‘On-to-Baghdad!’ or ‘Stop at Kabul!’?

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– October 23, 2001

Neither the Taliban, nor al-Qaida, nor bin Laden is in the bag yet, but the war drums have already begun beating for phase II. If the war hawks have their way, Iraq is next on the target list.

Three weeks ago, President Bush was warned in an open letter that his failure to attack Iraq “will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”

The ultimatum was signed by 41 foreign policy veterans and writers, including Jeanne Kirkpatrick, William Bennett and editors at The Weekly Standard, Commentary and The New Republic. National Review has now enlisted, The Wall Street Journal is in full shriek, and syndicated columnists are slapping on their war paint.

As Cato the Elder ended every speech in the Roman forum with “Delenda est Carthago!” (“Carthage must be destroyed!”), so our neo-conservatives have decreed that Iraq must be destroyed.

Now, if Iraq colluded in the mass murder of 5,500 Americans, Saddam’s regime should be destroyed and the pounding not stop until he is dead or gone. But the problem is this: There is as yet no hard evidence of Iraqi complicity in the crime, but vast evidence of Saudi connections and involvement with the Taliban, al-Qaida and Osama.

And if Iraq is not guilty of the atrocities of Sept. 11, and the U.S. lashes out at Baghdad, the Islamic world will see it not as a valid act of justice by a wounded, grieving America, but as an act of vengeance by an arrogant superpower on a small nation that defied it. Moreover, this war on Iraq would not be Desert Storm II.

In 1991, President Bush had a 28-nation alliance and General Schwarzkopf had tens of thousands of troops from Britain, France, Syria and Egypt. They will not be there this time. Even Tony Blair has told Mr. Bush he will take a pass. And the Saudis have put us on notice that their bases are not available for an attack on another Arab country.

This time, America goes in alone. Moreover, the mighty Army of Desert Storm, like Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, is history. In a dozen years, U.S. defense spending has fallen from Reagan’s 6 percent of GDP to Clinton’s 3 percent. Adds Oliver North, “We have cut our army divisions from 18 to 10. We now have 13 fighter wings, down from 24. Our Navy, which boasted 546 ships, today has only 316.”

In 1990, the U.S. had an open-and-shut case of naked aggression by Iraq that even the U.N. could recognize and our enemies could not deny. But without evidence of Saddam’s collusion in the terrorism of Sept. 11, an attack on Iraq would be seen as an unprovoked, unjust war that could bring Arab and Islamic mobs into the streets from Morocco to Indonesia, risking the survival of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. What would it profit America to march to Baghdad, only to have Cairo fall to anti-American mobs?

Writing in The Weekly Standard, William Kristol and Robert Kagan, those Hardy Boys of global hegemony, seem to revel in what is coming. This war “is not going to stop in Afghanistan,” they exult, “it is going to spread and engulf a number of countries. … It is going to resemble the clash of civilizations that everyone has hoped to avoid … it is possible that the demise of some ‘moderate’ Arab regimes may be just round the corner.”

But while the little magazines and big talkers whoop it up for a war of civilizations, neither Congress nor the country is clamoring for a war on radical Arabdom or militant Islam. And a lesson from Vietnam ought especially to be remembered now: “Before we commit the army, commit the nation.”

Finally, there is a small matter of the Constitution. Congress, alone, has the power to declare war. Before launching Desert Storm, President Bush won the authorization of Congress to go to war. But this President Bush has not been authorized to attack nations other than Afghanistan. And the GOP chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Henry Hyde, opposes a war on Iraq, and would stop at Kabul.

If the neo-conservatives want their war on Iraq or a “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam, or, since Europe will sit it out, between the U.S.-Israel on one side, and all the rogue states on the State Department list on the other, they should make the case to Congress and the country. For if there was one principle for which the Old Right stood, it was no more presidential wars. No more Koreas. No more Vietnams. No more undeclared wars.

This time, let us follow the Constitution as the founding fathers intended, and let the old debate begin anew: America First vs. Global Empire. The Old Republic vs. the New World Order. And let us rediscover what it means to be a conservative.

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