THE FOLLOWING WAS RECEIVED IN RESPONSE to our May/June cover story, “A New Turn in the New War.”
SCOTT SILVERSTONE: As Joel Rosenthal pointed out in the May/June newsletter, the initial stages of the American-led war on terrorism—in particular, the decision to wage war on al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan—enjoyed broad international support, whereas the second phase of the war, Operation Iraqi Freedom, destroyed this sense of collective purpose. I take issue, however, with Rosenthal’s statement that key European allies disagreed with the United States “over means, not ends.” Their dispute was much more fundamentally about whether the war against Iraq should be part of the war against terrorism in the first place.
By launching the war on Iraq, President Bush moved into morally ambiguous territory because of the questionable link he tried to draw between Saddam Hussein, his weapons of mass destruction, and terrorists with global reach. No one argued with the president’s characterization of the Iraqi regime as oppressive to its own people and a menace to its neighbors. The real question was whether Iraq posed a threat of such immediacy—insofar as it was willing and able to provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction or to use those weapons itself—that the United States had no choice but to take down the Iraqi regime by force. Many, including some prominent members of the Bush administration, had misgivings about whether the moral claim to self-defense, while credible for Afghanistan, held true for Iraq.
Against this background, one could argue that the international consensus behind the war on terrorism was never actually lost. The United States continues to be engaged in efforts targeted at al-Qaeda and loosely affiliated terrorists groups while enjoying strong (though admittedly far from perfect) cooperation from other countries. The debate that erupted over Iraq mainly indicates that the United States cannot expect to be given free license in defining what constitutes a legitimate terrorist threat and response to that threat.
Deciding to take military action is always a highly charged political process. Rarely do we find cases of such sharp moral clarity, like 9/11, where consensus can be readily achieved. The debate over war with Iraq marks a return to the normal tug and pull of international politics.