Decision isn't ours

February 13, 2003|By David M. Anderson

WASHINGTON - I can't make up my mind about whether the United States should go to war with Iraq, and I don't feel dumb, guilty or inadequate about it.

It's not part of my job to make decisions about U.S. foreign policy. But am I a bad citizen because I'm ambivalent about this historic choice facing our nation's leaders?

It's not as though I've evaded the topic. I've read hundreds of articles in numerous papers, listened to many commentators on radio and TV and spoken extensively with friends, colleagues and family members. I've written many articles about the overall war on terrorism, and my work engages me in policy matters that are related to a potential war with Iraq. But I don't know what we should do.

A citizen who doesn't read the papers or listen to the news and has no opinion on this matter is, I believe, different from me. That citizen is apathetic, not ambivalent.

A citizen who is sure that we should go to war may have spent more or less time than me trying to make a decision, just as a citizen who is sure that we should not go to war. Being certain about something is not evidence of engagement; it is a sign simply of conviction.

In a representative democracy, we elect people to make decisions about the hardest questions of our national life. Decisions about whether we should go to war belong to the president and Congress. And even Congress debates about who makes the final call.

Moreover, I don't have all of the information that they do, and the president probably has more information than Congress. So even if I could make up my mind, my decision might not be well-informed.

I am not suggesting that other citizens be ambivalent, too.

For citizens who have strong convictions either way, more power to them. If those in favor of war want to march, they should march. If those against war want to march, then they should march. Although citizens have no authority to make decisions about war and peace, we are not completely powerless.

But I doubt anyone would show up for a march for ambivalence. And that's what I find troubling.

If it turned out that the majority of the public was ambivalent about a war with Iraq, then this would ideally have some leverage over decisions made by our elected officials. Ambivalence also needs a voice.

Still, the decision about whether we should go to war with Iraq is not first and foremost a decision for the people of the United States.

If as citizens we later decide that our elected officials, especially those in leadership positions, made poor decisions, then we should vote them out of office.

David M. Anderson teaches political ethics at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.

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