SOME CHRISTIANS WEAR wristbands that carry the acronym wwjd, for "What Would Jesus Do?" More recently, a group of anti-SUV environmentalists has embraced the slogan "What Would Jesus Drive?" My personal favorite, which I found at an American Atheists convention last year, is "Who Wants Jelly Donuts?" But all of these must now give way to the sheer perversity of one Joseph Loconte, a fellow at the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation, whose update on wwjd could best be described as "Whom Would Jesus Destroy?"
Loconte’s so-called thoughts were published on the op-ed page of Tuesday’s New York Times, following the previous day’s solemn, nuanced report by the leaders of the United Nations weapons-inspection team, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei. Not surprisingly, the highly anticipated Blix-ElBaradei report changed the minds of virtually no one within the political-media complex. Then again, why should it have? If you’ve got God on your side, why does it matter what a couple of UN bureaucrats think?
Beneath a headline that could have been a parody were it not an accurate summation of the views expressed in the column (THE PRINCE OF PEACE WAS A WARRIOR, TOO), Loconte sought to turn Jesus of Nazareth into a jihad-ist for America. Loconte quoted Matthew ("Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword") and a second biblical passage (describing Jesus as "the Lion of the tribe of Judah, ... who judges and wages war"). He then added his own helpful interpretation: "That’s why Jesus talked a great deal about punishment, and the moral obligation to oppose evil with a strong and swift hand. Human evil must be confronted, he said, and not merely contained. Depending on the threat, a kind of ‘pre-emptive strike’ or judgment against evil might even be required."
Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity’s first unilateralist! And by the way, here’s the rest of the quote from Matthew, the part that Loconte left out: "I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a son’s wife against his mother-in-law; and a man will find his enemies under his own roof." Hmm. I’m not going to pretend that I know what Jesus was thinking, but it sure doesn’t sound like regime change.
The Blix-ElBaradei report wasn’t quite a media feeding frenzy — there weren’t enough visuals for that, especially for the bottom-feeding all-news cable channels. Just 20 minutes into the 8–to–9 p.m. hour on Monday, the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly had already moved on to the post–Super Bowl riots in Oakland, MSNBC’s Phil Donahue was wringing his hands over the economy, and CNN’s Connie Chung — uncannily true to form — was blabbing about some lurid husband-killing case in Houston.
But still, Monday’s UN report had been circled on so many newsroom calendars for so long that you’d expect a few media chin-strokers would have at least made a pretense of having thought about it before regurgitating the same opinion they’ve been expressing all along. With vanishingly few exceptions, though, Blix could have babbled on about black helicopters and little green men for half an hour, and it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference.
Consider the editorial pages of some leading daily newspapers, both national and local. The New York Times, which has been skeptical about President Bush’s Iraq policy, found support for its position in the UN report on Tuesday, stating in its lead editorial, "Their findings argue strongly for giving the inspectors more time to pursue their efforts and satisfy international opinion that every reasonable step has been taken to solve this problem peacefully."
On the other hand, the fed-up-and-had-it Washington Post editorialized, "Mr. Blix went on to present, in a deliberately understated way, a devastating catalogue of lies, omissions and obfuscations by Iraq since the council [the UN Security Council] passed Resolution 1441, which was meant to give Saddam Hussein ‘a final opportunity’ to give up weapons of mass destruction.... Rather than yield to the inspectors and offer Iraq yet another last chance, the council would do better to simply obey the resolution that it approved unanimously just 11 weeks ago."
The liberal Los Angeles Times called for "extending the inspectors’ mission." The conservative Wall Street Journal opined that the Blix report documented the very sort of "material breach" that justifies an invasion. Locally, the Boston Globe headlined its lead editorial on Tuesday MORE TIME FOR BLIX, whereas the more conservative Boston Herald — which put a terrifying photo of a pissed-off Colin Powell on its front page — countered with BLIX REPORT CLEAR: IRAQ’S AN OUTLAW.
Well, yeah, but what should we do about it?
A FEW COMMENTATORS noted the stark difference between Blix’s dour, pessimistic assessment and ElBaradei’s hedged praise for Iraq’s cooperation and his appeal for more time. Few, though, picked up on what might have been the most important meaning behind that seeming disagreement — that Iraq may well be concealing an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, which is Blix’s specialty, but not nuclear weapons, which is ElBaradei’s.
On CNN’s NewsNight with Aaron Brown, the only intelligent prime-time newscast among the three cable news channels, former UN weapons inspector David Albright said that Blix’s report seemed "objective," whereas ElBaradei "spun it." Brown, though, did not take the opportunity to follow up by asking Albright whether Blix and ElBaradei may have been talking about two different things. Israel, fortunately, destroyed Iraq’s nascent nuclear capabilities in 1981, and they were destroyed again during the Gulf War, in 1991. UN inspectors were on the ground until late 1998. And there is little evidence that Iraq has been able to build nuclear weapons since then.
