Thursday, September 26, 2002

That Was a Debate?

I have read Cohen for years and I usually disagree with him (but not always) but I usually think he is at least reasonable. Lately, his columns have tested my generally positive view of him (I still disagree with him, but I always thought of him in the “we could debate the issue over a beer” way). His column on Thursday on Al Gore’s speech is perplexing to me. Safire’s take on the speech is good so here it is.

That Cohen is not in a reasonable frame of mind is evident as he starts off, by reminding us that Gore won the popular vote. I hate to have to return to this but, first, since electoral votes are all that count in our system it is a pointless fact, although admittedly frustrating for Gore supporters to accept this. I say this with a clear conscience since early on election night, I wrestled with the question. But then, I thought Gore would win the electoral college while Bush would win the popular vote (late deciders usually go to challengers, but not in 2000 as it turns out). I manfully accepted that a Gore win under those circumstances would be legitimate. Certainly, I hold the reverse to be true as well. Second, although Al Gore won more popular votes that were counted, we never did (and don’t) count “every vote.” That is, since we go by electoral votes, if a state shows a candidate winning handily, there is no need to go to the added expense of counting every single vote that is not perfectly cast. Since you could safely assume that it would not change the results even if every uncertain ballot went for the losing side, why try? Sure, counting every vote sounds good, but we don’t really care about raw national totals in our system—just state-by-state totals. Thus, we don’t actually know that Gore won a majority of all votes cast, just a majority of those counted. He may have won a majority of those cast, I admit. But again, it is not relevant.

And Cohen’s claim that Republicans are politicizing the war may or may not be true. But the party that supplied the current to the “third rail” of politics by claiming any Republican trying to address Social Security reform is planning to put grandma on an ice flow does not have too much credibility on politicizing great issues. After all, why isn’t it politicizing war to avoid the debate until after the election because you fear adverse political reactions by the voters?

But on the subject of Gore’s speech, Cohen is wrong. First, Gore’s statement that we should take on Saddam in a “timely fashion” is meaningless. How long do we wait? The eight years Gore was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat were not enough apparently. So how long do we wait? He says until we get an international coalition. How large should it be before you say it is enough? Should any country be a “must have?” What if we don’t get the numbers? What if Saddam gets nuclear weapons before we have the perfect coalition? (Ouch, there goes that “timely” advice) And, would Gore support war once the perfect coalition is assembled? We don’t know.

Cohen cites three retired American generals to support Gore’s contention that we must pacify Afghanistan and wipe out al Qaeda (how much is enough? 70% 80% 99% Is even one surviving al Qaeda member plotting in Hamburg a brake on further action?) But this contention is not supported by Cohen’s own column. Those generals warned against going it alone against Iraq; and that fighting Iraq could detract from the war against terrorism. Fine. We should seek allies; I certainly don’t want to do it alone. And two, yes, there is the potential for detracting from the war on terror. But tell me how. I think it will aid it by putting the fear of God into every regime that thinks harboring terrorists is a risk-free game. I think stopping Saddam is a good thing separate from the war against terrorism. How do the cautions of these generals support Gore’s statements?

Cohen briefly raises the “chicken hawk” issue, giving Gore credit for his Vietnam service. I think this is a ridiculous charge; and I note as I did before that Cohen has previously stated he could support war under certain circumstances. Will Cohen be a chicken hawk then? He does say he is in favor of ousting Saddam. But he says he doesn’t want to annex the Middle East. Huh? Who said that? What is Cohen talking about? Did I miss the Rumsfeld Powerpoint presentation that showed US forces going counter-clockwise from Iraq after we occupy Baghdad to sweep every Middle East regime from power? I concede to Cohen—I too am against annexing the Middle East. (Gosh, I’m getting a buzz from being so agreeable)

Then Cohen goes into the “we’re being suppressed” argument that opponents of the war can’t debate the issue. Again, all I hear and read are voices condemning the administration for wanting to oust Saddam. Who exactly is stopping opponents from arguing? Don’t mistake arguing back for suppression. Cohen complains that Hitler, Appeasement, and Munich are mentioned. Apparently, only the mention of “another Vietnam” is an approved historical comparison. And actually, didn’t the Germans make the Hitler comparison legitimate when one minister compared Bush’s policies on Iraq to Hitler’s?

His final assault is a series of rapid fire attacks claiming a Bush assault on the “truth,” quibbling over the finer points of “imminent threat,” and the blasting the irrelevant al-Qaeda-Iraq link that has not been proven. He claims American unilateralism even as we have slowly brought a number of governments over to our side and dismisses our move to the UN as just being forced. He claims, without any evidence, in his own apparent assault on the truth, that we cannot strike preemptively those who would harm us.

Cohen says that pro-war people should stop shouting “appeasement.” I haven’t heard it. I do hear a lot of talk about how we are trying to create an “empire!” Sheesh. I also haven’t heard any real suggestions by those who “really want Saddam gone” on how to do that. Other than to do that which has failed already—repeatedly. I’m waiting for that proposal. And for Cohen to return to some semblance of reasonableness. I valued his thoughtful (if wrong) essays before. This isn’t one of them. I hope it isn’t a trend.

Oh, and an excellent piece by Ken Pollack on the impossibility of deterring Saddam. It includes a number of items that I had not thought of or known, in addition to reinforcing other views I hold on deterrence. And hold on, this is an unusually good day for links, a good review of Pollack’s book on the same subject.

On to Baghdad.