Where Is the Debate on Iraq?

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
James M. Lindsay

October 9, 2002

Washington, DC. President Bush?s steady march to war against Iraq has provoked surprisingly little debate in the United States. The Democratic opposition has, with few exceptions, marched right behind the president. As a result, Congress is expected to vote overwhelmingly in the next few days to give Bush the authority to do as he pleases.

And, yet, a palpable sense of unease pervades Washington. Many Democrats and not a few Republicans worry privately that Bush has set the nation on a course that courts many risks—including large numbers of casualties, the extensive use of chemical and biological weapons, and a difficult choice between allowing a post-Saddam Iraq to disintegrate in bloody factionalism or keeping U.S. troops on the ground for years to come.

Why, given these risks, aren?t we witnessing a rousing debate? Part of the answer lies in political calculations. Democrats believe that the president will ultimately get his way and that criticizing him will only benefit Republicans in the November elections. By joining the parade they hope to put the issue behind them and refocus the national conversation on the economy and domestic affairs, where their positions are more popular.

This may make for smart politics, but it is hardly admirable. On matters of war and peace, members of Congress have a solemn constitutional responsibility that transcends the desire to do what gets them re-elected. They have a solemn duty to do what is right—and that means probing far deeper than they have so far into how, why, and even whether the United States should go to war. And it means answering these questions before voting to authorize the president to wage war.

Another reason for the relative quiet is that party loyalty has persuaded many Republicans to swallow their doubts about the president?s policy. The administration itself is of three minds on Iraq.

The most vocal proponents of war are the democratic imperialists, often mislabeled as neo-conservatives. Led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, they want to use America?s tremendous power to remake the world in its image. They see Saddam?s ouster as a chance not only to eliminate his weapons of mass destruction but also to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab world. Convinced that war will serve both America?s interests and its values, they favor a maximum effort to oust Saddam and a massive investment in ensuring that a democratic Iraq flourishes once he is gone.

The least enthusiastic supporters of war are traditional internationalists, whose standard bearer is Secretary of State Colin Powell. These are the people who brought you Gulf War I—a war for the status quo ante rather than to change a regime. They believe that Iraq can be contained through smart sanctions and deterrence—while seeing the threat of war as a way to galvanize international action to limit Baghdad?s ability to develop weapons of mass destruction.

In between these two schools are the assertive internationalists, represented by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. They see Iraq solely in terms of eliminating a dangerous dictator before he can use the nuclear weapons he is bent on acquiring. They have no interest in remaking the Middle East or in a prolonged occupation of Iraq.

Even as these three groups fight for the president?s ear, many Republican backbenchers on Capitol Hill belong to a fourth school—the nationalists. They dislike the missionary zeal of democratic imperialists, the preemptive doctrines of assertive internationalists, and the multilateral tendencies of the traditional internationalists. They are happy to finish wars, not start them, and they are deeply hostile to the idea of nation building.

The great unknown is which school President Bush attends. His words and deeds repeatedly shift among all four. During the presidential campaign he dwelled on threats to U.S. security, pleasing the assertive internationalists, and derided nation-building, to the delight of nationalists. His rhetoric since September 11 has echoed the visions of democratic imperialists. And his speech to the United Nations last month followed the playbook of traditionalist internationalists.

The divisions within the administration—and within Bush?s own head—have prompted confusion abroad over the direction of U.S. policy and helps explain the prevailing unease in Washington. No one is quite sure who will win out.

For now, Bush should be able to suppress the divisions with the Republican Party, and with it debate over the wisdom of war. But things could change dramatically once fighting begins, and it becomes clear that deep differences exist on the purpose of the war. And much like happened in Vietnam, America may well get its great debate—but only after the shooting has started.