Why talk about Iraq? Why talk about it now? I don’t have a full explanation myself, but there it is: Suddenly, simultaneously, everyone around the world seems to be arguing about whether their country should or should not support the imminent American invasion of Iraq. As of Wednesday, President Bush was still talking mildly about exploring “all options and all tools at my disposal,” including diplomacy and international pressure. No one paid him the slightest bit of attention. Possibly sparked by the leaked “invasion plans” that appeared in the New York Times (the subtleties of the New York Times’ opposition to the war being lost on foreigners) and possibly sparked by Saddam Hussein’s apparent jitters, the rest of the world is preparing for war, even if we aren’t.
As Slate’s June Thomas pointed out last week, some of the editorializing and arguing has taken forms that one might expect at this stage. Predictably, Britain’s Independent newspaper declared that “However brutal the regime, Britain must not support an invasion of Iraq.” As one might expect, the archbishop of Canterbury has joined other church leaders in signing a petition denouncing military action in Iraq as “immoral and illegal.” That petition was, in turn, condemned by the Daily Telegraph (“there is precious little Christian doctrine to be found in the petition”). The issue has even begun to play a part in the German election campaign. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has told Germans that a vote for him is a “vote against war with Iraq,” since he (and over 80 percent of Germans, according to one poll) oppose the war—whereas his Christian Democrat rival, Edmund Stoiber, does not, or at least not in principle.
And yet—before we all start harrumphing about “Munich” and “appeasement” and the growing gaps between European and American philosophies of power, I think it is important to point out that the argument isn’t over. More to the point, this is an argument we can win, if we want to win it—if, of course, we want to invade Iraq.
True, there are some real differences of opinion: In London and Paris and Berlin, for example, many feel that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be the Bush administration’s priority, not Iraq. Still, most of the real frustration in Europe comes not from the prospect of war with Iraq but from the silence about Iraq. The left-leaning British Guardian, which might be expected to dislike the idea of a war, has this morning attacked it not on practical or theoretical grounds, but because “no coherent military or political strategy to oust Saddam Hussein has been presented to Downing Street, even though Britain is supposedly the closest ally of George Bush.” The equally left-leaning Le Monde—another obvious opponent—last week held back from actual condemnation of the attack, arguing instead that President Bush has not yet “presented evidence of Iraqi wrongdoing sufficient to justify something so serious as a war against an Arab state.”
Not everybody opposes the invasion in principle, in other words: What they don’t like is not being told if or why it might happen. And what they really don’t like is the Bush administration’s distance from the entire debate. In his press conference Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld waved away a question about the opposition of “our friends and allies,” noting that the “international dialogue and discussion and debate on this issue” is at a “relatively early stage”—as if he had nothing to do with it, and it was only of marginal concern.
But Donald Rumsfeld shouldn’t be commenting on this international debate: He should be leading this debate, and not just the debate on Iraq. He himself spoke of the need for a “discussion of the reality that the democratic countries of the world today, in the 21st century, are living in a world where weapons of mass destruction exist and are proliferating,” and he was right to do so. So why doesn’t the defense secretary—along with the American president, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and everybody else—take the argument out of the corridors of the White House, and throw it open to the world? Almost every time Rumsfeld speaks, he appears on the BBC, on Rai Uno, on news programs in Europe and Asia and Africa. If he took the trouble to describe the smoking gun, bit of paper, satellite photograph, or intelligence report that has convinced him and the rest of the administration of the need for “regime change” in Iraq, I am convinced that support would follow, not just in the United States but the rest of the world.
In fact, when senior American politicians do—rarely—address the world, it usually works. Way back in September, a few days after the terrorist attacks, President Bush made a speech in which he addressed himself directly to people from South America and South Korea who had expressed sympathy for the United States around the world. That speech, quoted and re-quoted around the world, was an immense success. It wouldn’t be hard to repeat. And this matters—since most of our real “friends and allies,” when you get right down to it, are democracies. In democracies, politicians respond to their constituents. If their constituents support an invasion of Iraq—on the reasonable grounds that George Bush has proved to them that Iraq has weapons that might destroy them—then the politicians will follow.
It’s hard, I know, for American politicians to cease thinking of themselves as national leaders and start recognizing their wider role. Nevertheless, most mornings, when I turn on my TV set—whether I am in Warsaw or London or Paris—I see George Bush, as do millions (billions) of other people. If he spoke about Iraq, they would hear him.