What the World Should Hear from Bush
International Herald Tribune, 6 September 2002
The most comforting element in President George W. Bush's uneasily awaited address Thursday to the UN General Assembly was his clear commitment to exploring fully the Security Council route before taking any unilateral military action against Iraq.
But beyond that the unease was justified. The process was Powell but the substance was Cheney, and that's an awkward marriage. The president kept alive the prospect of the United States going it alone if the Security Council fails to perform to Washington specifications. And in that context he made it abundantly clear that there was much more on the U.S. agenda than just the removal of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons capability. The long list of other demands included ending "support for terrorism," "all illicit trade" and "persecution of its civilian population." "Regime change" was not mentioned, but that's what it all meant.
The rest of the world will go along with President Bush up to the point of removing Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction capability, but that's about it. If the big problem really is, as the president has been saying for months, "the world's worst leaders developing the world's worst weapons," then it's one that can be solved by getting rid of the weapons. You don't have to destroy the leaders as well, however much they may deserve that fate.
Saddam is an ugly dictator, but he's not the only one around. It's a very big call, and sets a very big precedent, to treat all-out military assault, even with UN backing, as the preferred response to violations of citizens' rights, democratic principles and sanctions law. Bush did not make a compelling case for any Security Council resolution to reach, in its action clauses (as distinct from its rhetorical ones), beyond the weapons issue.
What most of the international community will now support, and properly so, is a tough-as-nails resolution making it clear that while destruction of the regime may not be its objective, destruction of Iraq's weapons capability certainly is - and that, in the event of noncompliance, that objective will be achieved by whatever military ferocity it takes. Making Saddam's capacity for harm the issue, and not his existence, is by far the best way of ensuring that the ferocity will not, in the event, be needed.
It's the best way of dealing with the risk of retaliation, which was not addressed in the Bush speech. The prospect of Saddam, with his back to the wall, throwing at Israel and his Western tormentors all the poison gas and anthrax he has would be very much reduced if he faced just the loss of these weapons, not the annihilation of himself and his regime.
It's the best way of dealing with the region, where the response is far more likely to be muted and manageable if the issue is weapons and Saddam is dealt with wholly under Security Council authority.
And it's the best way of ensuring that the question of the United States' long-haul commitment to the reconstruction of the various countries it has saved by attacking is not, on this occasion, a question that will even have to be asked.
Just as President Bush's speech did not make a convincing case for a military-backed UN ultimatum going beyond the weapons issue, nor did it make a persuasive case for a unilateral U.S. strike in preemptive self-defense.
For any threat to demand that response, there has to be not only capability, but intent and noncontainability as well. On capability, Bush made the case well - but there was nothing new in his account of Saddam's chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry and delivery systems.
On intent, no evidence at all was offered about present or likely future actions other than extrapolation from the past.
On the requirement that policies of containment and deterrence be manifestly unable to hold the line, President Bush offered no new evidence or argument to counter the proposition that Saddam has been back in his box ever since the Gulf War and can be kept there without going so far as to overturn him by military force.
There is every reason, given past behavior and continuing defaults, to do a whole lot more on the weapons destruction and inspection front. That's the issue on which the United States should be focusing in its UN diplomacy, and on which it can unite rather than divide the rest of the world. If other key players now resist this course, it will be much harder for them to complain about the United States flying solo.