Shouldn't People Who Favor Gun Control Favor War in Iraq?
Mr. Kates is a constitutional lawyer and a criminologist. His latest book (co-authored with Prof. Gary Kleck) is, Armed: New Perspectives On Gun Control (Prometheus, 2001).
The current debate over forcibly preventing Iraq from acquiring nuclear weapons is notable because it finds "liberals" heedlessly abandoning crucial verities of 20th Century liberalism. As a criminologist I find instructive the parallels between this debate and the debate over gun control.
THE IMPERATIVE TO DISARM VIOLENT CRIMINALS
Contentious as the gun control debate sometimes is, certain propositions enjoy a virtual consensus. One is that there are some people who, in an ideal world, would not possess firearms or any instrument more dangerous than a toothpick. Everyone concurs in the need to disarm the Charles Mansons, Ted Bundys, Andrew Cunanans -- and, yes, the Saddam Husseins -- of this world. It would seem that this ought to apply with infinitely greater force to the possession of atomic weapons than of mere guns.
Before pursuing that point, however, I should qualify my claim of a consensus by noting the semi-dissent of a few ideological opponents of gun control. Even these semi-dissenters seem to agree it would be a safer world if the Mansons-Hitlers-Cunanans-Saddams did not have access to weapons. But they deny government should be involved in disarming anyone. They are extreme Libertarians who object on principle that prophylactic laws go beyond the proper role of government. They deny that the state should ban guns even to violent criminals, or, for that matter, that drunken driving should be prohibited. On principle, these extreme Libertarians assert that government may go no further than imposing severe punishments on wrong-doers after the wrongs occur. In other words, people who injure or kill others with a gun, or by drunken driving, may be punished thereafter, but not precluded by laws against drunk driving or guns.
THE "LIBERAL" OPPOSITION TO DISARMING
The extreme Libertarian argument is mimicked by Prof. Arthur Schlesinger's recent essay opposing forcible action against Iraq developing a nuclear arsenal. (Arthur Schlesinger, "The Immorality of Preventive War" HNN 8-26-02; reprinted from the L.A. TIMES.) That essay, which has been acclaimed by Prof. Joyce Appleby and others on HNN and elsewhere, blithely shrugs off the dangers of Saddam's possessing atomic weapons. The good professor avers that because Saddam "is not interested in suicide" he would not misuse those weapons, wherefore his having them does not represent a "clear and present danger."
Far be it from me to preach the use of historical example to the likes of Professors Schlesinger and Appleby. Yet they seem to be overlooking the contrary example in the years 1939-45 of someone Saddam closely resembles. Hitler plunged the world into a war that became literally suicidal for him -- after the deaths of over 50 million others. The only difference between the Schlesinger essay and the extreme Libertarian position is that the essay does not end with something like: "Even if I am wrong -- even if Saddam's nuclear weapons kill millions -- we can make everything right by later bringing him to a Nuremburg-type trial."
Ironically Professor Schlesinger is an emphatic proponent of banning guns to the entire populace, much less to violent felons. Yet if his argument that there is little danger in Saddam having a-bombs were valid, there would be no need for gun control of any kind. Based on the Schlesinger reasoning, we need not fear guns in the hands of even violent criminals: for such criminals "are not interested in suicide," so they would not misuse those weapons thereby occasioning their own deaths imposed by the state.
These pollyannaish prognostications are belied by the well-established fact that criminals are all too often willing to take suicidal risks. For instance, if Saddam obtains an a-bomb, he might think no one could trace it back to him if he smuggles it onto some miscellaneous tramp freighter and detonates it in New York harbor.
Such gambles are second nature to Saddam who is as reckless as a gambler as was Hitler. Consider his 1980 attack on Iran, a nation four times more populous than Iraq and much stronger militarily. But, seeing Iran in the midst of revolutionary turmoil Saddam (mis)-calculated that he could steal some of its oil-rich provinces adjoining Iraq. The mis-calculation proved a ludicrous catastrophe when Iran initially routed the Iraqi attack and went on to capture some of Iraq's own oil-rich provinces.
