Countdown to War

Jack Miles, recently named a MacArthur Fellow, is senior advisor to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. He is the author, most recently, of "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God."

“If war is forced upon us,” President Bush said in his State of the Union address, “we will fight in a just cause and by just means, sparing, in every way we can, the innocent.” Commendable intentions, about which more below, but first a word about the innocent who most deserve the president’s protection -- namely, the people of the United States. On the eve of war, this nation is lamentably unprepared for the counterattack that terrorism experts regard as ominously likely.

The Al Qaeda terrorist network has not been defeated. Its leadership escaped the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and has regrouped in Pakistan, where it has reportedly received nuclear training. If the Bush administration is right that there has been active cooperation between Al Qaeda and Iraq, then we must expect Al Qaeda to respond when Iraq is attacked.

That danger would remain, however, even if there were no active cooperation between the two. This is so because on the terms of its own Islamist ideology, Al Qaeda is fighting for the Umma, the Muslim world as a whole, and may rightfully avenge an infidel attack against any country within the Umma, even one whose ruler it abhors. Al Qaeda despised (and despises) the Saudi royal family. Yet the group’s Sept. 11 attacks sought to punish the United States for daring to station its infidel soldiers on sacred territory within Saudi Arabia.


The likeliest time for an attack is immediately after the fighting begins in Iraq. With nothing to lose, Saddam Hussein may strike back. As for Al Qaeda, Muslims around the world will interpret a second, post-invasion 9/11 as a counterattack in their defense. The opportunity for Al Qaeda to score a propaganda bonanza by attacking at just this moment is, alas, uniquely good.

Yet on the eve of war with Iraq, fear of Al Qaeda seems in eclipse in this country. In anticipation of a major tax cut, the Senate has cut $8 billion from increased security at ports, $362 million from border security and $500 million from the strengthening of police and fire department preparedness -- and these cuts are from appropriations that are already shockingly low given the character of the threat we face. We seem to have forgotten that Al Qaeda did not employ weapons of mass destruction to destroy the World Trade Center. Its weapons on that occasion were major unprotected civilian assets in the United States, and such are likely to be its weapons on this occasion as well.

Unfortunately, we have failed to prepare serious civilian defense against even the worst risks of this sort -- namely, the risk of a Bhopal or a Chernobyl induced by Al Qaeda sabotage. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified 873 chemical plants where sabotage could kill from 100,000 to as many as 1 million. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has testified that serious security deficiencies exist at many of these plants. Yet the Senate has just killed legislation to defend them. Are we at war or not? The Senate seems to think not.

Similarly, American nuclear power plants are still required to defend against no larger a terrorist team than four, all operating on land, none by air. (Contrast France, where nuclear power plants are protected by antiaircraft installations.) Republican Gov. George E. Pataki of New York has just released a study showing that the Indian Point nuclear power plant outside New York City is vulnerable to terrorist-induced meltdown, yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission resists all calls for an emergency wartime shutdown of the plant. Again, are we at war or not?

In the 1950s, the United States did not shrink from subjecting even impressionable children to air-raid drills. However little practical protection these drills may have afforded, they provided invaluable psychological preparation for those of us who were put through them. They reminded us, adults as well as children, of what we were up against in our nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union.

Perhaps the Bush administration fears that requiring anything similar of the public in the hope of reducing the loss of life from a second or third 9/11 will undermine support for the Iraq invasion. But the grim fact is that we face in Al Qaeda an enemy capable of inflicting Chernobyl- or Bhopal-size damage upon us. The time to prepare for the worst is always before it happens.

Does this mean we should not invade Iraq? Not necessarily. But given the stakes here at home, timing matters enormously. Two hundred inspectors have been at work in Iraq for about two months. Why not 2,000 for a period that will be deliberately left indefinite? So long as a date certain for the withdrawal of the inspectors is announced beforehand, no Iraqi dares to come forward.

But as inspections drag on and incriminating details leak out, stonewalling becomes more difficult and the likelihood of defection grows. The defection of an insider made a gigantic difference in the last round of inspections. Another such defection could do the same in this round. Why squander this time advantage by rushing forward?

If and when the hoped-for intelligence breakthrough comes, the Iraqi dictator will not suddenly display a willingness to disarm. But military action at that point will be more focused because we shall better know where Iraq has hidden its weapons.

Moreover, it will not come at the huge diplomatic cost that the same action undertaken today will exact. The Atlantic alliance will have survived a major test. But there is, finally, another, deeper motive for delay, and it is that delay holds the greater prospect for sparing the innocent whom the president so wants to spare. Some will see this motive as humanitarian. For me, frankly, it is religious. Like President Bush, I am a Christian; and for Christians, the lives of soldiers and civilians, Iraqi and American alike, are infinitely precious.

Jesus, whom Bush named during the 2000 presidential campaign as the political philosopher who has influenced him most, counseled his disciples to love their enemies. Granting that even a devout Christian may regard war as justified under some circumstances, a Christian ought still to be the most reluctant of warriors. So long as there is any reasonable chance to spare innocent lives (and remember that soldiers of a dictator are typically helpless conscripts), it is the duty of a Christian to seize that chance. As a Christian, I cannot wish my country to do anything less.

American soldiers are reportedly freezing their sperm in anticipation that Hussein will use sterilizing chemical weapons against them. Who can blame them? His ruthless use of these terrible weapons has already saved him from two defeats -- one at the hands of the Kurds, the other at the hands of the Iranians. Kenneth Pollack, author of “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq,” and certainly no dove, predicts that American casualties in the coming war could be as many as 10,000. But beyond the battlefront casualties that delay may spare us, and beyond the home-front casualties that civilian defense can prevent, there remains the question of a potentially staggering loss of civilian life in Iraq.

Power failures that no one repairs, fires to which no fireman responds, water pollution for which there is no remedy, food shortages to the point of starvation; these consequences of war -- so grimly familiar to older Europeans, Chinese and Japanese -- are known in the United States only in the mild form in which they follow an earthquake or hurricane. May God grant that our ignorance of such horrors should continue! But if we can disarm the pitiless Iraqi dictator without inflicting comparable horrors on his people, it is our moral duty to do so. And if we cannot avoid war with Iraq, then let us commit ourselves now to binding up that poor nation’s wounds when the war is over.

If, as seems likely to everyone, an invasion will begin about a month from now, we must all hope for a swift American victory and an ensuing Pax Americana in the entire region. But what I confess I find myself thinking about almost obsessively is the difference between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and World War I. In 1870, Prussia defeated France in a matter of weeks. In 1914, Prussia thought it would do so again. But the power equation had changed in the intervening years and would change further, with disastrous consequences for the invader. Has it changed for us as well? I have never felt as intensely as I do today -- not even during the Cuban missile crisis -- that the violence of war may soon descend upon our land.

I don’t doubt that the American Army can occupy Iraq and change its regime. But what will happen here at home while that regime change is underway? The whole country is talking about our going to war. Scarcely anyone is talking about war coming to us. But war could come to us -- or come again, counting 9/11 as its first visit. We must all hope it does not. Meanwhile, we must all pray that an invasion that spares our bodies will not cost us our souls.