As the summer before the first anniversary of the September 11 attack drew to a sweltering end, the Bush administration desperately sought some plausible reason for the war against Iraq that its chieftains so desperately wanted to wage.  The appeal to the “weapons of mass destruction” that Saddam Hussein supposedly harbors and which he was alleged to have deployed “against his own people” (meaning the Kurds, who live within Iraq but distinctly do not consider themselves to be Hussein’s “people”) was the main, but by no means the only, plausible reason offered.  In the months since Saddam Hussein once again became a target of American military power, every conceivable villainy was attributed to him.  Insight, the weekly newsmagazine of the militantly pro-war Washington Times, and later a vast op-ed on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page even revived “John Doe II,” the mysterious and elusive accomplice of the late Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.  The FBI has long since concluded that John Doe II never existed (mainly, I suspect, because they could never find or identify him, just as they have never managed to find or identify the real anthrax killer of last autumn), and the public has long since lost interest in Mr. Doe.  But Insight managed to produce a source who claimed that John Doe II not only exists but was an Iraqi agent, though exactly why Saddam Hussein would have wanted to blow up a building in Oklahoma remained obscure.

Then there was the mysterious meeting between the supposed mastermind of the September 11 attacks (the also-late Muhammad Atta) and officials in the Iraqi embassy in Prague not long before the attack.  That claim, apparently first advanced by New York Times columnist William Safire, was bounced around the media for months before Newsweek, last May, more or less effectively showed that it was not true.  But, lo and behold, if it did not resurrect itself in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, of all places.  The Standard is not exactly a cool voice of objectivity on Middle Eastern questions (neither is Mr. Safire), and especially on the war against Iraq, so the claim of the magazine’s executive editor Fred Barnes that Atta really did meet with the Iraqis in Prague, according to what the Czech ambassador to the United States had told him, should be met with some skepticism.  Yet Mr. Barnes did not hesitate to draw out the import of the meeting, if it did take place, which is that

A connection between Iraq and Atta, an al Qaeda operative under Osama bin Laden, bolsters the case for military action by the United States to remove the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

That conclusion, of course, is a non sequitur, especially since Mr. Barnes acknowledged that “Whether Atta and al-Ani [the consul at the Iraqi embassy in Prague with whom Atta was supposed to have met] discussed plans for September 11 is unknown.”  If we don’t know what they talked about (if they did meet), how can their meeting possibly constitute a “connection” between Iraq and the September 11 attack?  Moreover, Mr. Barnes identifies Ahmed al-Ani only as an Iraqi consul.  He never alleges that the consul played any intelligence or covert-action role.  For all Mr. Barnes or anyone else knows, the consul and Mr. Atta may have talked about stamp-collecting or even the possibility of Mr. Atta’s traveling to Iraq.  There is no evidence whatsoever that the meeting, if it even occurred, had any sinister purpose.

It would not be surprising to read in the conservative and neoconservative press that Saddam Hussein was behind the Kennedy assassination and is harboring Nazi war criminals, but what the case for war against him really mirrored was the case for the FBI/BATF attack on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco in 1993.  Just as David Koresh was alleged to be storing illegal weapons, so Saddam is alleged to harbor “weapons of mass destruction.”  Just as Koresh was accused of molesting children, so Saddam’s regime is accused of tortures and brutalities previously known only among those communist tyrannies with which the United States and the West were once pleased to conduct trade.  Just as Koresh refused to allow police, federal law enforcement, or any other government agents to examine his premises, so Saddam refuses to permit the searches of his own country that the United States and the United Nations insist on conducting (until last summer, that is, when Baghdad announced its willingness to permit a search—an offer greeted with sneers from Washington).  And just as you may not unreasonably suspect that the Clinton-Reno Justice Department really wanted to launch a violent and lethal attack on the Waco compound, so you may even less unreasonably believe that the administration is determined to wage war against Iraq, regardless of what the Iraqi government has done or plans to do.

The more or less “official” reasons usually trotted out by the administration and its apologists for waging war don’t hold water (which is why there are so many phony reasons bobbing to the surface of supposedly serious public discussion).  The “weapons of mass destruction” argument is a case in point.  Many countries with governments even more unpleasant than Saddam’s have similar weapons, and the technology for producing such arsenals is now widely available.  Anyone with the skills, money, and will to do so can get himself a few “weapons of mass destruction.”  The thing for the United States and other powerful states to do about this is not to wage war against every state that looks like it might have or eventually get such weaponry but to make it entirely clear that, if such weapons are ever used against the United States or American targets abroad, the result will be the immediate incineration of the country using them.  There are few governments led by despots so stupid or so crazy that they could not understand such a warning, and Saddam Hussein—as his behavior over the last several years shows—is not of their number.

