Are We Safer?

Are We Safer?

This article is an expanded version of Stephen F. Cohen’s commentary in the May 5 issue.


Ever since the main military campaign ended in mid-April, the Bush Administration and its cheerleaders in the media have claimed that “the remarkable success” of the US war in Iraq proves its opponents were “spectacularly wrong”–even, some charge, unpatriotic. (Quoting a Washington “humorist,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gloated, “Never have so many been so wrong about so much.”) Intimidated by these allegations and the demonstration of overwhelming American military power, many critics of the war have fallen silent. Indeed, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, no doubt speaking for several of the party’s fainthearted presidential candidates, has rushed to urge that the “the war…not be on the ballot in 2004.”

But critics of the war have no reason to regret their views. No sensible opponent doubted that the world’s most powerful military could easily crush such a lesser foe. The real issue was and remains very different: Will the Iraq war increase America’s national security, as the Bush Administration has always promised and now insists is already the case, or will it undermine and diminish our national security, as thoughtful critics believed?

In the weeks, months and years ahead, we will learn the answer to that fateful question by judging developments by seven essential criteria:

(1) Will the war discourage or encourage other regional “preemptive” military strikes, particularly by nuclear-armed states such as, but not only, India and Pakistan? India has already evoked that newly proclaimed US doctrine in its conflict with Pakistan, as has Russia in its increasingly hostile relations with the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

(2) Indeed, will the Iraq war stop the proliferation of states that possess nuclear weapons or instead incite more governments to acquire them as a deterrent against another US “regime change”? If anything, North Korea and Iran have seemed even more determined to develop such weapons.

(3) Will the war, and the long US occupation that is likely to ensue, reduce the recruitment of young Arabs by terrorist movements or will it inspire many new recruits? The subsequent suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco suggest that the latter result will be the case.

(4) With or without more recruits, will the war decrease or increase the number of terrorist plots against the United States, whether at home or abroad? Here too the recent targeting of a US firm in Saudi Arabia and continuing “terrorist” attacks on American troops even in Iraq itself are not good signs.

(5) Will the war help safeguard the vast quantities of nuclear and other materials of mass destruction that exist in the world today, and the expertise needed to operationalize them, or make them more accessible to “evil-doers”? In this exceedingly perilous respect, the war may have aleady made things worse. Not only has the Bush Administration yet to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, its original professed purpose for attacking the country, but the war led directly to the looting of at least seven Iraqi nuclear facilities and thus possibly to a new kind of proliferation.

(6) In that connection, will Russia–which has more ill-secured devices of mass destruction than any other country and which strongly opposed and still resents the US war–now be more, or less, inclined to collaborate with Washington in safeguarding and reducing those weapons and materials? Again, the initial result has been contrary to American national security interests. On May 16, President Vladimir V. Putin announced that the Kremlin, like the White House, is likely to build even more nuclear weapons.

(7) Finally, considering the rampant anti-Americanism it has provoked, will the war result in more or fewer governments willing to cooperate with–individually or in multinational organizations like the United Nations–George W. Bush’s stated top priority, the war against global terrorism? During the weeks since the military campaign ended, anti-American sentiments have continued to grow, from the Middle East to Western Europe, and the United Nations remains profoundly divided by the US war and its ugly aftermath in Iraq.

It is by these crucial (and measurable) criteria that the American people, and any politician who wants to lead them, must judge the Administration’s war in Iraq and President Bush’s own leadership. Those of us who were against the war and still oppose the assumptions on which it was based fear that future events will continue to answer these questions to the grave detriment of American and international security. As patriots, we can only hope we are wrong.

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