It’s fall and time to unveil the new product lines in Washington. This year’s product, as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card helpfully explained to The New York Times, is a war against Iraq. It was little mystery that this particular rollout was likely. There have been rumblings about it for months and Iraq is a longtime fixation in the conservative media circles this administration is attuned to. They’ve been screaming for Saddam Hussein’s head since before anyone had ever heard of the Axis of Evil – claiming in every way they could think of that Saddam Hussein was moments from bringing catastrophe upon us.

Paul Wong
Peter Cunniffe One for the road

As Dick Cheney warned on Meet the Press, the United States “may well become the target” of Iraq’s chemical weapons (and, it was implied, his nuclear weapons soon enough). The “get Saddam” media contingent still does everything from claim he was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks to confidently assert that once Hussein is gone and replaced with a pro-U.S. democracy, it will trigger waves of revolutions throughout the Muslim world and before you know it, all the evilness will have been replaced by liberal democracies clamoring to sell us cheap oil. Of course.

The war boosters even try to win over a few of the human rights types by occasionally pointing out that most Iraqis want Hussein, a notoriously cruel ruler, gone as well.

But of course they do. We want him gone and we’re not even the ones who have to live with the lunatic. I can’t think of anyone who would argue Iraq wouldn’t be better off with a less cartoonishly maniacal leader, but that isn’t the issue. Plenty of countries are run badly by terrifyingly incompetent and/or demented people. And quite a few of those are armed with weapons of mass destruction.

The White House knows this and has focused its argument on the threat Iraq “may well” pose to us. While much of the pro-war commentary is a bit over the top, and despite the unnerving number of times the terms “may,” “could” and “likely” come up when administration officials talk about Hussein, the President has actually laid out a very good case for confronting Iraq, especially when making clear to the United Nations that all we’ve asked of Iraq is exactly what they asked of Iraq. But the headlong rush to the next Gulf War gives the impression that Saddam Hussein is our most pressing concern. And as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote in The New York Times over the weekend – talking about the need for better radiation detection equipment in ports – we actually have much more urgent problems that have much cheaper and simpler solutions than invading other countries.

Unfortunately, much of our government has succumbed to the fixation with Iraq when dangers much closer to home are still staring us in the face. There’s the aforementioned issue of port security, where only a tiny fraction of the goods shipped into the country are ever inspected. It was also barely two weeks ago that the New York Daily News attempted to sneak fourteen weapons onto flights at eleven different airports and wasn’t caught once.

And what ever happened to homeland security? The bills meant to create a new agency to handle the problem are far from perfect, but since getting stuck in a feud over labor rights, domestic security has basically fallen off the national agenda. We have the alert system (which doesn’t tell us to do anything, just how worried we might want to be) and we’re still looking for terrorists obviously, but the widely expected changes to everything from the way intelligence is processed, to inspecting cargo coming into the country, to how the immigration system is run has been supplanted by the Iraq “debate.”

In the weeks leading up to this Sept. 11, pundits often wondered how the president would use the surge of good will and good press he would undoubtedly be the beneficiary of. We now know he used it (as some who remember Karl Rove’s speech and slide show on how great war is for Republicans predicted) to push these problems, not to mention the still serious economic concerns facing the country, out of media and government view to make room for Iraq.

This is not to deny that Iraq is a problem we should be concerned about. It is fairly clear Saddam Hussein will have to be confronted at some point and provided it is done right – working with other countries rather than unilaterally – this is something we can and should do. But wars are massively expensive and drain political attention and will away from everything else, leaving old priorities stuck in the lurch.

Before we jump into this next war, we should be asking ourselves whether we’ve done enough to make ourselves safe at home to again turn our attention to attacking one of the many threatening countries abroad.

Peter Cunniffe can be reached at pcunniff@umich.edu.

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