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The New, Principled Anti-Americanism

It's the last valid argument against war, it's the budding core of a new international coalition, and it's still wrong.

11:00 PM, Mar 16, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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OVER THE COURSE of the last few months, every respectable argument against war in Iraq has fallen apart. In December the peaceniks insisted that inspections would work; even Hans Blix now admits that they have not. In January the peaceniks insisted that the United States was acting unilaterally; then a group of European nations stepped shoulder-to-shoulder with America and the ranks of support have since swelled. In February the peaceniks insisted that Saddam Hussein wasn't dangerous; reporting by Jeffrey Goldberg (here and here) and Stephen Hayes has now thoroughly disproved that notion. Earlier this month the peaceniks insisted that war in Iraq would distract us from the pursuit of al Qaeda; then Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured. Today the peaceniks rail against President Bush's "rush to war;" but 18 months after September 11, the president is still chasing a diplomatic solution.

As the antiwar left has lost argument after argument, simple anti-Americanism has become its lodestar. At rallies across the globe protestors ignored Saddam, yet compared Bush to Hitler. At a march in La Habra, California, protestors destroyed a September 11 memorial, ripping and burning flags and flowers. Commenting on the February death of a CIA officer in Afghanistan, a correspondent for one prominent antiwar website wrote, "Ok, only two CIA agents dead, but its something. With so much bad news in the headlines its nice to read some good news like this every once and awhile [sic]."

This is, of course, what ideological movements do once they lose their fights with history, and it isn't unique to the left--witness Pat Buchanan. But out of the ashes of the antiwar movement has arisen a higher form of objection, and for those seeking to avoid conflict in Iraq, it is the last refuge. Call it a principled anti-Americanism.

THE PRINCIPLED ANTI-AMERICAN ARGUMENT has been best advanced by Matthew Parris in the London Times. Parris grants that yes, Saddam is a bad, dangerous man who is hiding weapons of mass destruction and can only be disarmed by force. He grants that an American-led war will almost certainly be successful and will lead to a freer, more stable Iraq. Writing on February 1, Parris concluded:

I do not think that war, if there is a war, will fail. I can easily envisage the publication soon of some chilling facts about Saddam's armory, a French and German scamper back into the fold, a tough U.N. second resolution, a short and successful war, a handover to a better government, a discreet change of tune in the biddable part of the Arab world, and egg all over the peaceniks' faces.

I am not afraid that this war will fail. I am afraid that it will succeed.

I am afraid that it will prove to be the first in an indefinite series of American interventions. I am afraid that it is the beginning of a new empire . . .

The principled anti-Americans believe that, while dangerous, Saddam is ultimately a regional, short-term peril. They worry that after deposing him, the United States will be unbound and free to flex her muscles across the globe, heedless of either threats from her enemies or the concerns of her friends. And worse--as a democratic hyperpower, there is no obvious endpoint for this robust American hegemony. As Philip Stephens worried in the Financial Times, "Once the U.S. invades Iraq there will be no easy retreat from empire. We must get used to a world in which America makes the rules."

Whatever you think about the merits of their position, principled anti-Americans have the benefit of intellectual coherence on their side. In fact, after all we've learned, the only coherent argument against going to war in Iraq in the near future is the belief that an assertive America is more dangerous than a rogue Iraq.

I HAPPEN TO DISAGREE with Messrs. Parris and Stephens for many reasons, not least of which is that if we follow the current war plans, this war will be one of the high points of human civilization.

War has been with us for thousands of years and doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon. It is a miserable, inseparable part of the human condition. (If it can be separated, no one has yet shown how.)

For millennia, war has been ugly and brutal. Losers were often enslaved, pillaged, slaughtered, or worse. And not just during the Dark Ages, mind you. As recently as 60 years ago, wealthy, industrialized nations bayoneted babies, put people in ovens, and raped the citizenry. In 1942, for example, the Japanese massacred 250,000 Chinese in reprisal for the Doolittle raid on Tokyo. And this type of cruelty existed not just on the macro, policy level, but in the rank-and-file as well. In "The Pacific Campaign," Dan van der Vat quotes a Japanese soldier describing how a camp doctor at Guadalcanal vivisected two prisoners as part of an anatomy lesson for the officer corp.

Against this historical backdrop, consider the last three major actions taken by the United States: 3,500 Iraqi civilians were killed during the Gulf War, 500 in Kosovo, and 1,000 in Afghanistan.

For the impending war, the military is using brilliant guided munitions to spare both civilian lives and infrastructure. As the New York Times reports, "[The Pentagon] has designed an air campaign that tries to avoid destroying bridges, roads and other public works so that the country can be rebuilt quickly and peoples' daily lives are not completely disrupted. . . . It has even required planners to calculate whether bombs that drift too short or too long might hit civilian targets--and to readjust lines of attack if they do."

In addition to this caution, the Pentagon has intimated that a wave of relief workers will follow immediately behind the front-line troops, passing out food and blankets to Iraqis, providing medical care and fixing any vital infrastructure that does get damaged. And to top it all off, the Bush administration is hard at work on a Marshall Plan to rebuild Iraq before the first shot has even been fired.

Whatever you think about the morality of going to war, taken as a thing, the plan put forward by the United States is a civilizational advance on the order of magnitude of Hammurabi's codification of laws. No one has ever waged war the way America is preparing to wage it in Iraq. If this precedent becomes the human race's new standard for warfare, then it will be a happy day indeed.

Which is why the principled anti-Americans are wrong. A society that fights in this manner is not to be feared.

BUT EVEN IF you grant them their premise, by their own strategic lights, the principled anti-Americans are wrong to oppose the coming war. An ambitious America is much less fearsome than one which is wounded or insecure. Imagine that France wins the debate and the United States walks away from Iraq. Saddam is left intact, and those who would do America harm are emboldened. Imagine if, as Mansoor Ijaz has speculated could happen, a dirty bomb goes off in an American harbor. What if the next September 11 involves not just the destruction of three buildings, but a major U.S. city?

America might decide that action is necessary and that the niceties of war aren't. A very different precedent might be set. After all, an arrogant hyperpower is less dangerous than a scared hyperpower: The strong do what they can, while the weak do what they must.

So even if you are inclined to believe the worst about America, the world will still be better off once Saddam has been removed. At the end of the day, even the most principled anti-Americanism is wrong on Iraq.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.