Jewish World Review August 13, 2002 / 5 Elul, 5761

Zev Chafets

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Fight it out now | There is nothing more discordant and acrimonious than a full-throated national debate about going to war.

Nothing, that is, except holding the debate after the war has begun. That's why it's good that the Senate has been conducting hearings on the wisdom of going to war.

Most Americans grasp this. According to a CBS poll, roughly two-thirds want a congressional debate before President Bush pulls the trigger. This is a bipartisan impulse: 60% of Republicans as well as 74% of Democrats think war requires congressional approval.

Some proponents of debate believe that talking will help clarify tactics and strategy. They are wrong. War, even preemptive war, is unpredictable. You can program the first play or two, but after that, the most detailed plans become little more than the basis for improvisation. No amount of before-the-fact senatorial palaver can determine, for example, the size of the force needed to subdue Iraq. To imagine otherwise is a vain illusion.

The upside of this is that the congressional leaks Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld complains about are largely meaningless. In this war, America is Lennox Lewis and its enemies are a 98-pound weakling. Nothing the weakling learns in advance is going to help him avoid a butt-kicking.

In short, congressional hearings won't have much influence, one way or another, on the operational side of the coming war. But that isn't to say they are meaningless. On the contrary, the war that Bush wants to wage can't be won without the consent of Congress.

There is a military component to the struggle against aggressive Islam, but what this administration envisions is essentially an ideological campaign whose goal is nothing less than a radical redefinition of international sovereignty and America's place in the world.

Since the start of decolonization following World War II, it has been axiomatic that all nations have the right to self-determination, expressed by a sovereign government. But this principle has led to an unforeseen consequence. National liberation, in the Islamic world, has given birth not to enlightened regimes, but to god-awful dictatorships characterized by internal repression and external aggression.

During the Cold War, this didn't bother anyone very much.

Like Murder Inc., Islamic dictators mostly killed each other. But Sept. 11 brought home two uncomfortable facts. One, Islamic dictatorships and movements are conducting a jihad against the United States. Two, national sovereignty provides these dictatorships with the freedom to foster terrorism and the ability to raise the money needed to buy horrific weapons.

The Bush Doctrine of preemption sounds like a military manifesto but is, in fact, a statement of geopolitical policy. What he has said, in a series of speeches since the attack on America, is that the United States will no longer permit hostile, anti-American dictatorships to exercise full sovereignty.

They can have nukes or they can have independence, but they can't have both. This approach essentially repeals the postcolonial axiom that all nations are, or should be considered, equal. It insists that the U.S., not the UN or the World Court or self-appointed rulers (even if they are popular), is entitled to be the final arbiter of international behavior.

In that sense, it is a deeply undemocratic and profoundly realistic doctrine. Naturally, such a doctrine arouses deep opposition outside America. It is also controversial at home, among groups that regard unconditional sovereignty as an inalienable right. Most of these groups - human rights advocates, African-Americans, immigrant blocs, the campus intelligentsia - are core components of the Democratic Party.

There are a few national Democratic figures, such as Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who have unambiguously embraced the Bush Doctrine. But most are, at best, conflicted. Watch "Meet the Press" for a month of Sundays and you won't be able to figure out what Joe Biden, Tom Daschle, Al Gore and other party luminaries want to do to prevent an atomic jihad (Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is a refreshingly candid exception; he wants to do nothing).

Bush intends to go after Saddam Hussein with or without Democratic support, and most Americans will go along with him - in the beginning. But this is a war that will not end with the defeat of Saddam. What Bush really has in mind is a campaign that will disarm and delegitimize the rogue regimes of the Middle East.

This is not a simple exercise. At best, it will be messy and arouse a great international screech. And at every turn, there will be pressure from the McGovernite wing of the Democratic Party to respect the sovereignty of the dictators and rein in American imperialism.

That's why broad congressional support is necessary. The Senate doesn't need to see secret Pentagon contingency plans or know the time and place of D-Day. But it very much needs to be told, in forthright language, why the President wants to go to war; who and what the war is against, and what will constitute victory. And, having been told, it must hold a serious debate.

Once that debate has taken place, the President should hold Congress' feet to the flame by forcing an up or down vote on an official declaration of war. A large, bipartisan majority would allow the U.S. to do what it takes to win (and expedite victory by signaling unity of purpose to the enemy). A narrow margin would tell the President what his political limits are.

And a "no" would be a signal to us all that it's time to move to Australia.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

08/02/02: Memo to The Council on Foreign Relations: U.S. values won't sell in Arab world
07/31/02: Israel's nutty neighbors

© 2002, NY Daily News