Buyer’s remorse?

This is puzzling. I thought that William Saletan was a more enthusiastic supporter of war with Iraq than I. He’s certainly poured withering scorn on the inspections process and the Security Council, which seemed to be the prime alternative to war.

But now he says:

If you want a sense of how lopsided this war is, and how hollow American claims of self-defense must look to the rest of the world, compare two scenes we saw on television tonight.

First there were the missile and bomb strikes on Baghdad, reportedly aimed at Saddam Hussein’s latest hideout. According to sources for the networks and wire services, the strikes were a last-minute improvisation based on hot intelligence, and U.S. forces are going to pause for a few hours or so to find out whether they hit the jackpot. Retired generals sit in their chairs in the network studios, marveling at the audacity of sending bombers to Baghdad before taking out Iraqi radar and anti-aircraft batteries. They speak in awe of how good our technology has grown since the 1991 Gulf War. We’ve hit the Iraqis, and they’ve done squat. Evidently they can’t touch us.

Then President Bush gets on the tube and tells us why we’re doing this. He’s wearing a suit, sitting in a building everybody recognizes, and worrying more about how he’s holding his head than whether he’ll still have it tomorrow. “The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder,” says Bush. “We will meet that threat now … so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.”

I’m glad we won’t have to meet that threat in our cities. But watching our guys pummel their guys in their capital with impunity makes me wonder how grave the threat to us really was. The Iraq-al-Qaida connection was always the weakest part of Bush’s case against Saddam. The U.N. Security Council is gutless, and I hope one of those bunker busters took Saddam right in the chops. But forgive me if in its first hours this doesn’t look like a war of self-defense.

Well, yeah. Didn’t we all know this? This isn’t literally a war we’re waging in self-defense; it’s a war to prevent someone we don’t trust from getting in a position to defend himself with nuclear or biological weapons; if he did, he would then be able to keep his gains from his next war of aggression while we sat by. It’s what a surgeon would call an “elective procedure”: advisable, maybe strongly advisable, but not urgent.

As to the fact that we’re the boxer and Iraq is the punching bag, isn’t that the whole point of the Powell Doctrine? Never pick on anybody your own size. Bill Maher got fired for calling this approach “cowardly,” but you can’t argue with the idea that it’s more comfortable than hitting someone who could actually hit back. (That doesn’t change the fact that the casualty rate is going to be 100% for the American servicepeople who actually get killed, but it does mean that there will be fewer of them.)

I don’t think the worse of Saletan for being bothered by this; I’m bothered myself. But is he really just noticing it now?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: