(Peg and Al are at the fancy-coffee shop on a Saturday evening.)
Al: So what brings you out for coffee?
Peg: C.J. and I were supposed to see a film, but there was something on C-SPAN he just couldn't miss. I thought I'd do some Christmas shopping and get a coffee.
Al: Did you find anything worth buying?
Peg: A couple of things for my folks, but there wasn't anything that really thrilled me. A lot of this year's gift-type things are recycled from last year, I think. How are you, Al?
Al: I'm irritated.
Peg: That's news? You're always cranky about something.
Al: Well, it's about---
Peg: Let me guess. I read the paper this morning. It's all the bickering back and forth in Congress about Iraq and how soon we should get out. The Senate scolded the President about not reporting to them regularly, and the House debated a bill to set a timetable for getting out.
Al: Yup, that's the newspaper version, for sure.
Peg: I shouldn't repeat what I read in the paper?
Al: No, of course not. You have to read between the lines. What they tell you is one-sided and incomplete. They have this compulsion to put everything in terms of a controversy.
Peg: The last time I looked at the Constitution, Al, the Congress did have the power to declare war and oversee spending on it.
Al: You're right. The part we overlook is that they do supervise the conduct of the war. The executive branch really can't hide anything, and reports continuously to a number of committees. Don Rumsfeld said last weekend that the Defense Department alone had filed 900 reports to Congress since the fighting began.
Peg: If that's true, then why does the Senate want more information?
Al: Rummy gave us a clue: "I hope someone's reading them," he said.
Peg: That would imply that he thinks their minds are made up, and that their vote wasn't about information and oversight.
Al: That's putting it nicely. It was about politics. The Senate wound up passing a bill that gave them information that they already had access to. They passed it for the sake of having regular opportunities to debate and second-guess. That way, the opponents can complain more often.
Peg: But the House debated a bill, too, didn't they?
Al: That's the problem--endless debate without any purpose. They debated a bill to set a quick timetable for removing the troops from Iraq. It never had any chance at passing and was defeated 403 to 3. The sponsors didn't even vote for it.
Peg: What you're saying is that it was not introduced for a sincere purpose--only to create a controversy.
Al: The majority figured out that the House's time was being wasted and called for a quick vote. They saw through it. Only three congresspersons thought it was prudent to vote for a quick, arbitrary end to the war.
Peg: But it sounded for a while, with the polls and all, like people are really turning against the war.
Al: Apparently not, according to those whose congressional careers depend on getting that sort of thing right. That's empirical.
Peg: So you don't really believe opinions about Iraq are changing?
Al: I really don't. That doesn't mean folks aren't having their doubts. War is ugly and uncertain, so doubts are natural. The anti-war senators and representatives are trying to turn those doubts into a movement. But, based on those two votes last week, it's pure politics.
Peg: So, even though the anti-war group knew their bills didn't change anything, they pursued them anyway--because they might get traction and cause more doubt with the voters?
Al: I think so. And the passage of that compromise bill in the Senate, for the sake of defeating a radical, end-the-war-now law, gave them a small victory and some credibility.
Peg: But I'm not sure how you can be so pro-war, Al. It just seems like the whole business isn't going well--assuming we should be in Iraq in the first place!
Al: Why do you think we shouldn't be there?
Peg: I knew you'd ask me that.
Al: But that's really the important part, isn't it?
Peg: It is. Anyone can quibble about tactics and such. I'm not clear about why we're there. I don't know that anyone else might be, either, considering all the stories that were put out at the time.
Al: "Stories" or "reasons"?
Peg: Doesn't that depend on your point of view?
Al: No I think it's important to know, and demonstrable, whether the nation went to war based on "reasons" or "stories".
Peg: What you're saying is that even you are open to the possibility that some false pretenses were put forward to make the case for war?
Al: Sure, but the less so, the more I read.
Al: I think I gave the evidence a good going-over when the UN debates were going on. I still try to read what the anti-war folks are saying, too. The more I read, the less convinced I am, if I ever was, that they have a good argument on the facts. But, I'm always open to new information.
Peg: What about the WMDs? The government's own investigation said they didn't exist.
Al: Are you sure that's what it said?
Peg: Pretty sure. That's what the senators are saying, some of them.
Al: I didn't read the whole Kay report. I did read the fine print of the summaries that were published. That commission didn't say "didn't exist" and they didn't say "no evidence" in such absolute ways. Mr. Kay said that his investigators did not find caches of ready-to-use WMDs, and that, in spite of efforts by Saddam Hussein's government to lead its neighbors to think there were WMDs, Iraq had not successfully rebuilt their whole weapons program after the first Gulf War.
Peg: That's convincing to me.
Al: Convincing of what?--I just have to ask.
Peg: I'd say convincing that this is a "story" and not a "reason".
Al: Let's follow a line of reasoning here. Bear with me.
Al: Did Iraq ever have WMDs?
Peg: Sure--they used nerve gas against Iran's armies in the early 80's. They used them later against Kurdish and, I think, Shi'ite villages. They wanted to teach a lesson about dissent.
Al: That's why the UN sent in investigators and monitors after the Gulf War--to seal and destroy whatever chemical stocks they could find.
Al: And basically they tried to do the same thing to Iraq's nuclear program--right?
Peg: They wanted to, but didn't the Israelis help them out with that?
