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Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 2002 / 28 Tishrei, 5763

Seth Gitell

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Hawking an interpretation (in which Scott Ritter tells our columnist to 'go to H-LL!') | Maybe I should have left when I saw a tardy Scott Ritter getting jacked up on caffeine, guzzling a Diet Coke just before our interview.

Ritter, a former United Nations weapons inspector, Marine Corps major, and Gulf War veteran, was scheduled to speak to the Global Citizens Circle, a political discussion group founded by the Dunfey family at the Omni Parker House (which the Dunfeys own) last Wednesday in Boston. But I couldn't leave. I owed it to Ritter - much as I disagree with him on the current danger posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein - to listen to his side of the story.

Last month, I wrote a short piece about Ritter, in which I quoted his former superior, Ambassador Richard Butler, on Ritter's impassioned opposition to the position that Hussein might still have dangerous unconventional weapons and possibly even nuclear weapons. This is what Butler told me: " On Ritter, it's simple. Either he misled me when he worked for me, as he utterly insisted that Iraq had WMD [weapons of mass destruction], or he's now misleading the public when he says there were no weapons left in Iraq at that time. The facts make clear that he did not mislead me. I don't know why he's saying what he is saying. I'm not a psychoanalyst. " (See Iraq attack: Ritter's reversal".)

Right out of the box - with two other reporters present - I asked Ritter his response to Butler's comment. (He was traveling abroad and didn't have time to respond to my inquiries for the original article.) And right out of the box, Ritter almost bit my head clean off: " I don't understand the allegations. Misleading about what? What specifically did he say? " I explained, and Ritter turned his ire on Butler. " It's very clear, never once in any of the documents that I submitted to Richard Butler did I say that Iraq retained ... weapons, " Ritter said. His version is that he merely told Butler that "we have information that basically there might be documents or some other evidence existing in certain sites that could lead us to the ability to account for this material, and therefore I believe we should go off and do this inspection. "

So now, it seems, it's a question of credibility between Ritter and Butler. Today, one of Ritter's main points is that the United States should work to reintroduce weapons inspectors to Iraq under the auspices of the United Nations. He doesn't give any reasons why the inspection process would work any better than it did when he was in the field during much of the 1990s. By Ritter's own account, his aggressive approach toward weapons inspection almost cost him his life. The inspections " ended up with a gun at my head, an AK-47 in my mouth, my inspectors' lives put on the line several times. "

Ritter doesn't have a real solution to the danger posed by Saddam Hussein, other than calling for the reintroduction of the inspections regime, an idea he's embraced for years. His central concern appears to be avoiding war - at almost any cost.

"Before we go to war, we better exhaust every venue possible short of war, and one of those venues is weapons inspection, " he said.

This is an emotionally enticing argument. After all, who wants to resort to killing when there is another option available - even if it's abiding by Saddam Hussein's requirements for weapons inspection, which amounts to doing nothing?

Yet Ritter avoids addressing the consequences of failing to act - for America, its soldiers, its allies, or the Iraqi people. When I asked, " Why not war? ", Ritter all but exploded.

" First of all, to hell with you and that question, " he said, arguing that concern for "over a million American servicemen " and "tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians " dictates doing everything possible to avoid war. " 'Why not war?' My G-d, what a question. "

Pressed on the point that to "exhaust all the possibilities " would only result in keeping Hussein in power, Ritter dismissed my " interpretation " and turned the tables again. "Before we talk about going off to war and having people die - other people by the way, you're not going to die, you're not going to die ... "

Okay. The discussion was pretty much over there. What could I say? There's a disturbing ad hominem twist to the debate over Iraq right now. During the Vietnam conflict of the 1960s, hawks attacked peace activists for failing to serve their country. This was during the days of the draft. Today, it is the doves who attack the hawks for not serving and asking others to die.

Never mind that since 1973, America has had an all-volunteer army. Since that time, military service has been treated as one of a panoply of career choices for American citizens. Now, with the possibility of war at hand, Ritter thinks that only veterans such as himself have any standing on questions of war and peace. " How do you know I'm not a member of the Reserves? " I asked Ritter, challenging his assumption (which was correct, by the way, at least in my case) that a journalist of my age would not be in the service. But Ritter mocked this suggestion: " Okay, you and I. We'll go. Go sign up. "

Ritter served his country bravely both in the Gulf War and as a weapons inspector. I don't take that away from him. But there is a weakness in his argument if it boils down to discrediting every hawk who is not currently a member of the military.

JWR contributor Seth Gitell is the political writer of the Boston Phoenix Comment by clicking here.

09/13/02: Bush Challenge to U.N. Members: Are You Better than League of Nations?
09/06/02: Iraq attack: Ritter's reversal
08/30/02: Stick with comedy, Jon Stewart
08/16/02: Green around the gills: Nader Effect could cost the Dems the election in three states
08/01/02: Gore's low profile is no accident
07/31/02: President Hillary? Despite her denials, candidacy is not that unlikely
07/26/02: On the road with John Kerry
07/17/02: Meet the 'Clinton' of the 2004 New Hampshire primary
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07/10/02: Warrior spirit
05/08/02: Hosting a TV show will keep Clinton off the streets
04/26/02: Truth in advertising in SaudiLand --- and ours
02/28/02: Time for hipsters to do a reality-check

© 2002, Seth Gitell