No Vietnam: The Liberal Case for War

By Paul Starr

The New Republic; February 19, 1991.

It is a regime, we all now understand, that ruthlessly murders its opponents, gasses minorities, channels its oil riches into military power, builds biological and nuclear weapons, invades one neighbor and then pillages and annexes another, rains missiles on civilian populations in yet a third country to spread terror and inflame religious hatreds, threatens an entire region with vital resources for the world -- a regime, in short, unequivocally offensive and threatening to liberal values and America's legitimate interests. Yet many liberals in America today, if they do not actively oppose the war against Iraq, give it reluctant support. And some who now accept the war after opposing it beforehand want it kept to minimal objectives.

The critics and doubters include many of my friends, but I won't be signing their anti-war petitions. Since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, I have found myself among the minority of liberal Democrats who have favored the president's policies against Iraq, including his decision to go to war. Now, as the debate over our war aims and strategy grows more intense, I find myself among those who believe that we should not restrict our objectives to dislodging the Iraqis from Kuwait, or limit our means to air power. Would that the war could be won from the air. But if it cannot, we must finish it on the ground, perhaps by using our air superiority to keep the Iraqis pinned down in Kuwait while feigning thrusts there and sending ground troops to secure the one objective that provides hope of a decisive victory -- overturning the Baathist regime in Baghdad and central Iraq.

When the memory of fascism and World War II was still fresh, there would have been no mystery in liberal support for the use of force against an actively expansionary regime that has all the old hallmarks of totalitarianism: a one-party state, rule through terror, worship of the supreme leader, dedication of all resources to military aggression, disregard of the elementary principles of international law and common decency. The real historical puzzle is the reverse. With the U.S. action invited by the victim of aggression, authorized by the United Nations, and supported by all the major political parties in the major nations of the world, why are so many American liberals ambivalent and others outright opposed?

There seem to me two kinds of reasons -- overgeneralized lessons of recent history and reasonable but, I think, mistaken prudential judgments.

The Vietnam War is obviously a large part of the explanation. Vietnam is to Iraq as World War I was to World War II. The widespread pacifism of the 1930s reflected the sense of war's futility left by World War I. Even after World War II broke out, many Americans on the left as well as the right were slow to grasp the meaning of Nazi Germany and the need for America to fight. Similarly, the Vietnam War was the formative experience for many Americans' judgments about armed force and the armed forces. The circumstances are now different from Vietnam, but the responses are still the same. Is it true, as a friend suggests, that war protesters always fight the last war? Alas, some now are.

I see in the faces of anti-war protesters and hear in their voices the same expressions and outlook that I remember twenty years ago when I took part in anti-war demonstrations. But this time the objections sound hollow. We need the money we're spending on the war to solve problems at home: We certainly do need to solve problems here, but the war against Iraq is not what has kept or will keep us from solving them. The government we're aiding is no democracy: But the Kuwaitis have been brutalized, their nation expropriated -- and rectifying that injustice is just the occasion for the allied response, not the whole purpose of it. We should keep trying negotiations: We did for months, and there was not the slightest sign the Iraqis were interested.

And then there is the ubiquitous slogan, No blood for oil, as if we were fighting for the small and demeaning purpose of cheap gasoline. Oil matters, no mistake about it. But the importance of oil lies in the power that the control of even greater oil wealth would confer on Saddam -- power that he has shown every intent of using to expand his sphere of domination. Are the protesters who want to ``bring the troops home'' simply indifferent to the domination that Saddam would impose over the people of the Mideast? Or are they unable to follow the chain of consequences to where an American withdrawal would logically lead?

The power that Saddam could accumulate if he controlled the Mideast oil fields -- and the havoc he could wreak regionally and internationally -- is specifically what distinguishes Iraq from other unsavory regimes. I am not saying we are obligated to serve as the ``world's policeman'' and overturn every evil government. But where a vicious regime threatens to accumulate power that will overwhelm our friends and jeopardize our vital interests, we have both material and moral reasons, acting in concert with other nations, to intervene with force. Unlike Vietnam, the hard tests of just intervention have in this case been met.

The more serious and troubling arguments against the war -- and against raising our war aims to include toppling Saddam -- come from those who have objected, on prudential grounds, to shifting from the defense of Saudi Arabia to an offensive posture. Despite the onset of the war, the prudential objections still affect sentiment about the justice of the war and its legitimate aims.

Before January 16 there was a difficult judgment to be made about the potential success of alternatives to war, principally economic sanctions. Some hoped that sanctions could actually bring about an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait; some saw them only as weakening Saddam militarily and thereby making it easier for us to prevail later. But even if the sanctions had caused Saddam to retreat from Kuwait (which seems highly implausible), such a retreat might well have been merely tactical and temporary, until the United States pulled out and he gained nuclear arms. The embargo never could have disabled and disarmed the Iraqi military and, therefore, never adequately answered the threat the regime poses.

But what of a really long embargo and collective security arrangement to offset Iraqi power? While some of the war's opponents have taken our failure in Vietnam as a warning against all American military intervention, others have cited our success in the cold war in making the case for prolonged sanctions and the patient containment of Iraq. We may, in fact, need to return to such a strategy, perhaps after driving Iraq out of Kuwait. However, the success of a long embargo depends not just on the support of our partners in the military coalition, but also on the cooperation of Iran. Since Iran could single-handedly undo the sanctions by acting as an intermediary for Iraqi oil, the long embargo strategy sits on exceptionally shaky foundations. To have made it our whole strategy against Iraq would have been a mistake.