As Gregg Easterbrook argued last October in the New Republic, the only true "weapons of mass destruction" are nukes. Keeping nuclear weapons out of Saddam’s hands is reason enough to go to war, Easterbrook contended. Conversely, though, mere suspected possession of chemical and biological weapons is not sufficient. Blix found plenty of evidence that Iraq is lying about its chemical and biological weapons. ElBaradei, by contrast, said in his report that several more months of inspections could lead to Iraq’s being certified as free of nukes.
There are, of course, reasons to invade Iraq that go well beyond Saddam’s ability to wreak destruction upon his neighbors. An invasion could be seen as a humanitarian mission, not out of character with Bill Clinton’s interventions in the former Yugoslavia. But in the earlier case, we were dealing with a country that had at least some respect for Western values (remember, Slobodan Milosevic actually allowed himself to be voted out of office); currently, we’re facing a tyranny in a part of the world where the United States is unloved at best, hated at worst. To be optimistic about the outcome of a war in Iraq is to be criminally naive — especially given the American way of war.
The redoubtable Dan Perkins, a/k/a Tom Tomorrow, got at this problem on Tuesday in his weblog at thismodernworld.com, writing, "Maybe they’re right, you think. Maybe the Iraqi people really will be grateful to have been liberated from this repressive, murderous, torturous regime." He then broke this reverie by citing a story he’d found in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, of all places, which in turn referred to a report by CBS News that described the Pentagon’s battle plan, named "Shock and Awe": "The US intends to shatter Iraq ‘physically, emotionally and psychologically’ by raining down on its people as many as 800 cruise missiles in two days.... ‘There will not be a safe place in Baghdad,’ a Pentagon official told America’s CBS News after a briefing on the plan."
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (also cited by Perkins) put it, "There’s no moral tenet that makes me oppose invasion. If we were confident that we could oust Saddam with minimal casualties and quickly establish a democratic Iraq, then that would be fine — and such a happy scenario is conceivable. But it’s a mistake to invade countries based on best-case scenarios."
Especially when you’ve got nothing to offer but Shock and Awe.
RECENTLY, I finished Bob Woodward’s book on the first 100 days after 9/11, Bush at War (Simon & Schuster, 2002). Woodward does an excellent job of knocking down some of the shibboleths that liberals love to believe about George W. Bush: that he’s dumb, that he’s lazy, that he’s disengaged, and that his foreign policy is motivated primarily by such dubious considerations as American business interests, especially Middle Eastern oil.
Indeed, Woodward’s Bush strikes me as intelligent, hard-working, and honorable. That’s true of the rest of his top advisers as well, except for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who comes off as a petulant martinet who torments his underlings, fights with his peers, and withholds bad news from the president. I’m not going to stop making fun of Bush, or for that matter cease criticizing his ideologically driven agenda. But now I know that the Bush of caricature is not the same as the Bush of real life.
But there’s something else, too, something disturbing, and something that is relevant to what’s going on now. In reading Woodward’s portrayal of Bush and his advisers slowly groping toward a response to the terrorist attacks, you can see them arriving at an extraordinary position: that they will reserve unto themselves the right to go to war against anyone, at any time, for any reason as long as they can justify to themselves that it’s part of their ill-defined, open-ended war on terrorism. That explains a lot — their initial disdain for the UN, their contempt for Europe, their attitude of "trust us" when it comes to showing evidence to justify the adventure on which they are about to embark.
Woodward was on CNN’s Larry King Live on Monday night, giving his views on what comes next and taking questions from the public — including one from a caller in Phoenix who demanded to know why Woodward has become so "rah-rah" for Bush, a premise that Woodward rejected.
On Tuesday, Woodward had a front-page story in the Washington Post reporting what he’d hinted at the night before: that the White House has finally decided to declassify some of the intelligence information that it has insisted will prove its case for invading Iraq. The document dump, Woodward wrote, could occur "perhaps as early as next week."
Obviously, the end game is at hand. Secretary of State Powell, described in Bush at War and elsewhere as the administration’s leading antiwar voice, is now firmly on board. On ABC’s World News Tonight on Monday, John McWethy reported that the invasion will most likely begin in late February or early March — after the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, has ended, and under a new moon, the better to conceal the US’s B1 Stealth bombers. On Tuesday night, the president himself was to make the case yet again, this time in his State of the Union address.
Few believe that Saddam has actually disarmed. That’s not the issue. More than anything, what Bush has failed to explain is why Iraq represents a real threat to us at a time when it is beleaguered by no-fly zones in the north and south, economic sanctions, and a couple of hundred weapons inspectors scurrying about the countryside.
Containment has worked, but it’s not good enough for Bush, who is about to sacrifice the lives of Americans and Iraqis in order to accomplish his goal of regime change. With few exceptions, the media have let him get away with it.
Monday’s UN report was another missed opportunity.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com. Read his daily Media Log under "Web Exclusives" at bostonphoenix.com