This evening I attended a debate in Manhattan on the question “USA vs. Europe: Who’s Right About the War on Terror?” The debate, hosted by the Donald & Paula Smith Family Foundation, featured Dieter Dettke, executive director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (a foundation run by the German Social Democratic Party), Michael Howard, a Tory member of the British Parliament, and Richard Perle, chairman of the Department of Defense’s Defense Policy Board. The debate was quite civilized, especially for such a contentious issue.

Dettke started by addressing the question directly: Who’s right about the war on terror? His first answer was that nobody knows. His second answer was that in both Europe and the US, some are right and some are wrong, so the answer is both and neither. After that cognitively valueless introduction, he proceeded to explain the position of the German government by noting that Germany had started World War II; after the war the German constitution legally prohibits it from starting a war of aggression. He urged that we refrain from an unprovoked pre-emptive attack on Iraq, accepting the “power of law” instead of the “law of power.” He did agree that Saddam Hussein must be disarmed, but proposed “coercive inspections” with more inspectors, combined with bringing Saddam before a war crimes tribunal. He said he believed Saddam could be “contained.” Dettke came off as a pleasant, jovial fellow.

Michael Howard, a Cambridge man, was very good–clear and to the point–though too willing to accept the UN and humanitarian foreign policy. He noted that international law respects the right to pre-emptive self-defense: It has to, he said, because it has to recognize reality. He asked the audience to imagine a situation in which a world leader addressed his people after millions had died in an attack, saying: “I knew they had weapons of mass destruction; I knew they were likely to use them. And I could have done something to prevent this attack before it happened. But international law prohibited me from doing so.”

Perle was magnificent. He was calm, sober, penetrating, clear, forceful, and had complete mastery of his subject. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t even a whiff of altruism in anything he said. He pointed out that saying an attack on Iraq would be “unprovoked” depends on what you mean by “provoked”–that the Gulf War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace and that Saddam has violated the conditions of that cease-fire. He forcefully defended the appropriateness of pre-emptive action against Iraq, and exposed the absurdity of a UN “multilateralism” that subjects American security to the veto of France, Russia and China. He pointed out that, following the logic of the idea that Saddam could be contained, there would be no reason even to disarm him. The proposal of more inspections and a war crimes tribunal was exposed as empty and designed only to delay action. By the end of it all, he had Dettke drawing a largely incoherent distinction between “prevention” (e.g., what Israel did against the Iraqi reactor, which Dettke accepted) and “pre-emption,” which Dettke did not accept. Perle is definitely someone to watch for.

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