A Matter of Judgment

Andrew E. Busch

February 1, 2003

These demonstrations expressed in their spirit, meaning and slogans the decisive Iraqi victory and the defeat and isolation of America.
—Al-Jumhuriya, Iraqi government daily newspaper

On February 15, hundreds of thousands of people around the United States (and many more abroad) staged protests decrying the prospect of war in Iraq. The “peace movement” is back, and America hasn’t even fired a shot yet. The question is, should we listen?

The issue in Iraq is difficult, with much depending on one’s estimate of the likely costs, to ourselves and others, of military action—and the likely costs of failing to act. One must weigh several questions: Are we starting a new war, or ending an old one? Can inspections actually succeed in disarming Iraq, or are they just a means for Iraq to buy time while it continues work on a nuclear device? Does Iraq possess mass stockpiles of VX, sarin, and anthrax, or did its known stockpiles amazingly cease to exist since 1998? What might Saddam do with those stockpiles? Does it show more respect for the United Nations for us to make military action contingent on its approval, or for us to take decisive action to enforce its resolutions? Is there even any constitutional warrant to putting the defense of the American people in the hands of France, China, and Sweden to begin with? Would a war be short or long? Will the Iraqi people suffer more under a war than under the combination of Saddam’s tyranny and U.N. sanctions, which will likely continue as long as he remains in power? And will regime change in Iraq inflame the Middle East, or make Middle East peace more likely by removing a dangerous member of the “rejectionist front?”

Because many of these questions are not easy to answer, it is possible to offer a two-part test for assessing how seriously one is obligated to take the arguments of protagonists in the debate. First, the less ambivalence they show, the less stock can be put in their view. Second, the less successful they have been at making judgments in the past, the less wise it would be to follow their advice today. On both of these counts, the “peace movement” fails.

Virtually no one in America, including President Bush, “wants” war. Even the significant majority of Americans who are willing to support it would rather avoid it. On the other hand, reports from Saturday’s anti-war demonstrations make it clear that their general tenor was one of sanctimonious certitude. Indeed, it was difficult to find evidence that the protestors harbored any ambivalence at all, or even recognized that it was possible for reasonable and good people to disagree with them. This accounted for the almost desperate effort to demonize Bush with astounding accusations. Depending upon whom one listened to, he was either hell-bent for war to a) get Iraq’s oil (if all we want is the oil, why don’t we just drop the sanctions and buy the oil like we do everywhere else?), or b) distract attention from the economy (ignoring the fact that uncertainty over Iraq is itself a key reason for economic sluggishness) or c) get himself re-elected (does anyone think it will help his reelection to wage war on Iraq if it is then discovered that there were no weapons of mass destruction?). There seemed to be no recognition at all of the potential costs of inaction, as if September 11 had never happened, as if America has no enemies, or at any rate no enemies that are not a creation of our fevered imagination. Observers were thus treated to an absurd juxtaposition of paranoid cynicism about America with undiluted gullibility toward the Iraqi dictator.

Unfortunately, this approach to world affairs is not novel. The “peace movement” has a long and storied past dating back to the “Ban the Bomb” efforts of the 1950s. One can summarize its history as follows:

In the 1950s, the movement argued that the world would be safer if America disarmed unilaterally, at a time when Josef Stalin still ran the U.S.S.R. Failure to do so, it urged, would court annihilation. Their prescription was not followed. There was no annihilation.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the anti-Vietnam War movement argued that Ho Chi Minh wasn’t really a communist, that Indochina would be better off if America withdrew, and that the Vietnam War had no global implications. Its prescription was followed. The result was the victory of Stalinism in Indochina, with millions forced to flee Vietnam and over a million killed in Cambodia. The Soviet Union then used the momentum from its strategic victory in Vietnam as a springboard which led to the incorporation into the Soviet empire of Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, South Yemen, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Grenada over the next five years.

In the 1980s, the movement reconstituted itself, calling for an end to U.S. aid to El Salvador and the Nicaraguan contras, a freeze of the U.S. nuclear arms buildup, and cancellation of the Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan policies that it claimed would lead to another Vietnam and/or annihilation. Its prescription was not followed. Central America—including both El Salvador and Nicaragua—democratized without U.S. troops, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Cold War ended.

In the 1990s, the movement organized against war in the Persian Gulf, arguing that sanctions alone would work to force Iraq out of Kuwait, and that war could cost 30,000 American dead. Its prescription was not followed. War cost 200 American dead, liberated Kuwait, and prevented Saddam Hussein from obtaining nuclear weapons a decade ago. On the other hand, twelve years of sanctions have changed nothing inside Iraq, and are now repudiated by much of the “peace movement” itself.

Now, in 2003, the movement is energized behind the proposition that Saddam Hussein deserves a bigger benefit of the doubt than George W. Bush. While no amount of evidence or experience seems sufficient to persuade its members of Iraq’s perfidy—not satellite photos, not telephone intercepts, not the accounts of multiple credible defectors, not the United Nations’ own accounting of Iraq’s stockpiles before 1998, not the presence in Baghdad for the last eight months of the head of Al Qaeda’s chemical weapons effort, not Saddam’s historical record—they simply accept at face value the wildest charges against Bush without asking or producing even a shred of evidence. We should all be willing to acknowledge what the protestors seems incapable of acknowledging about their opponents: It is possible that they are right. If so, however, it would be the first time in 50 years.

Given this record—in which, despite the best intentions of many of its adherents, the “peace” movement has objectively placed itself on the side of Stalin, the North Vietnamese Politburo, Pol Pot, Daniel Ortega, Leonid Brezhnev, and now Saddam Hussein—thoughtful citizens can reasonably ask why anyone should trust its judgment. This is all the more true since the movement hardly seems to have given a second thought to the implications of its own sorry record. It just keeps pressing along, recycling its old slogans, its old protest songs, and its old errors. So much smugness; so little to be smug about. And this time, it isn’t Vietnamese and Cambodians who will die by the millions if the movement is wrong.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.