Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Bush reconvinces the already-convinced. Boston University historian Robert Dallek got it just right in the post-speech analysis last night. "It was an effective speech, I thought, but of course it's not going to convert opponents who see lots and lots of questions that are going to come up in future days about this war," Dallek said on The NewsHour.

In other words, President Bush spoke with some eloquence to those who already support his pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, but offered nothing to those of us who can't understand why we need to thumb our nose at the international community -- especially at a moment when Saddam Hussein is (or was, until yesterday) thoroughly contained by inspectors, sanctions, and no-fly zones.

And kudos to The NewsHour for including in its scrum radical historian Howard Zinn, also of BU. Calling Bush's ultimatum "a shameful moment in American history," Zinn observed, "We are going to kill the victims of Saddam Hussein" in order to feed the White House's "grandiose ambitions for American power in the world."

Host Jim Lehrer also included two prowar voices, the Council on Foreign Relations' Walter Russell Mead (who wrote a truly compelling argument in favor of military action for the Washington Post last week) and diplomatic historian Diane Kunz.

This is a weird time of waiting. As I write this, Saddam has about 35 hours to get out of the country or face a US invasion. I may be alone in thinking he might actually leave. (Doesn't he know that he's about to die?)

The lead New York Times editorial today makes an excellent point: how difficult it's going to be for war critics to speak out once the invasion begins. At that point, support for our troops will be paramount, and anyone who dissents from the official line will be seen as unpatriotic, or worse. The Times says:

Once the fighting begins, every American will be thinking primarily of the safety of our troops, the success of their mission and the minimization of Iraqi civilian casualties. It will not feel like the right time for complaints about how America got to this point.

Today is the right time. This war crowns a period of terrible diplomatic failure, Washington's worst in at least a generation. The Bush administration now presides over unprecedented American military might. What it risks squandering is not America's power, but an essential part of its glory.

The Boston Globe's Robert Schlesinger and Bryan Bender today offer an optimistic spin on "Shock and Awe," the Pentagon's plan to bombard Bagdhad with a mind-bogglig assortment of missiles during the first several days of the war:

By using an unprecedented number of guided bombs, perhaps nine out of every 10 dropped in urban areas, the US military hopes to leave Iraqi civilians unharmed as Hussein's palaces and other military targets are eradicated.

The proof, of course, will be in its execution. Let's not forget that one of the plan's authors -- in an on-the-record interview -- openly compared "Shock and Awe" to Hiroshima.

The lefty website AlterNet.org has an interesting article from Mark LeVine, a staunchly antiwar Middle East researcher, who articulates a possible dilemma for the antiwar movement: what are activists going to do if "the war is over quickly with relatively low U.S. casualties, some sort of mechanism for transitional rule is put in place, and President Bush and his policies gain unprecedented power and prestige"?

LeVine appears to think this would be bad. I think it would be the best of all possible outcomes, even though I shudder at the notion that Bush's arrogance would be reinforced and his re-election chances would be boosted. I also think the scenario that LeVine lays out is a likely one.

The danger to Bush's go-it-alone approach is not short-term. I have little doubt that in the next few weeks, Bush and his supporters will be claiming vindication. Long-term, though, he has damaged American moral authority in ways that we can't even begin to perceive.

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