Whatever Saddam might have done to the Kurds, he has done absolutely nothing to the United States (nor, for that matter, to Israel—unlike Israel herself, which, in 1981, launched an unprovoked air attack against Iraq’s nuclear reactors at Osirak).  Before the Gulf War, it was generally understood in American political culture that unprovoked attacks of the kind we launched on Iraq in 1991 and are contemplating launching today were forbidden by the rules of civilized nations and civilized warfare.  Not only did the Gulf War itself jettison that principle, but subsequent U.S. military actions in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans rendered it obsolete.  Today, President Bush has pronounced, and the neoconservative press has duly gloated over, his doctrine of “preemptive war,” a doctrine long ago anticipated by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor.  You cannot expect such piddling trifles as the fact that Iraq has never, in her entire history, done anything to harm any American, threaten the security of the United States, or even interfere with our operations and interests abroad to constitute serious barriers to blowing the country to powder or overthrowing her government and imposing our own “regime.”

As for achieving those goals, a U.S. war against Iraq would certainly lead to a fairly quick and (for us) reasonably bloodless victory.  One reason for avoiding a war, however, is that the conflict might well not be confined to the two countries.  Clearly, neither any European “ally” (except Britain) nor any Arab state will support a U.S. war against Iraq in the present circumstances.  There is, however, a chance that some Arab states might side with Iraq, especially if they see that she is merely the first state in the region to be targeted.  In 1991, out of fear that other Arab states would join Iraq, Israel was pressured into not responding militarily to Saddam’s rather inept Scud-missile attacks on Tel Aviv.  Today, the Sharon government has explicitly vowed to retaliate if attacked.  Indeed, one can imagine Mr. Sharon sitting up nights hoping the Iraqis will attack, and his government has openly urged the United States to attack Iraq.  If Israel and the United States together launch a war against Iraq, will other Arab states stay out of the war?  Even if they do, what will be the future of any friendly relationship between us and the Arabs after further demolishing Iraq?

Then there is the question of establishing a “democracy” in Iraq to replace the current regime.  Not only is a real democracy out of the question, but there is every likelihood that Iraq, once the iron fist of the Hussein regime vanishes, will simply break apart.  Kurds in the north would want to create their own state out of the Iraqi corpse, inciting Kurds in neighboring Turkey to demand autonomy there and destabilizing that country, too.  Shiites in southern Iraq would like either to create their own state or to join with Shiite Iran, no friend to Iraq.  Other minorities—ethnic, religious, political—would profit from the country’s dismemberment.  Even if Iraq remained intact, however, what can “democracy” there possibly mean?  Iraqis have no tradition of voting, of political participation, of respecting political dissent or tolerating political opposition, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that any sizable number of Iraqis desire such gimmickry or that it could function effectively there.  What “establishing democracy” really means is, first, the military conquest and occupation of Iraq by American troops and, second, the construction of the kind of soft managerial system there that we built in occupied Europe and Japan after World War II.  The more realistic global managers, such as Henry Kissinger, argue that “democratization,” aside from all the fantastic rhetoric that accompanies it, is really in our interest because “democratized” states will be less likely to attack or threaten us.  That is true only if, by “democratization,” they mean the establishment of a bureaucracy, an economic elite, and an intelligentsia that are closely wedded to and dependent on their Western analogues.  In that sense, “democracy” in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan is possible, but creating it involves a good deal more than military power and handing out civics textbooks along with chocolate bars and condoms.

Will there be war?  It is hard to see what considerations of power, domestic or foreign, could prevent it.  The main war party, as always in Middle Eastern issues, is the pro-Zionist, neoconservative cabal, headquartered nowadays in the Pentagon under Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle and echoed relentlessly in the “conservative press”—the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Weekly Standard, National Review, the Washington Times, Insight, etc.  Within the administration, neoconservative Zionists effectively dominate the Defense Department, the staff of Vice President Cheney, and the National Security Council.  Only Secretary of State Colin Powell and some allies (probably old cronies) on the Joint Chiefs of Staff have advised caution.  Outside of the administration, the pro-war forces enjoy the unqualified and even more bellicose support of such “Christian Right” divines as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Franklin Graham.  If we measure what a Marxist would call the domestic political “correlation of forces,” there is no reason to think the administration will not initiate a war against Iraq, probably sometime in the fall of 2002 or the winter of 2003.

There is, of course, every reason why serious conservatives should oppose such a war and the administration that starts it.  Not only would the war violate every conservative principle of justice and create far greater dangers for Americans in the near and distant future in the Middle East (not to mention in our own country) than already exist, but it would augment the dominance of the neoconservatives slavering for it.  Having locked himself into the policies they are demanding, President Bush could not easily rid himself of them and their destructive and dangerous counsels.  Not only would they entrench themselves in a position of cultural dominance from which they could define “conservatism” itself (as the “Christian Right” will discover once it has served neoconservative purposes), but they would enjoy virtually unchecked political power within the federal government itself.

The coming of a transparently aggressive war against Iraq, followed, in all probability, by further American military aggression against other Arab states in the region and coupled with the administration’s equally transparent efforts to construct and legitimize the infrastructure of a police state inside America, go far to render the very concept of “conservatism” of any kidney meaningless.  Those who still adhere to that label or to what it is supposed to stand for will have to ask themselves what there is in this country that they really want to conserve.