Commentary: Argument for a Military Strike on Iraq Using Shakespeare's 'Othello'

All Things Considered: August 26, 2002

Call to Strike

KEN ADELMAN: President Bush, like all of us, wants to base his decision on whether to liberate Iraq on the facts...

JACKI LYDEN, host: Commentator Ken Adelman.

ADELMAN: ...but facts are hard to come by, especially when they're needed most, like on matters of war and peace. In the beginning of one of Shakespeare's most profound tragedies, Othello is summoned by the leaders of Venice. He's told to dispatch his army that very night to stop an attack by Turkey. These top leaders gather to discuss state security. They first hear a report which says that Turkey has launched 107 ships; not between 105 and 110, mind you, but precisely 107. That sounds credible, factual, you might say. Then another official's report describes 140 ships. An officer then rushes in the room with news of the attack launched by a fleet of 30 sail. Shakespeare's top security leaders and Othello don't lack facts. They have lots of them--too many, actually--and their facts are contradictory.

I've seen this Shakespearean scene replayed scores of times while sitting in National Security Council sessions in the 1980s. We all presumed that the president had the best information in the world from spies, diplomats, satellites and all the modern gadgetry of intelligence gathering. He receives lots of facts, but they're often all over the lot. That's why Colin Powell told me 20 years ago never to believe the first intelligence report that comes into the White House in a crisis. It's invariably wrong. So what's a president to do? Just what Othello and his colleagues did.

One wise colleague of Othello says that their reports are 'oft with difference,' yet they all do confirm a Turkish fleet baring up. In other words, they got the big picture and passed over the contradictory facts. President Bush has to do the same on weighing a US attack on Saddam Hussein to protect us against his chemical, biological and nuclear programs. Today's intelligence reports are, in the words of Othello, 'oft with difference' on Saddam's precise ties with terrorism and the exact size and nature of his weapons of mass destruction. 'Yet,' as Shakespeare says, 'they do all confirm the main thing,' that he's the number-one threat facing American and all civilized, freedom-loving nations today.

Critics of the president's acting soon to protect America will always say that he and we need more facts. They want more specifics on just what chemicals he's making, on how far he's gotten making nukes, on this, on that, on everything that pops in mind. The administration could begin gathering and reconciling the facts on all these issues over the next weeks, months or even years. This would put America at dire risk. Or President Bush and his national security team can do what Othello and his team did in Venice on their crises -- get the big picture, push the details aside and use force to confront the danger and to protect their people. Myself? I stand with Othello on this one.

LYDEN: Ken Adelman is a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board.

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