It seems to be virtually an accepted part of the national consensus that sooner or later the United States is going to go to war against Iraq and the sooner, the better. It’s also part of the consensus that the United States should remain engaged in the Middle East and on the side of the Israelis.
How these concepts got to be part of the national consensus is another story, but no one seems to debate them today.
Well, almost no one. In fact, last week one of the most stimulating and important debates over these very issues was joined in Washington. It wasn’t between senators or administration officials, but mainly between columnist Pat Buchanan on one side and the pro-Israel faction on the other.
Not surprisingly, the public debate won little press attention, probably because it actually applied reason to matters much of the press doesn’t want reasoned out.
Mr. Buchanan, well-known for his criticisms of our Middle East policies and his proposals for a post-cold war foreign policy of limited American involvement abroad, sided with columnist Robert Novak against Richard Perle of the American Enterprise Institute and Middle East expert Reuel Gerecht, formerly with the CIA, at a debate sponsored by Mr. Buchanan’s think tank, the American Cause. The first topic debated was “Should the U.S. invade Iraq?”
The case for invasion was made by Mr. Perle and Mr. Gerecht, who argued that Iraq is seeking or already has weapons of mass destruction, that it may give these weapons to terrorist groups, and that terrorists armed with them might then launch massive attacks on the United States or other American targets that would make Sept. 11 look like a fender bender on the Beltway. Mr. Perle was also emphatic that Iraq already supports terrorism and may have had a role in the Sept. 11 attacks themselves.
Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Novak questioned all of the above. The two journalists demanded to know what Saddam Hussein had done to threaten the United States or its extensions abroad and what evidence there is for Iraqi support for terrorism today.
Mr. Perle assured everyone, as chairman of the Defense Department’s Policy Board, he knows of lots of evidence for such support but couldn’t disclose it because it’s secret.
Mr. Buchanan wanted to know what other nations we should be invading, since not a few with whom we have fairly close trade or diplomatic relations—China for one—have human rights records at least as dismal as Saddam’s.
As for weapons of mass destruction, he pointed out that Stalin and Mao Tse-tung had them too. Saddam himself has them, in the form of poison gas that he used against his own people in the 1980s, but the point is that none of these tyrants use such weapons against the United States. They don’t use them against us, Mr. Buchanan insisted, because they knew or know today what will happen if they do—they and their nasty little regimes would be obliterated by massive retaliation.
Mr. Buchanan’s point was that by the logic of his opponents, we should invade anywhere and everywhere a foreign government is doing something we don’t like or something that might someday somehow threaten us. That’s a formula for perpetual war—and his opponents said little to distance themselves from it.
In the second debate of the day, Mr. Buchanan and columnist Georgie Anne Geyer took up the issue of “What role should the U.S. play in the Middle East” against defense expert Frank Gaffney and columnist Tony Blankley.
Mr. Buchanan conceded that the United States has a moral commitment to Israel’s survival and security, but also insisted that Palestinian statehood is a just cause. Mr. Gaffney argued, against this, that the Arabs generally and the Palestinians in particular are determined to exterminate Israel.
Miss Geyer, a lifelong Middle East expert who actually knows main players like Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein, insists that most Arabs, including their leaders, now accept Israel. But the problem with Mr. Gaffney’s case is that even if he’s right (and he may well be), that hardly justifies American involvement.
Mr. Blankley and Mr. Gaffney conceded, for their part, that the United States receives little return from its support for Israel. If that’s so, then why should we involve ourselves in what is essentially an irrepressible ethnic and religious struggle that has no conclusion in view?
It’s rare in American public debate to have an exchange as well-presented and as civil as both sides in the American Cause debate offered. If American politics and government operated this way, instead of by the pathetic name-calling and smears that usually drive discussions of the Middle East, we might actually develop a real consensus for a real and useful foreign policy.