The precedent of the cold war, moreover, is not exactly encouraging: nearly half a century of large-scale military deployment, while Eastern Europe suffered under Communist domination. Kuwait's fate might be more like Latvia's than Hungary's, particularly given the vast displacement of the Kuwaiti population.

Those who saw the embargo as a short-or intermediate-term means of weakening the Iraqi military by depriving it of spare parts and other critical resources may have had a better argument. Ultimately, however, this justification for longer reliance on sanctions was an argument only over the timing of a war, not whether to fight it. For an embargo expected to achieve military advantage could have avoided war only if the threat to go to war were genuine -- and had we delayed, and delayed, the threat would not have seemed genuine at all.

In the argument over our war aims and strategy, we are now replaying in different terms the original argument over whether to fight. Assuming that Saddam does not accept James Baker's offer of a cease-fire in exchange for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, we have at least three alternatives: limiting ourselves to an air war, which would not necessarily liberate Kuwait; a combined air-ground attack to force the Iraqis out of Kuwait; and an air war followed by a ground invasion of Iraq itself to overturn the Baathist regime.

Limiting the war to an air campaign has clear attractions. Like the embargo, it has the great virtue of minimizing American casualties. The air war is a kind of stepped-up embargo that not only prevents Iraq from adding to its weaponry, but actively subtracts from it. An air war is, indeed, what we should fight -- for weeks, months -- as long as it advances our strategic goals.

Yet while allied air superiority will be the key to military victory, it seems unlikely to be sufficient for it, unless we are content to inflict a lot of damage on Iraqi installations and infrastructure and then go home. To expect the air war to bring about an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait is to pray for unpredictable changes -- a collapse of Iraqi will or of the regime itself. We may wish for both to happen, but we cannot count on them.

In the midst of a war it is virtually impossible for those of us who watch, listen, and read about it to reach any informed judgment about how it should most effectively be pursued. Only the president and his commanders can make those decisions. But we do have some reasonable basis for judging what goals they ought to be pursuing, and those goals do bear on the way the war is fought.

The big purpose of this war is to disable the Iraqi will to power and to free the entire region from the threat of Iraqi domination. By demolishing much of its military capability, we are taking a step in that direction. But it is only a step and could easily be reversed in a few years' time. If Saddam's regime survives this war, he will have been magnified by it into a figure of grand proportions and his regime will more than likely be capable of regenerating its military power out of future oil revenues. Air strikes will not destroy the weapons designs that the Iraqis already possess. Nor should we imagine that Saddam will learn the lessons we want him to learn from a limited defeat in Kuwait. In fact, what we consider to be a defeat for him, he and others in the Arab world may well consider a victory, tempting them into illusions of the ultimate revenge -- striking back directly at the United States in yet a future war.

Inevitably, no matter what the outcome, we are now going to face smoldering, perhaps burning, passions for revenge. But it is unclear whether those passions will be more dangerous to us if we fight a limited war in Kuwait, which leaves Saddam in place, or press on for a complete victory, which seeks to liberate Iraq itself and aims at a more comprehensive reconstruction of regional security afterward.

Nor is it clear to me that a war to liberate Iraq is inherently more difficult than a war to liberate Kuwait. For, after all, what guarantee is there that Saddam will stop fighting even after we drive his forces out of Kuwait? He seems unlikely to negotiate or surrender under any circumstances. Nor, for fear of their lives, are his commanders likely to give up -- that is, as long as we have yet to deal with Saddam and his top leadership. Removing that leadership, seizing their capital, may be the most expeditious means of getting the Iraqi army in the south to capitulate.

The Iraqi army in Kuwait and southern Iraq is dug into heavily fortified positions; this is the ground they have chosen, and it will be hard to dislodge them from it. On the other hand, the more they move out of their defensive positions, the more vulnerable they make themselves to air power. The alternative, therefore, is to lure some of those divisions out of their defensive positions and to pin down and bypass the bulk of them, while attacking Baghdad directly and overseeing the establishment of a constitutional government there as we did in Germany and Japan after World War II. We may wish it were not so -- that there will be some secure conclusion to this war short of the road to Baghdad or, for that matter, to Kuwait City -- but this is the enterprise into which we may now be ineluctably drawn.

To be sure, a direct assault on Baghdad, bypassing Kuwait, entails large political as well as military risks, particularly the possibility that Iran might begin actively aiding Iraq, if not actually fighting with it. Here intelligence and diplomacy will be critical in deciding whether a complete victory is achievable. I suggest only that if the president makes such a choice, he ought to have our support.

Last fall, shortly after the Iraqi crisis erupted, millions of Americans watched the week-long PBS series on the Civil War. While graphically portraying the war's horrors, the series also reminded us that some wars are indeed worth fighting, and that the determined pursuit of victory may be morally as well as strategically preferable to circumscribed battles aimed at forcing negotiations. Are we better served by a McClellan, whose desire to avoid casualties ends up prolonging a war, or by a Grant, who doggedly pursues an unconditional victory? Today America has a leadership that appears to be emulating Grant rather than McClellan, and for my own part, dangerous as this war is, I am glad of it. ~~~~~~~~

PAUL STARR, a co-editor of The American Prospect, teaches at Princeton University.

Copyright 1991 by Paul Starr.

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