Al: Yeah, they blew up a big reactor that everyone thought was a weapons factory. That was actually earlier, in 1981, at a place called Osirak. But its existence would certainly testify to Iraq's intentions, even over a long period of time. After the Gulf War the UN did find an active nuclear weapons program, with hundreds of scientists working on it and a whole security corps dedicated to keeping it hidden. The UN kept inspection teams in Iraq until they were expelled in 1998. Until that time they documented a whole series of evasions and violations. The UN had already begun issuing its famous series of 17 resolutions demanding that Iraq comply with its international agreements on WMDs. That's all on the UN record.
Peg: Isn't that ancient history? The Iraq war was started in 2003.
Al: No; the UN inspectors were ordered back in 2000, then again in 2002.
Al: It was a cat-and-mouse game. The last inspectors said basically what the United States group reaffirmed in 2004: that Iraq had not manufactured a workable nuclear weapon, but that it had held on to the capability of producing one from existing materials and equipment, and an active interest in continuing such a program. The government of Saddam Hussein also had worked very hard to keep the UN inspectors away from their scientists.
Peg: So it wasn't exactly "no WMDs".
Al: Correct. The fact is that Iraq's "trajectory" or behavior pattern on this never changed--even going back twenty years. The UN said this, and so did the world's other security and intelligence services. This was what was reported to the UN during the Security Council debates and to Americans on the nightly news reports.
Peg: Let's see what might be plausible here. Saddam Hussein didn't have and didn't need and actual nuclear bomb, but he kept the equipment, parts and technology around in some way, complete or otherwise. Where is all this stuff now?
Al: Some items, we think, disappeared in the chaos of the war. A great deal is in Iraq under American military seizure. The forces have shipped the most dangerous materials to secure military weapons bases in the US for safekeeping. We know that technology, equipment and scientists disappeared in 2002 while the UN was still debating what to do and playing word games with Iraqi diplomats over inspections.
Peg: Are you saying that the Security Council debates served as a "cover" to delay actions by the community of nations that would confront Iraq with the real evidence? Deliberately?
Al: I don't think we know how deliberate, but everyone now knows that there was a level of real corruption and collaboration between Saddam Hussein and people in authority at the UN.
Peg: That's been all over the news. So, O.K., maybe I'll grant you the WMD argument by a nose, but I'll still go read some more. But look, isn't all this just about oil, money and power in that part of the world?
Al: I'd have to challenge that, because it's become one of those "blanket" statements that people fall back on when other things fail. As objective factors, oil, money and power are very important, but I don't think the facts would support any sort of conspiracy theory about this--it's also a distraction from the realities we should be considering.
Peg: I think a lot of people today do say that. They think more along the lines of a few shadowy individuals acting to enhance their own positions. That wouldn't be good for anyone.
Al: We probably do have a way to get to the bigger picture here, though, without that unprovable and improbable speculation. Let's assume for a minute that the situation in Iraq might be better after this current hostility subsides, at least to a degree, and that American military forces are able to withdraw to basic protection and peace-keeping duties in the Middle East. Do you think this scenario is plausible?
Peg: Iraq won't ever be utopia. I do think a relatively stable situation can be created there, even with what has gone on. Even if some nasty people from Al Qaeda are still there, if you could get some agreement with Iran and Syria to keep out, and encourage the factions in Iraq to restrain themselves, then it has to be better than under Saddam Hussein.
Al: Better for whom?
Peg: It would be safer for all the other countries in the region, if those conditions could be put in place.
Al: I think that's the American intention--to create that sort of a situation. I'd say it's probably safer already, in most areas of Iraq. There are big elections coming up under their new constitution. The news says people are looking forward to voting, and even the Sunnis have proposed candidates in their areas. They've given up the idea of boycotting elections. There are little noises in the Muslim world that are questioning whether this use of violent anarchy to accomplish social goals is a good thing.
Peg: There is also one less influential tyrant to start mischief.
Al: I don't think we can underestimate that, either. I also don't think we can underestimate the seizing of whatever volume of WMD materials we've managed to get hold of, but history will have to bear that out.
Peg: So, what's the progress, then, really?
Al: More stability. The greater isolation of Iran and Syria as long as they support terrorism. The general security of the flow of Mid-East oil, which helps the world's economy whatever you may think about the longer-term environmental issues. The Palestinians are having to settle their own leadership issues. This allows Israel to pull back from Gaza and work out a deal on the West Bank.
Peg: So you're an optimist.
Al: I think the risks of the forced regime change in Iraq were enormous. They may still be. It's more of a political situation now. I think security issues might begin to take a back seat.
Peg: But the troops aren't out.
Al: You're right. We know they'll be coming home in some numbers in the coming year. But some will remain in or near Iraq in secure, permanent installations to keep an eye on things.
Peg: They might never be out.
Al: I won't say "never". We're just now thinking about closing bases in Germany--something the Germans have mixed feelings about. But that situation has changed since the early 90's and the days of the Soviet Union. Geopolitically, did that presence make a difference?
Peg: Of course it did.
Al: I rest my case. I think the bigger picture is what we need to look at.
Peg: So we live in a world where the use of military force is still a reality. That's pretty cynical.
Al: I don't think so. That's a whole other level of thinking. But I think I need to get home and start getting ready for the end of the semester.
Peg: Sounds good--I'm tired from shopping, and thinking. See you later.