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Jewish World Review Sept. 27, 2002 / 21 Tishrei, 5763

Dennis Byrne

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What is so awful about striking first militarily?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Two lines of thought seem to pop out of my e-mail bag from readers who believe that war with Iraq is an unthinkable outrage: We would become "first-strike killers," and "If we start a war with Iraq, where do we [or others] stop?"

The e-bag also contained some well-reasoned and reasonable arguments against going to war, but these two seemed to be particularly flimsy. Ordinarily, they wouldn't require a response, but they are repeated so often, usually by partisans, they appear to be scripted. And then chanted by folks who believe that they've delivered a knife between the eyes of President Bush's argument for a regime change.

The first-strike-killer argument usually comes with a judgment asserting that the United States (read President Bush) is the villain and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is the victim. As if we were the ones gassing people. The first-strike argument makes no more sense for countries than it does for soon-to-be street crime victims who are not permitted to use force to defend themselves until after they are shot.

If striking first violates morality or international law, then President John F. Kennedy should have been tried as a war criminal. After all, he instituted a blockade of Cuba (technically an act of war), and threatened to start the shooting unless the Soviets removed their nuclear missiles from Cuba. Should he have waited until the missiles were installed and armed, instead of sending in the destroyers to turn around the Soviet ships carrying more missiles to Cuba? Should he have said, "Oh well, we'll just have to wait until they nuke Washington D.C.?" before threatening to go in and take them out ourselves?

Of course not. In fact, you could make the argument that waiting around for thousands to be killed before you defend yourself is itself immoral. By the way, as I recall, the "shot heard around the world" was fired first by Americans at Concord. Shame on them.

The second argument--"Where do we stop?"--is equally preposterous. Some readers asked, if we overthrow Hussein, why don't we go into Iran? How about China, which also is oppressive and a threat to us? Why aren't we planning to overthrow every other dictatorship or country that doesn't act in our interests?

In other words, if we can't do everything, then we must do nothing.

This logic, applied elsewhere, would demand that if we don't have enough baggage inspection machines to check every bag put on an airplane, then we should inspect no bags. It says that if we don't have enough people in the CIA to check out every terrorist threat, then we should check out no threat. If we don't have enough resources to lift everyone out of poverty, then we should lift no one out of poverty. If we can't prosecute every crime, then we should prosecute no crimes. If we can't feed everyone who is hungry, then we should feed no one.

Invading China is not a necessary consequence of ousting Hussein. Nor is the other side of the coin: that we will have set a precedent that other countries can't resist. If we go into Iraq, it is argued, what standing do we have to object to India taking over all of Kashmir? I suppose by this argument we also would have to stand aside if Mexico retakes the Alamo or descendants of Loyalists who fled to Canada during the U.S. War of Independence retake New York--if the Indians don't get there first. Looking back on history, the world's aggressors have never needed the United States to provide them with an excuse.

I can think of valid reasons for questioning a war against Hussein. To name just a couple: We've gotten cocky after our successes in the Gulf War and in Afghanistan; I don't automatically assume that Husseinwould be a pushover, as some experts claim. The cost to the U.S., in lives and money, is definitely a part of the equation. But it is a truly ridiculous and dangerous idea that we have to sit on our hands waiting for the likes of Saddam Husseinto strike first. Or that we are handcuffed from protecting ourselves from Husseinbecause there are other evils in this world that we can't do anything about.

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JWR contributor Dennis Byrne is a Chicago-area writer and public affairs consultant. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Dennis Byrne