• U.S.

Essay: The Case for War

6 minute read
George J. Church

So Congress wants to reassert its constitutional prerogative to decide whether or not the nation should go to war. About time. U.S. Presidents have gone much too far toward claiming (or rather exercising without even bothering to claim) the power of Louis XIV to send a whole nation into battle on his sole judgment, even whim. The makers of the Constitution were determined never to give one man that power in the new republic, and they were right. If the U.S. is to fight Iraq, it should be by conscious decision of its elected representatives, reached after full debate.

But that debate should not be dominated by the antiwar critics, as the front and op-ed pages have been in the past few days. In a full-fledged congressional debate, one may hope, the case for war will be argued more forcefully and cogently than an oddly tongue-tied Bush Administration has lately managed to do. And there is a compelling case for war. Yes, even if one believes, as I do, that it will probably not be won in a week or so by heavy bombing, but may turn into a long, bloody and disruptive struggle with major casualties.

Oil is one reason, and to make (not concede) that point is by no means to admit that we would be fighting for a few cents a gallon on the price of gasoline or to maintain a fat, self-indulgent life-style. What is at stake is the power to shut off the heat in millions of homes, freezing the old and frail; to close down thousands of factories and utility plants, causing mass unemployment and no little additional poverty. A price run-up or supply restriction sharp enough could touch off a similar worldwide recession — and an inflationary recession to boot. That power cannot be put into the hands of a megalomaniac who can be trusted to deal with anyone who might try to stop him by squeezing in the most vulnerable spot. And if Saddam Hussein gets away with his seizure of Kuwait, he will be master not only of the supplies from that nation and his own Iraq, but also, through invasion or bullying, of the oil pumped out of Saudi Arabia, the gulf sheikdoms and other states. Of course, the U.S. should have acted long ago to lessen its dependence on foreign oil. Of course, it should do everything it can in that direction now. So what? For the immediate future, a reliable supply of oil at affordable prices is vital to any modern economy. It just is, and the loftiest moral and ecological disapproval cannot change that brute fact.

But oil is not the only or even main cause for war, whatever the cynics say. Would the U.S. have fought to conquer the Middle Eastern oil fields if Saddam Hussein had peacefully persuaded Kuwait, Saudi Arabia et al. to restrict production enough to shoot the price up to $40 per bbl.? Get real. The central issue is aggression, and how — make that whether — it can be contained in the post-cold war world. And forget all the moaning about shedding blood to keep feudal autocracies in control of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. One might well wish for more appealing victims and potential victims to champion. But if < aggression is to be opposed only when the targets are kindly liberal democracies, the world is going to become a far more dangerous, savage and bloody place.

Comparisons of Saddam Hussein to Hitler may be overblown. The Iraqi dictator has not built a Middle Eastern Auschwitz — yet. But Saddam does seem to share one Hitlerian trait identified by British historian Alan Bullock: he is “consumed ((by)) the will to power in its crudest and purest form . . . power and domination for its own sake,” to be expanded without limit. If Saddam is allowed to keep part of Kuwait — and make no mistake, that is what those advocating a “diplomatic solution” are hinting at — he will be back to take a bite out of another victim. Not right away, maybe, but after the U.S. troops have left Saudi Arabia and all has returned to a delusive quiet. If he meets resistance, he will use chemical, bacteriological and, one day, nuclear weapons. Millions may die.

Nor is Saddam the only leader who would redraw the map of the world by force — to rectify border disputes, reclaim “unredeemed” territory, seize a neighbor’s natural resources. What lesson would these others draw from a failure to stop Saddam? Go ahead. The U.S. certainly will not stop you. Oh, it may shout and scream and bluster. But if it did not use force when a vital economic interest was threatened, when it had a clear moral justification and the support of a worldwide coalition, when would it? Letting Iraq’s aggression stand is a recipe for a world of endless aggressions, of local and not-so- local wars, some possibly nuclear (India vs. Pakistan for a fourth round? Israel against the Arabs yet again?), and of bloody chaos from which the U.S. could not forever stand aloof.

But, says the antiwar faction, Saddam can be turned back without war, by persistence in the embargo. If only that were true! All too probably, those who make this argument are deluding themselves. Far more likely, if Iraq is still occupying Kuwait next Aug. 2, a year after the invasion, much of the world will conclude that Saddam has won. The embargo will begin leaking badly; nation after nation will start casting around for a diplomatic solution; Washington itself will be under growing pressure to bring G.I.s home from Saudi Arabia where they will have been “sitting around in the sand for a year accomplishing nothing.” A formula will be found to let Iraq keep part of Kuwait. Curtains for any hope of a world in which aggression does not pay.

Maybe, just maybe, Saddam can be scared out of Kuwait by the threat of a war that would destroy his military machine and/or his life. But that would require something like an ultimatum, backed by a genuine readiness to fight, and Saddam might not believe it even then. So the U.S. has to prepare for war. Anyone with a shred of human feeling can say that only with a suppressed scream of fear and pain. The U.S. confronts a bitter, tragic, even ghastly necessity. But, this time, it is a necessity that there is no honorable way to avoid.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com