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Concerns about the War from a War-Hawk

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A Just But Worrisome War

I do a weekend television show with articulate war opponents from the right and from the left, and a resolute supporter, National Review's Kate O'Beirne. Before the red light comes on, she'll implore the one quasi-hawk -- me -- not to go "wobbly" on her.

There is an internal debate between two compelling cases: the desirability of removing Saddam, a potentially lethal threat, tempered by distortions in an otherwise good case and the ill-considered and irresponsible post-war plans.

President Bush has articulated the need for regime replacement. Saddam Hussein has used chemical and probably biological warfare; has blatantly violated United Nations resolutions; and is f*****shly working to acquire nuclear weapons.

Critics are right that North Korea, with its emerging nuclear capacity, is a more serious threat. But imagine the danger posed by Saddam, with a similar capacity, in a much less stable region.

This is persuasive, making the Bush administration's efforts to embellish puzzling. Iraq is not an imminent threat to the United States; Saddam's links to al Qaeda are tenuous, and with all of Saddam's verifiable misdeeds, Washington exaggerated his attempts to import aluminum tubes to weaponize uranium. When politicians dissemble or distort, it raises questions of overall credibility.

Even with regime replacement, the war against terrorism, the president has solemnly noted, will be a long arduous struggle. Yet Mr. Bush asks no sacrifice of Americans, or at least no sacrifice of those most able to make it. Cut back on gas-guzzling cars or other sweeping conservation moves or a crash project for alternative sources to make the U.S. less reliant on foreign oil? Get serious.

The U.S. budget surplus has vanished, with the prospect of big deficits right as retirement costs soar when baby boomers retire; the war and reconstruction will balloon those deficits. Mr. Bush's answer? A new tax cut chiefly for the wealthy. In last week's New York Review of Books, Nobel-prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, marveled that the administration had pulled off a negative hat trick: an economic plan that doesn't stimulate the sluggish economy, aggravates long-term fiscal problems and exacerbates growing economic inequality.

On the war, while a decisive and swift victory is the likely scenario, what then? Bush advisers swing all the way from a long-term occupation of Iraq as a laboratory to democratize the Middle East, to those who'll want to get out of Dodge at the first sign of trouble; imagine what the reelection political advisers will counsel if a year from now there's a tragedy like the 1983 Marine barracks in Beirut. There have been a plethora of stories on how calm, resolute and prayerful the president is prior to war but, other than cliches he uttered at last week's press conference, precious little to tell us how he feels about this.

The burden of nation-building in Iraq will fall on the American military -- probably numbering not far from the 200,000 predicted by Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki before he was slapped down; the administration envisions Gen. Tommy Franks as heading post-war Iraq. Nobody doubts how courageous, effective and well-trained these young men and women are; but, on an unprecedented level they will be serving less as warriors and more as cops, conflict mediators, recreation directors and nannies.

This, experts say, is a military stretched thin. What are the implications, especially if the world is inconsiderate enough to create another military crisis?

The White House dismisses most critics, or skeptics, as naïve multilateralists, petty partisans or French-loving lefties. That doesn't account for Gen. Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general, former Middle East envoy for this administration, ex- commandeer-in-chief for the U.S. Central Command, decorated Vietnam veteran, director of the relief efforts in Somalia and in Iraq.

In a war, Gen. Zinni doesn't believe the initial fighting will be that difficult, but wonders why this is a top priority: "Iraq is not an imminent threat," he declares in an interview this week. It's critical, he believes, to have many allies in any rebuilding effort, which would be tremendously facilitated by United Nations support. "If we need to wait a few months while ratcheting up the pressure on Saddam -- take away the whole air space from him...then we ought to wait."

Gen. Zinni stresses sharing burdens after Saddam because he fears there may be many: "We are going into this black hole...a minefield. We don't know what the Kurds and Shia are going to do. Will they accept Sunni police and governance? What will be the reaction of the Arab streets?"

It's "ridiculous" he says to put an American general in charge of reconstruction: "There ought to be an international committee, civilian, military, law enforcement...to saddle the military with this alone is a mistake."

Unlike some others, he is resigned to the nation-building role the armed services inevitably will play -- there's no one else to do it. But he worries that not nearly enough planning has gone into coordinating with civilian government agencies and NGOs.

He also worries about the scope of a new and massive mission: "This will be a real strain for the American military." When the euphoria of a military victory subsides, a tired and overextended military may face real problems. Further, for all the praise of soldiers and veterans, Gen Zinni notes, the administration opposes giving disabled veterans benefits separate from their regular pensions. That's too expensive, the budget office claims. That might endanger the dividend tax break!

Finally, the administration, Republican and Democratic experts alike agree, has not leveled with Americans on the magnitude of a reconstruction effort. Gen. Zinni wonders if we really will be willing to undertake a long, costly and dangerous effort, noting we largely walked away from Afghanistan: "Karzai is not getting the support he needs."

It's not a very sanguine picture. It's enough to make an anti-Saddam hawk a little more wobbly.

Updated March 13, 2003

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