Iraq narrowly avoided its own destruction by precipitately acquiring vast amounts of equipment financed by borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In contrast, because of Iran's pariah status it could not even replace existing equipment, much less add new tanks, planes, etc. Only because of this handicap did the war end in stalemate -- after 750,000 deaths. Both nations' provinces were heavily damaged. Iraq gained nothing from the eight year war and was saddled with debts far beyond its ability to pay.
Saddam's solution was another reckless gamble: invading Kuwait from which he was immediately expelled by the Gulf War with losses that exceeded 100,000 dead and vast amounts of equipment. This was irreplaceable because Iraq is virtually bankrupt. Saddam's opponent in the Gulf War, the U.S., suffered less than 300 dead and minimal equipment loss.
NO "CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER," NO DIRECT AND IMMEDIATE THREAT"?
Professor Schlesinger's essay also flies in the face of 20th Century liberalism's
espousal of the urgent need for arms control, especially of nuclear arms. Now
I do not mean to suggest that 20th Century conservatives were unconscious of
this urgent need. But it was a matter of supreme concern to liberals (of whom
I am one). Throughout the 20th Century we pressed the case for arms control
and disarmament consistently and insistently. In the latter half of the Century
the terrible dangers posed by nuclear weaponry led some liberals to advocate
even unilateral nuclear disarmament.
20th Century liberal concerns are wholly at odds with the Schlesinger essay's indifference toward Saddam's acquisition of nuclear arms. If the danger that he may misuse those arms should be shrugged off because Saddam "is not interested in suicide," why should we ever fear nuclear proliferation? What does it matter if every nation acquires such weapons? After all, none of them are "interested in suicide," are they?
Professor Schlesinger to the contrary notwithstanding, the wisdom of 20th Century liberalism was (and is) that any nation's acquisition of such arms represents a "clear and present danger, [a] direct and immediate threat" to the entire world.
Nor will it do for Professor Schlesinger to explain that what he really meant is that the danger is not "clear and present" enough to justify forcibly disarming Saddam of nuclear weapon capacity. Implicit in the phrase "clear and present danger" is that a time can come when the danger suffices to justify drastic action. If that time is not here now, when will it come? The instant before Saddam detonates an atomic weapon in New York's harbor?
Over almost a decade, the U.S. and the U.N. have taken every step short of war to dissuade Saddam. The time for decisive action is now, before Saddam has nuclear arms.
At the suggestion of scholars whom I have run this essay by, I hasten to clarify
a couple of points:
* My argument is solely directed to the situation of Iraq, a nation run by a paranoid sociopath with expansionist ambitions and a record of mass murder, who is determined to have nuclear weapons. I am not aware of any parallel situation elsewhere in the world. But if someone shows that some other nation represents a comparably catastrophic peril to the world, I certainly would endorse the same measures against it.
* I do not endorse any notion of the U.S. running around replacing deplorable, even loathsome, governments. Not only have we neither the right nor the resources for such a role, it would be futile. The kind of government any nation has is determined by its history, institutions and heritage, and the underlying social, cultural and economic factors unique to that nation. The U.S. can produce short-term change by overthrowing a government. But we can no more impose a government of our design over the long term than a hyena can be redesigned as an eagle by shaving its fur and gluing feathers on it. (Nevertheless, one minor consideration favoring forcible action to prevent Saddam's acquisition of nuclear weapons is that any new Iraqi government is likely to be at least marginally better than his.)
* Nor am I under the illusion that America's historical record is above reproach, much less that our allies have always been so. Such considerations are often by people who solemnly claim they estop the U.S. from taking otherwise justified action. But that argument is irrelevant to the point of inanity. To see this, just apply it where it is most applicable, yet never applied by those who argue that America's checkered history estops us from taking some action against wrong-doers. They never offer such arguments as reasons why we should not have entered WWII. Somehow they cannot see the clear result of their own argument: that our checkered past morally estopped us from war with Hitler -- especially in alliance with Stalin's USSR, a regime no less evil than Hitler's, not to mention Chaing Kai-chek's corrupt and brutal regime in China.