Conscience in Time of War

Through its candlelight, cyberspace, and megaphone protests, the movement to preempt a war on Iraq has served the United States relatively well over the past year.

The antiwar arguments didn't win over a majority of Americans and they clearly haven't deterred President Bush from promising war after a Thursday deadline set for Saddam Hussein.

But the antiwar movement can take some credit for altering the course of prewar diplomacy that gave Mr. Hussein more opportunity to disarm. It has also raised vital questions - which still need answers - about a new US strategy to fight global terrorism.

Most of all, it has helped highlight the problems the US will face in molding a new Iraq and in healing rifts with war-averse US allies - even if a war goes well (if any war can) and even if Iraq is found to have truly had chemical or biological weapons.

The protests against the president's assumptions about the urgency of Hussein's terrorist threat have been necessary not just in the run-up to this expected war.

Similar challenges will apply if Bush threatens other nations that have both weapons of mass destruction and a recent history of terrorism. The antiwar movement shouldn't discard its placards yet if, as is possible, North Korea is next in line.

The arguments against preemptive antiterrorist wars are now woven into the national dialogue. They've been well aired for those who would listen to different views. Most of all, there have been few public cries that antiwar protesters are "unpatriotic." The national debate has been a model of civility.

Those who oppose the war are now faced with what to do and say during war. As American soldiers go to battle for their country, should political dissent continue at home?

The war in Vietnam dragged on long enough so that protests did bring an end to it. President Johnson was prevented from seeking reelection. This war may be too short even to worry about whether to set aside conscience and temporarily rally 'round the flag.

But in wartime, dissent is needed to make sure the government is still asking the right questions, especially in plans for war's aftermath.

Bush seems to have chosen to ignore opinion polls as he puts together a security strategy to protect all Americans from another 9/11-style attack. His resolve is admirable, as long as he and his advisers are still open to the many good points that the antiwar movement has made.

Both US soldiers and war dissenters are performing a public service. And both are patriots.

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