Will war come?

Is the headline in the New York Post approvingly proclaimed, President George W. Bush’s January 28 State of the Union speech was an instance of "Pounding the War Drum." After a dutiful résumé of his domestic proposals, Bush launched an impassioned and emotionally effective presentation of the reasons for disarming Iraq and, short of that, for war with Hussein’s regime. He asserted, without offering new or compelling proof, that Iraq has ties to Al Qaeda and continues to pose an imminent danger to the United States and the world. "Imagine those nineteen hijackers with other weapons, and other plans-this time armed by Saddam Hussein," Bush suggested. "We will do everything in our power to make sure that day never comes."

Is Bush telling the truth? Or is he exploiting the national trauma of September 11 for political gain and adventurism abroad?

Those are not easy questions to answer. Bush’s skepticism about Iraqi compliance with UN disarmament mandates was given considerable weight earlier that week by the report of Hans Blix, the UN’s chief weapons inspector. Blix told the UN that Iraq remains uncooperative and has failed to account for known quantities of biological and chemical agents. Blix "Finds No Proof Hussein Has Disarmed," said the New York Times headline. As we go to press, Secretary of State Colin Powell is about to present previously undisclosed "evidence" to the UN Security Council that Iraq is still pursuing weapons of mass destruction. It is not clear if the United States will then seek a second UN resolution explicitly endorsing military action (an endorsement Bush has pointedly said he does not need). It should.

Obviously, in analyzing the moral and political justification for war, much will depend on the credibility of Powell’s evidence and the response of the Security Council. Bush is not without important allies already but, with UN backing, the case for military action gains considerable moral legitimacy. On a more pragmatic level, with the UN on board, no matter how grudgingly, Arab states will find it much easier to at least tacitly support military action. That increases the chances that the reaction to the war in the Islamic world will be muted. Both morally and practically, Bush strengthens his hand if he can unite a broad coalition behind him and especially if he can secure a resolution authorizing the use of force from the UN.

The moral questions facing those trying to decide if action against Iraq, whether UN sponsored or not, can meet just-war criteria are genuinely perplexing. The case against war rests largely on whether you think sanctions and inspections have worked in the past and are likely to work in the future. Yet as Bush says, "The world has waited twelve years for Iraq to disarm." Given Hussein’s record and the difficulty of holding together a coalition willing to sustain a policy of sanctions and inspections, the risks of waiting are real. Moreover, it seems clear that without the threat of U.S. military action, Iraq would not have opened its doors to UN inspectors even now. Neither, it must be said, would the UN be demanding Iraqi compliance if the United States were not threatening to act alone. When dealing with a brutal regime like Hussein’s, diplomacy must be backed by credible force. To keep the peace the threat of war must be real. In light of these facts, will a containment strategy increase the chances Hussein will comply with UN resolutions? It does not seem likely. If Secretary Powell reveals convincing evidence of Hussein’s ongoing capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, the case for continued inspections will be weakened.

To the president’s credit, although he has preached unilateralism, in this case U.S. actions have sent a different message. The war in Afghanistan was backed by a strong international consensus, as is evident by the many nations now helping to keep the peace and rebuild that country. Despite frequent disagreements and diplomatic clashes with Europe, particularly with France and Germany, the United States has, after all, worked through the UN in the effort to disarm Hussein. Bush, say his advocates, is trying to strike a difficult and novel balance. As the world’s only military superpower, the United States has no choice but to lead forcefully in the effort to establish international peace and stability. Often that means twisting arms and talking tough. In the end, Bush strategists think, Europe has nothing to fear from the United States and will play its part.

Yet serious objections remain. The administration’s explanations of the threat Iraq presents have been neither cogent nor consistent. Bush’s efforts to link Iraq with the events of September 11 and to make Hussein the principal target of the so-called war on terror do not stand up to scrutiny. Hans Blix has called the conclusions drawn by the administration from his report precipitous and unwarranted. Moreover, the open-ended mandate Bush has asserted for unilateral, and even preemptive, U.S. military action against terrorist "entities" or states that harbor terrorists, is rightly resisted by other nations. Bush is eager to assure the American public that he is doing and will do "everything" in his power to protect their lives and safety. No president would do less. Bush’s insistence, however, that the United States alone can effectively safeguard its citizens against terrorism is little more than demagoguery. Given the clandestine and itinerant nature of terrorist networks, alliances are crucial to preventing further catastrophic attacks. So is international good will. Arrests of terrorist suspects across Europe and elsewhere demonstrate these undeniable facts. International cooperation and coordination are the first line of "homeland" security. When the president denigrates our ties to other nations and the opinions of their elected leaders, he weakens this nation’s defenses.

Bush’s penchant for making off-the-cuff, politically opportunistic remarks-about his personal impatience with Hussein or America’s moral exceptionalism-does not increase confidence in his judgment. It’s often more difficult to bring wars to an end and manage their consequences than to make the decision to wage war in the first place. On this score, Bush and his advisers have been conspicuously vague about both the human and financial costs of war and what would be a lengthy occupation of Iraq. Regardless of how one may judge the morality of deposing Hussein, the president has manifestly failed to prepare the American public for the possibility that the price of war and its aftermath will be high.

In the next few weeks, the world will learn if George W. Bush has been playing a masterly hand of diplomatic poker or if he has only succeeded in needlessly isolating the United States. In the months after that, we may learn if the use of force against an undeniably evil regime strengthens the idea of international law and helps to liberate an oppressed people or whether it flouts the rule of law, plunging an entire region, or more, into chaos. Will the decision to go to war, if it comes, "help shape the rules by which all states live," as Bryan Hehir asked in these pages about the 1991 Gulf War? Or will it set a dangerous precedent where U.S. power and interests trump the very idea of rules?

February 4, 2003

Published in the 2003-02-14 issue: 
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