The Deafening Sound of Silence

The San Jose Mercury News, March 9, 2003
By Leon E. Panetta
When asked recently why the president was not addressing the tough problem of how the United States would occupy and rebuild a defeated and destroyed Iraq, an administration insider said: “But this isn’t the moment for the president to be talking about that risk.”

But if not this moment, then when? Presidents and administrations may commit us to war but ultimately it is the people who will have to bear the burden for war. Surely, they have every right to understand the risks. But those dangers are not being talked about by the president or the Congress.

In a floor statement on Feb. 12 of this year, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the Dean of the Congress, said the following: “On this February day, as this nation stands on the brink of battle…this chamber is for the most part silent – ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing.”

First War of the 21st Century

This nation is approaching what will likely be the first war of the 21st century. It will determine for a long time to come the role of the United States in the world. Good and bad consequences can be the result. Both need to be debated.

In his speech to the American Enterprise Institute, President Bush made clear what his mission is all about –“A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. America’s interest in security and America’s belief in liberty both lead in the same direction – to a free and peaceful Iraq.”

His goal is to transform the most dangerous Arab state into a model for democracy that will ultimately move the whole Arab-Muslim world into a more progressive track, begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace and “set in motion progress toward a truly democratic Palestinian state.”

Others worry that an American invasion of Iraq would increase anti-Americanism, boost Islamic fundamentalists and force authoritarian regimes to crack down on critics, expand their arsenals of weapons of mass destruction and further retreat from any political reform.

Unfortunately, the essential debate over those two very different results is not taking place. While the president may have had a bold vision on Iraq, he and his team are not bold when it comes to implementing that vision. The only place they’ve been bold is in their military preparations.

They have alienated our strongest allies, used tough talk and intimidation instead of diplomacy, undermined the U.N. inspection process, made us more vulnerable to exploding oil prices, hidden the real human and financial costs of the war and generally refused to acknowledge or discuss the dangerous risks involved with an invasion of Iraq.

As Thomas Friedman recently summarized in the New York Times:  “I feel as if the president is presenting us with a beautiful carved mahogany table – a big, bold, gutsy vision. But if you look underneath, you discover that this table has only one leg.”

To be bold about the prospect of democracy in Iraq begins by being bold about respecting democracy here at home. That means that the president has an obligation and a duty not just to present the goals of war but the risks as well. Instead, there is silence.

Informed Citizenry

Whether Americans support or oppose this war, they have every right to know the dangers involved that could impact on them and their families. War may very well be the last necessary alternative to disarm Saddam Hussein but for the sake of our freedom, we need to know the full price of the sacrifice we are being asked to assume. Defining that price, the risks of war we face and how to respond to those dangers should first come from the president; they should be debated by the Congress; and they need to be understood by the people. Instead, there is silence.

For the sake of that debate, these are some of the risks we need to worry about:

The Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. Although the U.N. inspectors have not found the “smoking gun” of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq, the fear is that Saddam Hussein has hidden sufficient quantities to use in the event of war. Those terrible weapons increase the potential for greater U.S. casualties, loss of civilian life and a prolonged and much more difficult conflict that could expand throughout the Middle East.

A Long Occupation in the Aftermath of the War. As we saw in Afghanistan, the job of providing stability, rebuilding infrastructure, providing for the basic needs of people, and establishing the basic elements of governance will not be easy in a devastated Iraq. It is not likely democracy will emerge easily from the long history of tyranny, oppression, ignorance, tribal warfare and fear in that country.

That means the possibility of a long and costly U.S. occupation force that could last as long as five to ten years.

Increased Terrorism at Home and Abroad. With war in Iraq will come the increased possibility of terrorist attacks here at home and abroad.

The CIA acknowledged this possibility long ago but the president has said little about this particular threat with the exception of increasing the levels of terrorist alerts from yellow to orange. An American invasion into the heart of the Muslim world surely will trigger individual acts of terror here at home and abroad with increased retaliation against Israel as well. Are we ready for that broader war?

Carrying the Costs of War All Alone. There are estimates that the war will cost anywhere from $100 billion to $200 billion, depending on the length of the conflict. In the Persian Gulf War, our allies picked up most of the costs of the war – some $60 billion. That will not happen in this war. Indeed, aside from Britain, no other nation has indicated it will provide any significant help beyond moral support.

With an already weak economy battered by high oil prices, war jitters and large deficits, the U.S. taxpayer will pay a high price for this war.

The Impact on the Future of U.S. Foreign Policy. It is possible that quick victory could bolster U.S. power in the world. But if the U.S. should proceed with the war without the support of the U.N. or our key allies, even a quick victory may not repair the damage to U.S. foreign policy. To confront future threats like terrorism, North Korea, Iran, Syria and other world challenges, the U.S. must be a respected world leader, not a lone imperial power. A Muslim world in turmoil, a discredited U.N., a shattered NATO and European alliance, increased terrorism and the possible spread of nuclear weapons could make the world and U.S. policy that much more unstable in the 21st century.

Those are some of the risks. It is not to say that any of this will happen but it is to say that if we proceed to war in Iraq, these are the dangers we need to be prepared to face to protect our security.

The president has an obligation as commander-in-chief to address these concerns before we go to war, not after. He and the elected leaders of our democracy need to trust in the very freedom they are proclaiming as the reason for war in Iraq.

Silence is how Saddam Hussein controls. It should not be how the U.S. governs itself in peace or war. Freedom is first and foremost knowledge, and the ability to make judgments based on a full debate of the issues. That debate is at the core of our strength as a democracy and as a people. Now is the moment for a free and honest discussion of the goals and risks of war in the 21st century.


© 2003 The San Jose Mercury News and wire service sources.
All Rights Reserved