Waiting, One Hand Behind

I am waiting for something. I'm not sure exactly what it is until my father calls. He is equal parts exasperated and anguished, a man who reads history voraciously and yet is now flabbergasted by current events. "We don't attack first," he says. "That's a given. A professor of mine once said, 'Democracy fights its battles with one hand tied behind its back.' The nature of a true democracy is that it is never the aggressor."

My father's politics are more moderate than my own, although the poles are closer than they were 30 years ago, during Vietnam and Watergate. "You were right about Nixon," he says sometimes to describe the scales falling from his eyes. He is a veteran of the Korean War, a former master sergeant who suffered a skull fracture in a car accident en route to Fort Dix. When he is alarmed by American foreign policy it is worth paying attention, especially because I suspect he is part of a great uneasy silent majority, to use a Nixonian turn of phrase, on the subject of what seems to be an inevitable war.

We are waiting, both of us, for some good reason for a great nation--because it is that, despite all its shortcomings--to make the real argument, the irrefutable argument, the aha! argument for invading Iraq. We are waiting for the argument that requires the judicious hand of democracy to be untied, to strike first.

Saddam Hussein is a murderous dictator. Check. Saddam has made a mockery of the inspections process. Check. He either has developed or is inclined to develop weapons of mass destruction. Check. No world leader has ever so clearly asked to be punished by the world community.

But if Saddam asks, need the United States answer in kind? He lies about weapons; we overstate the link between his country and the Qaeda network that attacked America on September 11. He scoffs at our motives; we belittle any nation that dares to disagree with us. In this administration's zeal for this war, it has come perilously close to lowering the rhetorical standards of a democratic nation to the level of despotic hyperbole.

The New York Post, among others, has resurrected the term "peaceniks" from the Vietnam days; this is Australian for those who believe that war is a last resort (or for actors who have the temerity to think they are entitled to opinions). It is true that I came of age at a place and in a time when pacifism was a ruling principle, and it has become a part of my character. Perhaps it has gone deeper now that I am a mother and am therefore obliged to picture my own children as cannon fodder and Iraqi children as collateral damage.

The hawks may find talk of character ridiculous, except when it comes to Saddam. He is evil. Sometimes this seems to be all they think we need to know. But the character of our president is every bit as important. I am waiting to be certain that this rush to combat is not in some measure the work of a combative disposition. The character issue has become a central part of recent presidential campaigns, but it has always focused on sexual license. There are more important things. George W. Bush appears to be a man who takes slights seriously and responds pugnaciously, a guy who holds a grudge. "There's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE," he said of Osama bin Laden after the terrorist attacks. Wyatt Earp in the White House. Quiet diplomacy does not appear to be his instinctive mode.

In the president's O.K. Corral parlance, anything less than combat would be backing down, even if going forward means steamrolling long alliances and leaving behind fissures in hard-won international amity. The rationale has become something of a circular argument. We said we would, so if we don't we look weak. We want what we want and we want it now, before the troops get restive or a heat wave strikes the Gulf. (Our history books say we fight for freedom. They don't say anything about going into battle to save face. And whose face are we fighting to save, that of the nation or its president?)

If only the path seemed as clear as it is straight; if only inevitability were partnered with absolute surety. In American history wars have most often started with a bang, not a whimper, which makes it simple to rally support and to be certain of direction. In more recent times wars have started by invitation, a nation asking for aid, under siege from northern communist aggression.

Americans are not accustomed to the notion of unprovoked invasion, which was what my father was trying to say. But he raised a larger point. What is required of a nation that is not only the greatest democracy on earth at this moment, but the nation by which all other democratic attempts have been measured, the petri dish of individual freedom? That answer is clear: it must live up to its principles, not down to its enemies. The danger in having enormous power is that the ambition to use it for good can so often be subverted by the temptation to use it for dominance. The leader who occupies the high ground, or the bully wearing blinders: I am waiting to see to which nation I belong.