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A Deadly Game of `Chicken'



LAST week, The Crimson joined the growing tide of voices nationwide demanding that President Bush seek Congressional approval for his policies in the Gulf before he recklessly carries the nation into war with Saddam Hussein. The stakes are too high, and public support too uncertain to bring the nation to the brink of war for the sake of ill-defined foreign policy goals.

In the Bush tradition of excoriating dissenters for failing to be "team players," one reader criticized The Crimson for undermining the President's attempt to present a credible threat to Saddam. "To convince Saddam Hussein that we are willing to use force...seems to be the only way to persuade him to leave Kuwait peacefully," the reader wrote in a letter published December 8. "Therefore...we should show full support for our present policies and make Saddam believe that we American people are united behind our president."

We are not in habit of responding to letters to the editors. But in this case, we believe we must. The reader's argument, in its beguiling simplicity, contains all of the follies of the Cold War and the tragedy in Vietnam wrapped up into two sentences. This reader wants America to follow blindly our fearless leader for Realpolitik reasons. George Bush would love that. But the the U.S. should never plunge into war without debating it in a national forum. Obviously, Bush thinks he's right. But that is no reason for Congress to forfeit its Constitutional prerogative to question the president's judgment.

GAME theoreticians model situations such as the current standoff in the Gulf in the form of a game called "Chicken." Just as hot-rodding teenagers may scream their souped-up cars toward each other in an adolescent test of wills, each hoping that the other will swerve off the road, so can national leaders threaten each other with mutual destruction in order to persuade the adversary to give in.

One possible strategy in a highway game of Chicken is to clearly demonstrate to your opponent that your wrists are handcuffed to the rear-view mirror, thus preventing you from swerving. Opponents who value their lives have no choice but to swerve in this situation. The critical provision here is that the opponent must fear death more than dishonor.

Those who want Americans to present a spurious unified voice in the Gulf crisis are suggesting that we handcuff our wrists to the rear-view mirror. This strategy may sound appealing until we realize that the slightest miscalculation of Saddam's aims could mean that we would have to make good on our threat in order to maintain our credibility.

Bush's bluster and bellicose rhetoric could indeed cause Saddam to blink--but don't bet on it. Saddam has staked his career and his life on this confrontation. Giving in to Bush's demands would likely mean discredit and deposition for a dictator of his stripe. If Saddam called our bluff, Bush would be left with two choices: to suffer the humiliation of backing down or, more likely, to go to war in the desert.

By that time, public debate and intense Congressional scrutiny would be too late. Bush must clearly articulate his goals in the Gulf and immediately ascertain whether the public and the Congress are willing to fight for those goals. If the will of the people, as expressed through their elected representatives, favors fighting, so be it. But let's find that out now, before we become mired in a bloody and costly conflict halfway around the world.

MOST observers agree that the American administrations that waged war in Vietnam committed two grievous, unforgiveable errors: they did not articulate clearly our strategic goals in the conflict, and they did not seek to establish a public consensus around those goals before committing American soldiers to fight for them. Once the conflict began, officials figured that caving in to domestic opposition would be perceived by friend and foe as a sign of weakness. Thus, the war dragged on.

Ever since Ulysses S. Grant informed the commander of the Confederate forces at Vicksburg that he would "accept no terms except immediate and unconditional surrender," Americans have had a peculiar obsession with total victory at any cost. Without favoring appeasement, it is still possible to favor exhausting all possibilities for a peaceful settlement before we consider fighting.

But above all, let us truly consider fighting--consider it in the halls of Congress and consider it across the nation--before we actually set out to fight.

The author of Saturday's letter to the editor is wrong. As Lou Reed once sang: "This is no time for `my country right or wrong.' Remember what that brought before."

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