ne of my favorite cartoons in the wake of the 9/11 attack was a picture of a giant Uncle Sam standing against the New York skyline, brushing himself off and rolling up his sleeves. He'd clearly been knocked down by a cheap shot and he was mighty angry about it. If memory serves, he said, over his shoulder and through gnashed teeth, "You shouldn't have done that." The meaning was obvious. America was going to the pantry and clearing the shelves of every case of whup-ass in our larder (24 cans per case).
People forget now, but it took awhile to get the cases from the top shelf. We didn't begin bombing Afghanistan forward into the stone age for about six weeks. And yet, critics of the president were already calling him a cowboy, as if cowboys usually take 45 days to return a punch.
In the weeks prior to the war to liberate Afghanistan, a good friend of mine would ask me almost every day, "Why aren't we killing people yet?" And I never had a good answer for him. Because one of the most important and vital things the United States could do after 9/11 was to kill people. Call it a "forceful response," "decisive action" whatever. Those are all nice euphemisms for killing people. And the world is a better place because America saw the necessity of putting steel beneath the velvet of those euphemisms.
Indeed, if the United States had used more "decisive action" responding to Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, it's possible 9/11 would never have occurred. After all, we know from bin Laden's own delicate lips that our reluctance to forcefully respond to the "Black Hawk Down" incident taught him that Uncle Sam had a glass jaw. And we know that even when Saddam Hussein attempted to assassinate the current president's father, the American response would be "symbolic strikes" i.e., euphemisms sans steel. For most other transgressions, too, dickering in the U.N. was the worst fine levied against Iraq which is now scheduled to chair the U.N. commission on disarmament. Even if we put floppy clown shoes, an orange wig, and a giant red nose on Kofi Annan, or perhaps hung him from the rostrum by his underwear, we could not do a better job of making the U.N. look foolish than it already does itself.
Regardless, I know talk of the need for killing offends lots of good and decent people who are philosophically opposed to violence under almost any circumstances. It also bothers "sophisticated" thinkers who believe America's foreign policy is overly "simplistic" (see "The European Miracle"). Our foreign policy, the sophisticates believe, amounts to an old-style Atari joystick with one red "fire" button on it. Forward, backward, kill, kill: that's all we know. The sophisticated foreign policies of our allies, meanwhile, have walls of gauges and meters, with thousands of knobs and switches allowing their statesmen to tweak and adjust their statecraft like a massive stereo equalizer until it's damn near pitch-perfect.
And, of course, this sort of kill-talk really bothers the jabbering bandersnatches of the international Left, who continue to insist America was the unprovoked villain in Afghanistan. As noted geopolitical scholar Sheryl Crow recently reminded us, these folks believe that the answer to avoiding war is simple: "The best way to solve problems is not to have enemies." Since "war is based in greed," Crow explained, the United States risks "huge karmic retributions" for being such a brute. Retrograde childish Marxism like this fits in perfectly with the Chomskyite belief that not only did America deserve 9/11 after all, we foolishly allowed ourselves to have enemies, silly us but that we were the bad guy in Afghanistan since more Afghans than Americans ended up dead. This is an absurd argument, by any standard. Were we the villains of WWII because more Germans died at our hands than vice versa?
And World War II provides a good segue to the rhetorical problem with Iraq. I have been trying to come up with a useful, carryall metaphor or analogy for the situation with Iraq. The difficulty stems from the fact that America is not fond of preemptive wars, and rightly so. They are not unprecedented in our history, but they are rare especially when you consider the scale of an Iraqi invasion. Grenada, one could argue, was a preemptive war of a kind. But it's hardly a useful comparison. The reason we don't like preemptive wars is precisely what puts the lie to people like Chomsky: We're not an empire (see "Not Getting America"). Empires attack countries in order to annex them. But when you're not an empire, attacking another country first is a hard thing to justify. And attacking a country that is not thank goodness an imminent threat is even more difficult to explain.
It's easy to explain to anybody with an open mind why Iraq needs to be disarmed and deposed. It is more difficult to explain why it needs to be done right now. I find the argument advanced in Kenneth Pollack's outstanding book The Threatening Storm to be persuasive. As for the "why" of the issue, he runs through all the usual reasons: Saddam craves to be a regional hegemon and go down in history as a new Saladin, he's an egomaniacal and evil sadist who's never been deterred from seeking weapons of mass destruction, etc., etc. As for the "why now?" part, he argues that the clock is ticking and you've got to do this while you can. If the United States doesn't take care of Saddam now, it will be incredibly difficult to take care of him later. Backing down would make us look like chumps. Pulling our military out of the region as we would have to do would signal that our threats are meaningless. The U.N., our allies in the region, oppositionists within Iraq, and Saddam himself would not take us seriously the next time around. A reelection campaign would make any ratcheting up of anti-Saddam rhetoric seem not only hollow, but an attempt to wag the dog. In short, it's now or never.
This may not have the romance of "Remember Pearl Harbor!" but it's still intellectually compelling. In fact, the example of Pearl Harbor is instructive. In hindsight, it now should be clear to most people that waiting for the Japanese to attack us before we entered the war was a bad idea. Joining the war against Hitler might even have dissuaded the Japanese from attacking us at all. And even if it didn't, stopping Hitler earlier would in any case have shortened the war and saved lives. Opponents of war with Iraq say the comparison to World War II is strained. And they're right, if by that they mean that the circumstances today are very different. The underlying principle, however, isn't all that different. We are still talking about appeasing a brute when he is weak on the assumption that we can wait until he gets strong.
Proponents of letting the inspectors "do their job" are often fundamentally dishonest about this point. Giving the inspectors more time also means giving the French, the Russians, the U.N., the antiwar punditocracy, and, of course, Iraq more time to dismantle international support for any war at all. Prior to the election of George Bush and the events of 9/11, remember, international momentum was moving toward welcoming Iraq back into the brotherhood of nations. So when Ted Kennedy says that the discovery of a handful of empty chemical-weapon warheads proves that the inspectors are succeeding, one can only imagine how much more time he'll want to give the inspectors should they find something truly consequential. The reasoning seems to be: If they find something, they are succeeding. If they find nothing, Saddam remains innocent, since the U.S. hasn't provided a "smoking gun." In effect, "not now" is an argument for "not ever."
Everyone including the French and Hans Blix admits that Saddam is playing keep-away. We all know he's not innocent of anything. In Friday's column, I tried to come up with a metaphor for Saddam's game. I likened it to a kid who refuses to show his father what's behind his back when the father knows he's been playing with matches. But the keep-away metaphor doesn't justify killing the kid. So, as strange as it sounds, comparing the situation to a mechanics diagnosis may make more sense to me. The local garage tells you that your brakes are shot. He says they could go anytime maybe not tomorrow or the next day, but it's certain that they'll fail eventually. You can fix it now or take your chances with later. If you fix it today, it's a huge hassle; if you wait you could die.
President Bush laid things out clearly when he said, "We will not deny, we will not ignore, we will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, to other presidents, and other generations. We will confront them with focus and clarity and courage." And it struck me; the first metaphor for Bush was still the best. He is a cowboy, in the best sense of the label. He's got a moral compass that points true north even if he's got to zigzag to get there. He speaks plainly. He's not dumb, but he also doesn't need to be the smartest man in the room because he's got right "providence" in his words on his side, and he knows the difference between shinola and other substances. This may not explain the dynamics of why Saddam's got to go right now. But after he's gone, when the Iraqi prisons and archives of terror are opened and the Iraqi people are free, Bush can simply say of Saddam, in cowboy parlance, "He needed killin'"; and everyone will understand.