Molly Ivins

When a Whiz Bang War Goes Wrong


As we wend our weary way toward war, dragging the Turks–whose price will be our betrayal of the Kurds (fourth time we’ve double-crossed Kurds, counting Henry Kissinger’s triple-cross only once)–it reminds me of the end of a bad election. Don’t believe anything until it’s over.

Now is the time we get Iraqi soldiers tossing Kuwaiti babies from incubators and other mind-boggling myths presented as reality. On March 2, the London Observer reported that the United States is wiretapping foreign delegations to the UN Security Council, and the worst thing about it is that no one is surprised.

Jonathan Schell, a longtime scholar of peace, has written an astonishingly upbeat account of what’s going on. On February 15, somewhere around 10 million people, on every continent, demonstrated against war in Iraq. Schell sees it as the beginning of global democracy. Everywhere people are permitted to demonstrate, they did demonstrate (then the Egyptian government allowed one, for good measure). True, President Bush dismissed the demonstrators as “like looking at a focus group” and said, “They do not consider Saddam Hussein a threat to world peace.” (Some of the smarter people in the peace movement had already started a campaign to let Hussein know, via the Iraqi embassy, that they don’t like him, either.)

A group of media people signed an intelligent letter put out by Essential Information, a Nader-affiliated group, reminding American media of the more common mistakes we have made in such situations. We already have the logo wars: “Showdown With Saddam” and “Conflict With Iraq,” as though it were a big prizefight, a la “The Thrilla in Manila.”

Malcolm Browne, who won a Pulitzer in Vietnam, has pointed out that wars are a lot like football games and, consequently, in an odd way, easy to cover. You’ve got two sides, you’ve got yardage gained and lost in various plays and battles, and the body count is the score. The day Gulf War I started at high noon, I heard a radio talk show jock in San Antonio exclaim, “I can’t wait ’til kick-off time!”

We’ve also already seen a lot of “whiz-bang reporting,” always a pre-war favorite, on the weapons we’ll be using this time. Cool bombs guided by microchips, missiles brighter than Einstein, BAM! Just like a video game. Last time our smart bombs turned out to have low IQs, but why mention that, eh?

The journalists point out that there has been relatively little reporting on the various downsides of this war. First, we’re going to kill a lot of people. The best estimates from the last war were 13,000 civilians dead from bombs and another 70,000 from the chaos of the aftermath. With any luck, we’ll lose very few Americans, adding to the “Grenada revisited” impression.

In the more potentially disastrous category of “What happens when we win?” the numbers are not good. Of the 20 regime changes forced by U.S. military action in the last century, only five produced democracies; and of the five unilateral actions, only one produced a democracy–Panama. Afghanistan, the closest proximate case, is not looking good beyond Kabul.

It seems to me each side in the debate over this war has an unacknowledged elephant in the living room. And, oddly enough, it’s the same elephant: oil. The hawks–rightly, I think–dismiss the slogan, “No Blood for Oil,” as, at least, an overdramatic overstatement of what’s at stake here. On the other hand, as somebody else observed, if the Middle East’s primary export were kumquats, this wouldn’t be happening. It seems to me oil is not the primary cause for this war, but it’s equally stupid to pretend it has nothing to do with what gives.

The long, shifting rationale for war with Iraq advanced by the Bush administration changes almost weekly–regime change, weapons of mass destruction, disarmament, already-seen-this-movie, non-compliance (of how many UN resolutions is Israel now in “material breach?” And what a meaningless phrase that is), zero tolerance, the liberation of Iraq, and the recently popular connected-to-Al Qaeda. But the capper in the whole bunch, the one most recently advanced by Bush, is: We’re going to war with Iraq in order to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine. I know we have some advanced thinkers in Washington, but put me down as a skeptic on that one.

The reason I bring up the unappetizing fact that the United States gave Saddam Hussein his weapons of mass destruction in the first place, including stock for anthrax and E. coli, is not to muddy the “moral clarity” of this lovely little war. It is in order to suggest that we stop doing it–stop arming vicious dictators. We’re still doing it around the world.

It seems unfair to me to sit around criticizing the folks in charge unless you have a better idea. Mine is blindingly self-evident: If you want peace in the Middle East, you lean mightily on both Israel and Palestine: settlers off the West Bank, two-state solution, GO. Then why not a Marshall Plan for the Middle East?

Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her book with Louis Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, is out in paperback.