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American Diplomacy
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August 2003

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Weapons of Mass Destruction and Tonkin Gulf

The brouhaha over the president's State of the Union comments regarding Saddam's putative efforts to acquire uranium misses the larger issue regarding the administration's role in pressing the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) argument for invading Iraq. From one with experience in how the government crafts arguments in order to make the maximum impact and increase the chances of a proposed policy being adopted, it seems clear that the administration focused on the WMD argument in the (probably correct) belief that the American public would only support the war if convinced it was in imminent danger of WMD attack. At the time it appeared from the evidence adduced by the administration that the threat of such imminent attack existed. With the failure to date to find any evidence that Saddam possessed WMD capable of imminent delivery, or even that he had active programs in such weapons, the hollowness of that argument has become glaringly apparent.

This sordid episode brings to mind the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964 manufactured by the Johnson administration in order to convince the congress to approve expanding our military commitment in South Vietnam. In that case it has been argued that the administration flatly lied to the American people. To date no one has been bold enough to suggest that anyone in the Bush administration lied, rather that they interpreted dubious intelligence very broadly in order to reach a desired conclusion.

War is a dangerous enterprise for democracies to engage in with less than full public support, a lesson we should have learned a generation ago. It is particularly dangerous when the "exit strategy" is not clear, another lesson of a generation ago. So once again we find ourselves in a conflict that threatens to consume enormous resources for an indefinite period and cost the lives of many servicemen and women. It may not divide the American people as did Vietnam, but that is probably due largely to the fact that we now have a volunteer army, so the generation now in high school and university doesn't feel directly threatened. This war does, however, run the risk of causing the same damage to our ability to develop and support coherent foreign and defense policies that Vietnam did. How unfortunate that the civilian planners in the Defense Department were not able both to learn from recent history and to project the longer-term consequences of their actions.


Past editorials can be found here.

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