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Debate Postmortem

November 19th, 2002 · No Comments

Crossposted on Stand Down.

A few colleagues and I headed over to the Georgetown Law Center to check out the Iraq debate which pitted political theorists Benjamin Barber and William Galston, on the antiwar side, against The Threatening Storm author Kenneth Pollack and journalist Jonathan Chait, who defended invasion.

That’s actually not entirely accurate. The real debate was between Pollack and Galston, the Batman and Joker, if you will, to Barber’s Robin and Chait’s Thug Number Two. Barber, to my disappointement, was as fatuous and blustery in oral argument as he is in writing, coming off like a revved up cross between Michael York (whom he physically resembles) and the Daily Show’s Lewis Black (his twin in mannerisms). But Barber was, at worst, guilty of setting up strawmen. Chait quite literally was a strawman, claiming with a straight face that literally any regime in Baghdad post-invasion would be superior to Hussein’s. I wonder if he would have said the same about the regime we were so happy to see Saddam replace in the 70s, or the Soviets in Afghanistan. Probably — the most proximate threat always seems uniquely frightening, and uniquely dangerous… until the next threat.

What was most interesting to me was how much even Pollack conceded. He seemed to say, roughly: “Well, we’ve got to fight Iraq sooner or later, and better sooner than later. But now that you mention it, Bush seems pretty certain to screw it up egregiously.” Galston’s apt retort was that we will not fight Kenneth Pollack’s war, we’ll fight George Bush’s war. And oddly, while Pollack nominally rejected the idea of “preventative war,” it’s hard to distinguish between his “invade because we’ll have to fight him sooner or later” and the new Bush doctrine of doing unto others just in case they one day do unto you.

What about that major premise, then, that we’ll have to fight “sooner or later?” Well, as an old story goes, a lot can happen in a few years… the horse might die, the king might die. Saddam Hussein is not a young man, and it seems a bit presumptuous to assume that future aggression on his part is a foregone conclusion. Pollack and other hawks remind us that Hussein has repeatedly invaded his neighbors, but tend to forget that he practically asked our permission each time. Before going into Kuwait, our liasion to Iraq told him straight out, in response to his putting out feelers, that the U.S. would take no interest in Middle Eastern “border disputes.” And even if that’s wrong, Pollack’s case is that Iraq is, primarily, a threat to the region, not to the U.S. Well, even if we grant him that much, does it mean we’ll have to fight “sooner or later?” You know, call me callous, but if Hussein is a threat to his neighbors, then perhaps we can let the oil-rich despots in the region worry about him, rather than assuming it’s our problem. As many have observed, even if he did expand his sphere of influence, you can’t drink oil. One way or another, it’s got to find its way onto the world market.

So, in short, I wasn’t swayed much by the other side. But then, I doubt the hawks were either.

Update: Eve Tushnet has a rather better, more detailed dissection.

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