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Keeping Faith in Our Doubts
17 September 2002
A famous prayer includes the line, "Where there is doubt, let me sow faith." Doubt is usually regarded as something to repent. Nothing deadens the human spirit like skepticism. Doubt can undermine resolve, and it can make heroic action impossible. Even more undercutting, doubt can poison the self, leaving one suspicious of one's own motives. In that circumstance, doubt can paralyze. But not even that is the worst of it. When one's broader community is taken over by a swelling certitude, doubt can be taken as a sign of bad faith, rendering the doubter ineffectual and alone.
On the question of the threatened war with Iraq, the tide of certitude is swelling in America, and perhaps around the world. Doubt begins to seem disloyal at home, foolish abroad. That is why, since President Bush's speech at the UN last week, open expressions of doubt have been dropping away. Formerly contrary world leaders show support for the characterization of Saddam Hussein as an immediate global threat requiring urgent action. Previously skeptical columnists and editorial writers suddenly take the necessity of an unfolding American military offensive for granted. Democrats in Congress are trading criticism for endorsement. A political consensus in favor of war against Iraq seems to be jelling - despite the fact that the Bush administration has in no way made a case. A primitive rhetoric of absolute assertion has been enough.
Standing before the UN General Assembly last week, Bush said that Hussein represents grave and present danger, a danger that can be dealt with only by martial force. In fact, neither case was argued, much less proven. Hussein may or may not possess usable weapons of mass destruction; even what meager evidence has been cited is in dispute. If Hussein does possess such weapons, he may or may not intend to use them. He was successfully deterred in the past. And after Hussein, who? Khadafy? Apparently questions like this do not matter.
A more general question has to do with how to influence Hussein. His behavior may or may not be able to be influenced for the better by diplomacy or other nonviolent pressures, but war, or even the imminent threat of war, would seem to guarantee behavior for the worse. That promises disaster, especially for Israel, if Bush's charges about Hussein's arsenal and his readiness to empty it are true. But apparently this doesn't matter either. Bush has yet to explain how the world is served by giving the dictator nothing to lose. Why has behavior change been trumped by regime change? These questions have remained unanswered through all of the recent talk. What is striking now is how many fewer voices are asking them.
The real subject of Bush's UN speech was not Iraq's malfeasance but the indomitable will of the United States. Why is Iraq a mortal threat requiring violent overthrow? Because the United States says so. Why are nations stifling their doubts to join this campaign? Because the United States has told them to. Nations - whether France or Saudi Arabia - cannot afford to be on the losing side of an American war. Bush changed the subject at the UN from the war's justification to its inevitability - its justification ceased to matter. The positive response to Bush's speech was a measure not of his personal resolve or of his leadership but of the meaning of the new American hegemony. This is what the raw power of the world's only superpower looks like.
Similarly within the United States. Political power is diffuse and unfocused on every subject except war. Once war defines the national purpose, war itself is no longer considered a proper subject for debate - not in the media, not in Congress. By showing up at the UN last week and giving a nod to multilateralism, Bush shrewdly blunted the one point of criticism most domestic opponents of war had been prepared to make. If France won't forthrightly oppose an unprovoked campaign to overthrow Hussein, how can the Democrats? An unnecessary multilateral war is still unnecessary, but again Bush could preempt war opposition with war's inevitability. Get on the train.
What, then, are skeptics to do? First, be clear on what has happened. Objections to the war (first Iraq, then Libya?) have not been addressed - they have been bowled over by rhetorical assertion. The assertion has been empty, but oddly that has made it more powerful. How do you rationally consider the pros and cons of a course of action with someone for whom the cons simply do not exist? The responsibility of the skeptic is clear - to remain engaged in the debate, even if by insisting that the debate is not over. The American war against Iraq must be opposed.
It must be stopped. Where there is faith in its justice or in its inevitability, sow doubt.