The Wisdom of Inaction

Being wrong means never having to say you’re sorry.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

I. Gulf War #I — Summer 1990

Iraq has never attacked the United States. Countries in Africa are invaded all the time — so what could be so special about a border dispute with Kuwait? Should we have intervened when China crossed into Vietnam? This war will not be a cakewalk. Saddam Hussein has a two-million-man veteran army that fought nearly a decade in Iran. Another Vietnam will tear the country apart here at home. Our campuses will erupt. No blood for oil. He has weapons of mass destruction. He has some justification — weren’t the Kuwaitis stealing oil from his Rumailia field? And didn’t he protect the Gulf states? Didn’t we back him in his war with Iran? If we go in, oil will climb to $60 a barrel; he might torch the Kuwaiti oil fields, and shut down production for decades. Nerve gas will blanket Tel Aviv. The Israelis will drop the bomb on Baghdad. Nearly half of our senators oppose intervention. Colin Powell is aghast at the idea. The Arab street is in an uproar and will turn on Westernized regimes. The Palestinians and the Jordanians are already actively pro-Iraqi. Who will pay for the war in a time of deficits? Saddam has hostages as human shields, and has threatened to send missiles into Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Soviets won’t like our intervention. We know he has biological weapons — and maybe nuclear bombs. Our most esteemed military analysts have forecast thousands of U.S. casualties. How are we going to explain to the mothers of the dead that their children perished for Exxon? If Saddam falls, the power vacuum could destabilize our friends, and would only empower the Iranians. Do we want an independent Kurdistan on the border of Turkey or a Shiite state taking orders from Teheran? We could get a lot worse than the present dictator. The Iranian revolution might sweep the Gulf…

II. The Proposed March on Baghdad — Winter 1992

We have not received U.N. approval to go to Baghdad. The coalition will collapse. The Arabs will never stand for it. The generals forecast 10,000 casualties in street fighting in the capital. Saddam will fall anyway without our prodding. The Shiites and Kurds will finish him off. His people will revolt. His army is through. Does a defanged Hussein pose much of a threat? U.N. inspectors will dismantle his weapons of mass destruction anyway. We can always use sanctions. Do we want an independent Kurdistan? A revolutionary Shiite nation? What will the Turks think? Scowcroft and Baker are against it. The Saudi and Kuwaitis are not on board. Europe says no. That was not our mission. Congress never voted for this. Do you want another “Highway of Death”? Colin Powell is aghast at the idea. We could be stuck there on patrol over the skies until 2002…

III. The Attack on Milosevic — Spring 1999

This is a European problem; can’t the new EU force handle it? The precedent of using force to start a war will ruin international accords. Aren’t we being preemptory? Milosevic has never invaded the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavian-Americans are furious at the very thought of bombing Belgrade. Our allies are divided — the Greeks and many Eastern Europeans are actively pro-Milosevic supporters; so are Orthodox countries like Russia and Armenia. NATO will split apart. This is old stuff in the Balkans; they’re always killing each other and always will. The Russians have warned us about intervening. We will have to do most of the flying — incurring both the risks and the blame. The Serbian army is battle-hardened and ready. We know Middle East terrorists are actively working for the Albanians — do we want Khomeinism in Europe? Why bomb European Christians who are fighting Islamic terrorists in Europe? We hear plenty of rumors of atrocities, but except for a few isolated satellite pictures and third-hand accounts, do we have any real evidence of mass killing? Who can trust refugees? Bombing the Danube could shut down the entire transportation system of central and Eastern Europe. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians will die. Colin Powell is aghast at the idea. American pilots will be butchered when they bail out. Milosevic has threatened to unleash his terrorists against the nuclear power plants of Europe. Do you want Chernobyls all over Europe? He knows that we are going after him personally — so what reason does he have to hold back? And do we really want to pick and choose somebody else’s government? Who are we to demand “regime change?” Our Balkan experts warn us that…

IV. Afghanistan — Autumn 2001

Afghanistan was the graveyard of the British and Russian armies. Some of those peaks are over 11,000 feet high. Winter is coming on. Our bombs could drive millions of innocent civilians into the mountains — and to certain death, from starvation and sub-zero temperatures. Our warlord allies are worse than the Taliban. They won’t fight; the Taliban is far more spirited. Didn’t the Taliban stop the opium for a while? Couldn’t we form some sort of coalition government backed by an all-Islamic peace force? Is there any proof that al Qaeda or the Taliban was behind 9/11? The Saudis won’t let us use bases to conduct operations. Our pilots will have to fly thousands of miles each week. We will ignite the Palestinian problem. Hundreds of stinger missiles are hidden away by al Qaeda and just waiting for our planes. We may destabilize Pakistan and get something worse than Musharraf. We can’t fight during Ramadan — unless we expect a worldwide jihad. The very idea that Americans are overturning an Islamic government will ignite the Arab street. Colin Powell is aghast at the idea. Bin Laden’s caves are impenetrable to air attack; who is going to go in there and expel the terrorists one by one? If we hit them, they will hit us back — do we want another 9/11? Has the Taliban ever really attacked the United States? What are the oil deals behind this war talk? Didn’t Bush and Cheney run oil companies? Didn’t we cause the problem in the first place by backing the Mujahadeen? Shouldn’t we have stayed engaged in Afghanistan for at least a decade after 1980? If we go in, won’t we get bogged down in Afghanistan for ten years? What comes after the Taliban will be worse. Are we prepared to take 10,000 casualties? Don’t we need congressional approval? Aren’t we already stretched too thin around…

V. Iraq — Autumn 2002


Unfortunately we are not playing some parlor game of “gotcha” where it comes to the recriminations flying about over the need for action versus the wisdom of restraint. In 1990, 1999, and 2001, the fate of thousands of innocent lives hinged on whether the United States would or could risk military force for a just cause — in other words, whether it would choose the lesser of two evils for the greater good. People are alive today who would be long dead had we listened to the counsels of doom; and the world is a safer, not a more volatile, place for our past resolve. In the winter of 1991 we chose to be either magnanimous or realistic, and so let Saddam be. Thousands of civilians subsequently died for that decision, and now, a decade later, we are dealing with a wounded monster rather than a defeated despot. We should remember all that in the present frenzy.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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