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The War: Beware The Optimists

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By Hugh B. Price
President, National Urban League

Spring, with its eternal promise of happiness and renewal, has finally broken out here in the New York area.

Although a brief dose of cold weather may lie ahead, the soothing warmth that’s flowed our way on the winds of the past few days has quickly prompted the reappearance of such rituals as scrubbing down house exteriors and planting seeds in back yards for the summer sproutings.

Yet, the coming of spring this year has also brought with it the promise of death and destruction. As these words are being written, the United States has launched a military strike against Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein.

I can’t help but feel a sense of dread, of uncertainty and anxiety ripple powerfully through our own headquarters offices here at the foot of New York’s Wall Street.

You see, our offices are less than a mile due east of where the World Trade Center complex stood less than two years ago. For all their height and majesty and world-landmark status, those giant towers were just another feature of our neighborhood—until that warm, early fall day when they were destroyed, more than 2,000 innocent lives were lost, and our world forever changed.

A colleague who stayed at the office that day into the mid-afternoon before being evacuated out of Lower Manhattan by an East River ferry recalled looking from the boat, as it was churning out into New York harbor, at the giant dust cloud that marked the spot where the towers had stood only hours before, and thinking: “Our future is as impenetrable as that cloud.”

So I believe, too. No one knows what the course the Bush Administration has settled on will bring. But I will say this: Beware the optimists. Beware those who glibly describe the sunniest forecast, in which everything will go as planned, and “regime change” will be painless for us as well as the people of Iraq and democracy will sprout there like our summer flowers.

In saying this, I have no intention here of, for the moment, rehashing the debate over whether the military “option” is the best course of action, or whether the Bush Administration squandered America’s diplomatic capital and blundered its way to this end. That debate will go on now and far into the future.

I also recognize that it’s as easy for some who stand far from the front lines of the world’s conflicts to always propose seeking the peaceful way out, as it is for some who stand far from the front lines to glibly sound the call to arms.

Nor, as I’ve stated many times since September 11, 2001, do I have any tolerance for those who practice terrorism. The murder of innocent people for any ideological cause has never been, and is not now, and will never be acceptable. The world must be made safe for civil society.

Rather, my thoughts now are driven to lament the failure of diplomacy and to think of our looming future which is as indistinct, as impenetrable as that dust cloud in our neighborhood the day the world changed.

Some analysts have sought to bolster their arguments for using military force to drive Saddam Hussein from power by referring to the political confusion and fear of war in Europe that enabled Adolf Hitler to build and then unleash the brutality of the Third Reich.

But I tend to think a more accurate historical reference is the beginning of World War I. Then, both sides initially thought the war would last only a few months because their side would gain a quick victory. Instead, the war on both sides became a study in futility, abetted by a heavy dose of military stupidity and callousness, that chewed up the lives of millions.

There appears almost no chance of repeating that horrifying experience in military terms. For me, it’s the thinking about what will happen after the “regime change” occurs that has me worried.

I worry about why the situation in Afghanistan—our most recent laboratory for “regime change”—is so little discussed these days? Is that because it’s not a model for what will happen in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq? Or because it is?

I worry about where the new doctrine of “pre-emptive action” will lead us next—to what other “rogue state,” or rogue terrorist group within a nation?

I worry about the political backwash of this action across the world, in Asia and Africa and Latin America as well as among our traditional European allies.

I worry about the fate of the United Nations—and the fate of such global initiatives as the campaigns against world hunger, and the worldwide slave trade, and AIDS if there is no United Nations, no forum for enabling the world’s governments to talk to each other in a diplomatic forum about the world’s problems.

Yes, the military outcome of the war in Iraq is certain. But that is probably the least important part of what the immediate and long-term future holds in store.
That’s why I say: beware the optimists.

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