NEW ORLEANS — How should free people feel — in our hearts, brains and guts — about launching a pre-emptive strike?
Note that we are not "starting a war" with Iraq. That was begun by Saddam more than a decade ago. We won the first battle, but he has since been secretly violating the terms of surrender. Either we will allow him to become capable of inflicting horrendous casualties in our cities tomorrow — or we must inflict and accept far fewer casualties in his cities today.
That's a Hobson's choice, which is no choice at all. We will now get on with it. We will not whip ourselves into jingoism, or become fascinated by our exercise of ultra-tech superpower or suppress our sadness at the pictures of Iraqi civilians Saddam will thrust into the line of fire as human shields.
But we should by no means feel guilty about doing our duty. War cannot be waged apologetically. Rather than wring our hands, Americans and our allies are required to gird our loins — that is, to fight to win with the conviction that our cause is just. We have ample reason to believe that Saddam's gangster government is an evil to be destroyed before it gains the power to destroy us.
It is futile to try to reason with passionate marchers waving signs proclaiming that America's motives are to conquer the world and expend blood for oil.
Nor should we waste more precious time trying to beg or buy moral approval from France or Russia, their U.N. veto threats largely driven by economic interests in Saddam's continuance in power. Nor should we indulge in placing second thoughts first: How much will it cost? How many will be killed? How long will it take? Will it kill the snake of terror or only poke it? Will everybody thank us afterward? Where's the guarantee of total success? Too cautious to oppose, these questioners delay action by demanding to know what they know is unknowable.
Our task now, as citizens of nations burdened with the dirtiest work of mankind — a pre-emptive attack to finish a suspended war — is to call up the national spirit and determined attitude needed to sustain a great effort. Skepticism is a fine American trait and many find patriotic fervor uncool, but the eve of hostilities is the moment for opening the mind to exhortation.
We are launching this attack, already too long delayed, primarily to defend ourselves. This is a response to reasonable fear. We know Saddam is developing terror weapons and is bound on vengeance; we know he has ties to terror organizations eager to use those weapons for more mass murder; we know he can bamboozle the U.N. inspectors again; we know Americans are terror's prime targets. That's plenty of reason to take him out.
But this reasonable fear should be accompanied by a strong dash of hope. Wilsonian idealists have found a soul mate in President Bush, who surprised us all with his challenging vision — not merely a "vision thing" — for the coming generation.
The defeat of Saddam may just send a clear message to Kim Jong Il and other tyrants that we will respond with more action than ransom to nuclear blackmailers, thereby making the world a safer place. But safety is not all.
The liberation of 23 million Arabs and Kurds now ruled by a bloody-handed dictator, followed by a transition to a confederation (aided by an Arab-American general like John Abizaid, now Gen. Tommy Franks' deputy), may just make it possible for a rudimentary democracy to take root in this major Muslim nation.
Such a birth of freedom in Iraq, a land of oil wealth and a literate population, may just spread to its neighbors and co-religionists. This would counter the cancerous growth of repression and rancor that has roiled the Middle East and impoverished the people of 20 nations.
If Bush's vision of a transformed region fails, it would fail while daring greatly — a nobler course than that weakly advocated, in Teddy Roosevelt's words, by "those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
This campaign near the Ides of March will make us safer, allaying our fears; it has the potential of making the world freer, justifying our hopes.
New York Times News Service