The U.S. Is Looking for an Excuse To Fight
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As the American armada of ships, warplanes, tanks and other equipment pours into the region around Iraq, the only uncertainty about President Bush's misguided and dangerous war seems to be just when it will start. But there's something else we should watch for closely, for wars seldom start without one.
What will be the final pretext for opening fire? Most wars need such a fig leaf, and unpopular wars most of all. Seldom, if ever, has the United States prepared for war with so little support. The administration itself is divided. Major allies are balky. At home, there are peace marches but no war marches; abroad, opinion polls almost everywhere show angry, overwhelming opposition. All this makes President Bush, more than ever, need a plausible excuse to start his war.
What will that be? Iraq's ties to al Qaeda? No evidence so far, and the administration has even stopped talking about that mythical meeting in Prague. Saddam Hussein's refusal to cooperate with the U.N. inspectors? For the moment, they have free run of the country, even of the hideously extravagant palaces. Iraq's failure to account for various sinister weapon ingredients it once had? Bush representatives are thundering away about this, but those 12,000 pages of documents and the accompanying CD-ROMs do not make for high drama. Bush needs a Pearl Harbor, not some disputed aluminum tubing or buried canisters.
Despite the desire for territory, riches or power that drive most wars, regimes itching to fight almost always find an immediate pretext. When Germany launched its long-prepared blitzkrieg against Poland in 1939, it claimed it was avenging cross-border attacks by Polish soldiers, who seized a German radio station and broadcast hostile statements. Newspapers around the world carried the story. After the war, it was revealed that the attackers were German SS troops dressed in Polish uniforms. As Hermann Goering. commander of the Luftwaffe, said before being sentenced to death at Nuremberg, "The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. . . . All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."
Indeed it does. The United States has long found its own share of war pretexts. Eager to seize the crumbling overseas empire of Spain, President William McKinley had no convenient excuse until, providentially, the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor. The Spaniards apparently had nothing to do with this -- historians think that spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker ignited the ship's powder magazine -- but it didn't matter. Crowds shouted, "Remember the Maine!" as the United States took over Spanish possessions around the world, grabbing even Hawaii, which had no connection to Spain whatever.
In 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was eager to escalate the war in Vietnam, he pointed to attacks on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. This provoked a stern Senate resolution and the first big bombing raids on North Vietnam. Only much later did it emerge that one destroyer was sailing provocatively close to the North Vietnamese coast, and the second of these attacks had never happened at all.
As the truth dribbled out over the years, many senators complained bitterly of having been misled, and turned against the war. But by that time nearly 60, 000 Americans, and a vastly larger number of Vietnamese, were dead.
One of the aircraft carriers that launched bombing raids after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the U.S.S. Constellation, is now in waters off Iraq. What will be the Gulf of Tonkin episode of this coming war? In the face of mounting doubts about the war at home and downright hostility abroad, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sorely need some provocation they can either point to or invent.
Another terrorist attack, either in the United States or overseas. Unfortunately, al Qaeda and its supporters still seem alive and well, as shown by the Bali bombing, the raid on the French oil tanker and other terror attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.
If one of these happens during the crucial February-March window for making war in the Persian Gulf region, watch for the administration to claim that secret intelligence links this terrible outrage to Iraq. If the attack is anywhere near as vicious or destructive as the ones on Sept. 11, our spineless Congress will be in no mood to demand evidence. You can expect the B-1's to be launched the next day.
American deaths in combat. There are, of course, U.S. forces already in and over Iraq. British and U.S. planes patrol the "no fly zones" in the north and south of the country. They are regularly fired on by Iraqi anti-aircraft installations, which they then bomb in return. Amazingly, no American pilot has yet been shot down. What if one is?
Furthermore, small teams of U.S. special operations troops are reported quietly operating in Iraqi Kurdistan. What if one of these Americans is caught up in combat, fatally? Nothing provides a better pretext for war than brave, dead young Americans. Few will stop to ask: Why were they there in the first place?
Finally, there's the convenient old standby excuse of border violations. U. S. forces are in four of the countries bordering on Iraq -- Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait. Troops on both sides of the Iraqi border are getting into position for war. It would be easy to claim that some Iraqis crossed the border -- and the Pentagon, having learned its lesson painfully in Afghanistan, is not going to let any unchaperoned journalist get within dozens of miles to check.
The new Bush doctrine claiming the imperial right to wage pre-emptive war is so shameless that the administration may well launch the bombers with no fig leaf at all. But you can bet it will continue to look hard for any possible pretext.
The path to this senseless war so far has been paved with exaggeration, outright falsehoods and claims of imminent terror attacks and secret intelligence. We need to be vigilant for more of the same. Unlike the earlier generations stampeded into war by the Maine and Gulf of Tonkin incidents, we'd be better off detecting such lies when they are made instead of years later.
San Francisco writer Adam Hochschild is the author of "King Leopold's Ghost," "Finding the Trapdoor" and other books.