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The case against war.

Byline: The Register-Guard

PREPARATIONS FOR war against Iraq are far advanced, but public discussion has been too narrow for an act of such great consequence. The nature of Saddam Hussein's regime, the threat posed by his arsenal and the connection between Iraq and the perpetrators of the crimes of Sept. 11 have been analyzed in fine detail, leaving more fundamental questions unasked and unanswered: What kind of country is the United States, and what kind of country do its people wish it to become?

President Bush and his administration insist that Iraq presents a grave danger to its neighbors and the world, and there's ample reason to believe that this judgment is correct. Saddam is a tyrant whose ambition and recklessness are exceeded only by his cruelty - as proved by his 1991 invasion of Kuwait, his 1980-88 war against Iran and his continuing brutality against his own people.

Yet Saddam is not the world's only dictator. Tyrants can be found from Pyongyang to Tripoli, from Damascus to Harare. Some of these dictatorships represent a military threat - indeed, North Korea is known to have nuclear weapons, which Iraq is only suspected of attempting to develop. Yet only Iraq has been deemed so dangerous as to require an immediate and pre-emptive attack. In all other cases, the United States is content to pursue a policy of containment, or even active engagement.

Containment has a long history of success, most notably against the Soviet Union but also, for the past dozen years, against Iraq. The United States has turned to war only when it could point to acts of military aggression. For the United States to abandon containment now, it must either conclude that Iraq presents a unique new threat, or it must find that the concept of containment has lost its validity.

The Bush administration makes both arguments, and finds support for both in the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Those blows justified the United States' war against Afghanistan, whose government acted as host to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network. Iraq, the administration insists, is similarly connected, and therefore can be regarded as having furnished a provocation for war. What's more, Bush and his advisers believe that a policy of containment can't work against a terrorist organization active in many different countries.

Unlike the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, however, Iraq has at best a distant relationship to al-Qaeda. The two share a deep hostility to the United States, and each would applaud any action by the other that hurt American interests, but their goals and ideologies are divergent. Indeed, bin Laden opposed the U.S.-led war against Iraq in 1991 because he believed his fighters could liberate Kuwait on their own. Even in his latest message, bin Laden denounced Saddam in language almost as strong as he used against the United States and Israel.

Given such a slender connection, making a battlefield of Iraq is likely to impede the the global anti-terror effort. The notion - already widespread in the Middle East - that the United States is at war against Arabs and Muslims would be greatly strengthened. After witnessing what happens to a defiant country such as Iraq, many would conclude that stateless organizations such as al-Qaeda are capable of the most effective resistance to the United States. Even if the United States succeeded in striking a glancing blow against terrorism by attacking Iraq, the resulting explosion would scatter the seeds of terror everywhere.

The Bush administration does not lean entirely on the terrorist link; it offers other reasons for striking Iraq. Its most effective is its claim that time is short - effective because there's no way to refute assertions that Saddam will employ nuclear, chemical or biological weapons unless he's stopped soon.

Yet Saddam is in a poor position to lash out against anyone. Iraq is the most heavily monitored nation on the planet, with United Nations inspectors inside the country, no-fly zones being patrolled by the United States and others, and surveillance cameras overhead and in orbit. Any aggressive act by Iraq would bring swift and massive retaliation. Presuming Iraq has weapons prohibited by United Nations resolutions, they're most likely to be used when Saddam finds he has nothing to lose - a condition that would be created by a U.S. attack.

Even in the Middle East, few tears would be shed if Saddam no longer ruled Iraq. But the Bush administration's sense of urgency is not shared by much of the world - including some countries that are among the United States' closest allies, recent harsh words notwithstanding. Undoubtedly, a policy of continued containment and inspections presents some risks. But Germany, Russia, China, France and others fear that the risks are even greater that an invasion would induce Saddam to use whatever weapons he has, harden anti-American feelings worldwide and result in widespread casualties.

The Bush administration rejects the cautious counsel of other nations as appeasement or a loss of nerve, and is willing to depose Saddam in the absence of wide international support. It warns that the United Nations and NATO risk making themselves irrelevant if they will not enforce their resolutions or support their allies. True irrelevance, however, will be visited upon international organizations and military alliances if they are expected to follow orders from Washington, D.C., against their members' better judgment. The United Nations and NATO are not on the verge of abandoning the United States; the United States is preparing to abandon them.

The United States doesn't need foreign support in a military operation against Iraq. It enjoys a position of military superiority unparalleled in human history. If the United States uses that power to claims for itself the right to attack another country in the absence of a clear provocation and without the support of world organizations, a dangerous precedent will be set. The precedent risks leading North Korea, Iran and others to accelerate their armaments programs out of fear that they'll be next. Further, it invites powerful nations such as India and China to contemplate pre-emptive strikes against their enemies.

A go-it-alone strategy would also shoulder the United States with the unshared obligation to rebuild Iraq after Saddam's forcible ouster. That would be in contrast to Afghanistan, where the burden of providing security and economic support has been borne by many nations - including some of those the Bush administration now accuses of timidity in the face of tyranny. The already shaky prospects for a stable post-war Iraq would be much improved by the involvement of a broad coalition.

Iraq thus presents a test: What kind of nation will the world's most powerful country be? Will it exercise unchecked armed might, as empires throughout history have done? Or is the United States a different kind of world power, mindful not only of its military muscle but also of its moral authority? Will the post-Cold War period be a time when the United States strikes its enemies around the globe, creating two new ones for each that falls? Or will the clenched fist be paired with an open hand that works to relieve the poverty, oppression and ignorance that nourish terrorism?

That's the decision the United States faces now. There's no doubt the Bush administration can enforce its will in Iraq. The consequences, however, would be grave - and gravest of all would be the damage done to the United States' standing as a nation guided by universal ideals.
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Title Annotation:What kind of country do Americans want?; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Feb 16, 2003
Previous Article:Letters in the Editor's Mailbag.
Next Article:Oregon's best and brightest provide solace.

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