War and warming: polemical blowback

Of all the sources of unintended consequences, war probably is the greatest. The forces set in motion rarely stop where the participants expect. The Civil War helped spawn the large industrial corporation and Jim Crow. World War I gave rise to Hitler, and World War II to the Soviet Bloc. On the positive side, the latter also helped produce the civil rights movement, as black GIs who risked their lives for their country did not take kindly to the second-class status that awaited them on their return.

An invasion of Iraq isn't likely to be exempt from this recurring pattern. As James Baker III, secretary of state under the first President Bush, acknowledged recently, "War can create dynamics that are difficult to predict and control [and] this is particularly true in the Middle East."

Some of those renegade dynamics have been much noted. There will be outrage in the Arab world, for one thing. For another, a US-led invasion would establish a new principle of international affairs - that it's OK to take out a country that you think one day might attack you or disrupt your "interests." This could turn the world into an uninviting place.

But the polemics of war can have a dynamic of their own, and this has gotten less attention. Yet the consequences also could be large - and ironic in the extreme where the Bush administration is concerned. In making the case for invasion, the president has echoed arguments that ardent environmentalists use in other contexts; and these statements could become a kind of polemical blowback, causing him much discomfort when the debate turns back to global warming and kindred issues he is not eager to address.

The administration case for invasion has been what the lawyers call an "argument in the alternative." On the one hand, it says that it has the goods on Saddam Hussein. This was the case Secretary of State Colin Powell made at the United Nations. In the alternative, the administration says we can't wait until we have the goods beyond dispute because, by then, it will be too late. "Facing clear evidence of peril," the president said, "we cannot wait for the final proof - the smoking gun - that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. To wait for certainty is to wait for disaster."

This was a key Republican talking point in the Senate debate over the Iraq resolution. If it sounds vaguely familiar, it's because we have heard it before, from environmentalists talking about global warming, the dangers posed by genetic engineering, and similar issues. Change the words "mushroom cloud" in the president's speech to "melting polar ice caps" and you would practically have a statement from the Sierra Club on climate change.

There's even a name for this line of thinking. It's called the "precautionary principle," and it says simply that humans should err on the side of caution when the potential harm is great and all the facts aren't in. Europe generally has embraced this principle; Great Britain used it just recently when it decided to warn pregnant women of mercury levels in canned tuna. It is part of numerous international treaties. The 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development contains it in somewhat compromised form: "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."

While the administration urges precautionary action in regard to Iraq, it takes the opposite approach on global warming. Rather than propose action, the president has instead supported further study - a little like the doves in the Iraq debate. One environmental advocate called that approach "measuring and managing risk while we stack up the dead bodies."

The imagery is apt, connecting as it does the two looming threats. Whatever one thinks about Iraq, and US action there, the language of invasion will persist long after the bombing ceases.

It would be strange indeed if military action launched in part to stabilize a supply of oil, and prolong an addiction that is changing the climate of the earth, ended up providing polemical ammunition for those who want to curb that addiction. (That's on top of the environmental havoc that war itself would bring.) But in war, the ball never stops where you throw it. Sometimes it ends up on a different side.

Jonathan Rowe is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, and a former Monitor staff writer.

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