more accurate had he cautioned that the public would not give long-term support to the kind of incremental, inconclusive, high-casualty approach he adopted in Vietnam. The Bush response is to plan for a massive, decisive, short war.

Yet because Mr. McNamara's admonitions fell so neatly in line with testimony that Democratic-controlled committees were hearing, it might have goaded the administration into overreaction.

By overreaction we do not mean the thunderbolts hurled at Baghdad in advance of direct talks. They would be necessary to convince Saddam Hussein of U.S. readiness to strike, even if Congress were willing (which it is not) to give Mr. Bush the kind of blank check issued by the U.N. Security Council. But the real overreaction came in orchestrated denigration of the effect of sanctions.

CIA director William Webster said there is "no assurance or guarantee that economic hardships will compel Saddam to change his policies or lead to internal unrest that would threaten his regime." Yet the bulk of his testimony showed the worldwide embargo has been remarkably effective. The real conundrum is whether Saddam Hussein's position will erode faster than public and global support for a long U.S. containment operation.

Secretary of State James A. Baker says a congressional statement of support for administration policy would "reduce the risk of war" by convincing Iraq that the United States is serious. Of course it would. Yet we wonder if Congress is capable of anything more than a hand-wringing exhibition that would undermine Mr. Baker's coming confrontation with the Iraqi dictator. In a democracy there must and should be debate. But we question the wisdom of hyping U.S. divisiveness at a moment of sensitive, high-stakes diplomacy.

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