Crazy Taxi

I had not meant to write as much in this space about the coming war as I have written. It is on my mind more than any event or issue has been in my life, including September 11th. I will try to get back to games and television and science fiction and Africa and the craft of history and all the rest of the things I meant to reflect on in this space.

But the coming war, well, I am having trouble sleeping because of it.

What haunts me is an overwhelming feeling that everything about our lives is about to change, and a strong sense of certainty that whatever the short-term results, the long-term changes are going to be for the worse. Perhaps in subtle ways, perhaps in gross and obvious ones.

What grips me is the sense that an extraordinary compound mistake is about to be made, the kind that shifts the forward motion of history onto a new track. It is like being a passenger in a car driven too quickly and erratically by someone who won’t listen to anyone else in the car. Even when you want to get to the same destination as the driver, you can’t help but feel that there’s a way to go there which doesn’t carry the same risk of flying through the guardrails and off a cliff.

I am not a pacifist. I am not anti-American. I could support a military conflict with Iraq designed to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

I am convinced that George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle are exactly the wrong people at the right time to execute that mission. I am convinced that John Ashcroft is exactly the wrong man to be in charge of law, order and the security of American liberty at this time.

This is not because I am a primal, irrational hater of Bush. Last week, I saw Leon Wieseltier debate Mark Danner here on campus about the war, and I have to say that Wielseltier absolutely creamed Danner, in a polite and unfailingly rational manner. His arguments were philosophically and intellectually consistent and rigorous, whereas Danner was all over the map, mixing and matching foundational claims with relatively ephemeral points, and getting hung up on relatively petty carping about details. Moreover, he more or less conceded Wielseltier’s basic case by calling for a stronger inspections regime backed by the future threat of military force if Hussein refuses to comply.

Among the things Wielseltier accurately noted is that the repugnant hypocrisy of many current members of the Bush Administration towards Saddam Hussein is an entirely separate issue from whether war right here and right now is a necessity. Danner did not seem to understand this fundamental point. You may have erred in the past, but simply because you did err does not mean that you should be forever condemned to repeating that error for fear of being judged a hypocrite. We should hold Dick Cheney and other administration members responsible for having gotten us into this mess by cynically arming and supporting Iraq in the 1980s, and they ought to have the humility to apologize for having done so when they condemn Hussein now, but none of that answers the question of whether the current war is necessary.

This isn’t about hating Bush. Wielseltier’s right: if our opposition to the war is fed by a partisan sense that a Republican can never be right and a Democrat is always right, then it’s a non-starter. My opposition is about the fact that the run-up to war has been so systematically mishandled, including the arrogant and unnecessary pre-September 11th unilateralism of the administration, that the well is thoroughly poisoned.

The weakness in Wieseltier’s arguments for the war concerns consequences. If the consequences of going to war are vastly more damaging to democracy, freedom and justice than not going to war, then we should not. Yes, Saddam Hussein is a blight on the world, and we must bring him to justice. His misrule cannot be allowed to stand, not if we believe in progress towards a better global society.

But because of the way that the Bush Administration has approached the world since taking office, the particular costs of the particular attack they now advocate are the permanent loss of American moral influence and authority in most of the rest of the world, the reduction of our leadership to nothing more and nothing less than military and economic power. Because our advocacy for democracy has become so resolutely contemptuous of democratically registered sentiments in other nations, and so reliant upon the Middle East authoritarianism we claim to oppose, the liberties we claim to desire are stillborn in their crib. Because our leaders are sanctioning the radical and arbitrary violation of civil liberties at home in a time of crisis, our ability to serve as a shining beacon of hope is threatened. Even Tony Blair seems to sense some of this, judging from the current negotiations at the United Nations.

If the United States had participated in World War II in a radically different fashion than it did, totally ignoring its allies and devoting little or no meaningful thought about the design of a postwar world order intended to ameliorate the ills of the interwar era, then no matter how righteous the struggle against Nazism might have been, the consequences of the war would have been vastly worse and its transcendent moral necessity imperiled.

I am having trouble sleeping.

I have been wrong before in my predictions, and any historian knows the folly of trying to predict in the first place. Maybe the crazy driver will get us home and we’ll laugh at our groundless fears. At night all I can see is the yawning emptiness beyond the guardrail and the shrieking heights below.