How not to make the case for war

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne– a liberal who supported the liberation of Iraq but who since has been very critical of the Bush administration– writes that the way Bush and company “sold” the war is coming back to haunt them.

The administration’s primary after-the-fact case for the war against Saddam Hussein is that Iraqis are much better off without him. But it didn’t have enough confidence in the humanitarian argument to make it the primary basis for war before the shooting started. And it was not candid in advance about the high costs of the enterprise.

Bush and his acolytes decided that most Americans would not back an attack on Saddam unless (1) he could be connected in some way to 9/11 or (2) he could be shown to pose a clear and present danger to the United States.

Dionne suggests the administration could learn some lessons from a new book, The Fight Is For Democracy, edited by George Packer and subtitled “Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World.”

Packer wrote a terrific personal/family/political memoir a couple of years ago called Blood of the Liberals, which anyone interested in the fate of American liberalism in the last century should read.

Dionne writes that the new volume, “largely a gathering of tough-minded liberals, reminds us how broad the post-9/11 consensus in favor of a strong and principled American role once was — and still could be.”

He continues:

Packer and the other authors are ready to criticize their own side. The “softheadedness into which liberalism sank after the 1960s,” Packer writes, “seems as useless today as isolationism in 1941 or compromise in 1861.”

But Packer also attacks the administration for failing to cast its project in larger terms, or to question itself. The United States, he notes, has “always swung feverishly . . . between periods of business dominance, when the rest of the world can go to hell, and bursts of reformist zeal, when America shines a light unto the nations.”

“September 11 was a hinge between two such eras,” Packer continues, “and our current conservative leadership wants to take the country into one without leaving the other. It wants to wage war on terrorism and still preserve all the privileges and injustices of a low dishonest age. It wants lockstep unity and unequal sacrifice.”

Another liberal writer, Michael Tomasky, argues that “there was a liberal case for invading Iraq which has nothing to do with trumped-up arguments about Saddam’s nuclear capability and everything to do with the suffering of the Iraqi people.”

I’m reminded of the recent comment about the Iraq war by the French intellectual André Glucksmann: “No completely defensible cause has ever been so poorly defended as this one… The great mistake was to settle for the absurd argument about weapons of mass destruction. Had the appeal for war been made on straightforward humanitarian grounds—the case against Saddam, this guy is a killer, we can do something about him and we must—I know it would have worked in France…”