Radicals in Power

By Kuttner, Robert | The American Prospect, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Radicals in Power


Kuttner, Robert, The American Prospect


In the debate about America and Iraq, two questions keep getting confused. First, does the United States have grounds to remove Saddam Hussein? And second, is an American invasion the best available course of action, after we balance all the likely risks and gains? The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. The Iraqi dictator ranks with history's worst. And he has violated both the letter and spirit of the truce following the 1990 Gulf War, which allowed him to stay in power in exchange for disarming and agreeing to an inspections regime.

But it doesn't automatically follow that war is sensible policy. And here, the critics are the realists and the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz contingent the naive utopians. Look back at the past half-century. The United States has co-existed with numerous loathsome regimes--but for good strategic reasons decided not to go in and "take them out."

The list begins with Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, whose assaults against both citizens and neighboring nations make Saddam Hussein look minor league. But even though the spiritual ancestors of Cheney et al. taunted the Truman administration as "Dean Acheson's Cowardly College of Communist Containment," the Kennan-Acheson strategy of hemming in Stalin rather than starting World War III was the right policy. President Eisenhower over-ruled ultra-hawks who wanted preemptive nuclear war. It helped that Ike had been a five-star general and outranked all of them. There was fierce lobbying urging intervention when Khrushchev brutally put down the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and again in the Czech Spring of 1968. But wiser heads grasped that the Soviets considered Eastern Europe a sphere of influence, and U.S. military intervention, however justified, risked a nuclear exchange.

Anyone who lived through the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (or saw the highly accurate movie Thirteen Days) should appreciate that even though we caught the Russians red-handed, so to speak, putting offensive missiles in Cuba, Kennedy's tough policy of blockading Soviet supply ships made more sense than either bombing the missile sites or removing Castro by force. We certainly had a basis for doing both. The only obstacle was the risk of nuclear war.

By being both tough and patient, we have seen one totalitarian regime after another fall. And the Strangelove generation, those of us who grew up doing nuclear air-raid drills in grade school, finds it miraculous to have gotten through 40 years of "mutual assured destruction" without a nuclear holocaust. Throughout the Cold War, the lunatic fringe--people like Gen. …

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