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A Dangerous Game | The Nation

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A Dangerous Game

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Even before Iraq's acceptance of inspections complicated the diplomatic buildup to war, the hard-liners in Washington, especially Vice President Cheney, perhaps fearing war-averting initiatives by the UN or European allies, were busy creating fallback positions. Cheney argued that inspections had not worked in the past and that it was unrealistic to think they could achieve US aims even if Iraq accepted them. This kept open the prospect of US recourse to war even in what was then widely assumed to be the virtually unthinkable prospect of Saddam's accepting inspections, this time on a completely unrestricted basis. Undoubtedly the war-first advocates will now regroup, stressing the view that Iraq's word means nothing, that it can easily fool and obstruct the most diligent of inspectors and that only regime change can provide adequate reassurance that Iraq is no longer a menace.

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Richard Falk
Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, is the United Nations Human...

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World public opinion, especially in Europe, had been so upset with the Bush Administration's clamor for war that it was relieved by its recourse to the UN and its new indications of its willingness to work with other leading governments. Even the admirable Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has played along by backing Washington's demands: "If Iraq's defiance continues, the Council must face its responsibilities." Although not explicitly counseling war, Annan implicitly mirrors Scowcroft et al.--if a no-holds-barred inspection fails, then recourse to force is appropriate. For Annan, however, such an enforcement action, to be valid, must have the formal multilateral imprimatur of the UN at all stages, a condition that US advocates of the inspections path never mention and clearly do not want, especially now. It was notable that France, Russia and even Saudi Arabia responded approvingly to the Bush speech at the UN, suggesting the probability of their support for a Security Council demand that Iraq face annihilating war if it refuses to go along with the renewal of inspections. Perhaps this multilateral display of support for the modified US approach altered Baghdad's calculations, leading to its reversal on inspections.

It would have been too much to hope that Iraq's capitulation to a humbling inspections arrangement as an alternative to a war it would certainly lose, with devastating consequences for its long-suffering population, would defuse the crisis. Rather than seizing the Iraqi response as a major diplomatic victory achieved by the pressures mounted by the Bush approach and returning to the real war against Al Qaeda, Washington seems as determined as ever to keep its war option open. It wants to push the Security Council to adopt a resolution authorizing force if the new inspections regime encounters the slightest resistance or uncovers the smallest indication of Iraqi noncompliance with UN resolutions on weapons of mass destruction. The United States shows its belligerent intent by shamelessly demanding the impossible, namely, that Iraq prove that it does not have a nuclear weapons capability.

With this latest turn of events, the UN is being tested as never before. Earlier, as during the Gulf War, the main test was one of effectiveness: Could the UN reverse aggressive war against Kuwait? It met that test, somewhat controversially. Now the test is primarily one of legitimacy: whether the UN will be faithful to its own mandate of war prevention. The UN is neither better nor worse than its main members, and the challenge now is to steer a course between Washington's belligerence and Baghdad's authoritarian style to spare the world a dangerous and unwarranted pre-emptive war, which is likely to produce a variety of negative results, including a terrible precedent for the future.

The debate has been flawed all along. There has been virtually no discussion of whether a pre-emptive war policy directed at Iraq is consistent with international law or somehow justified by exceptional dangers. On the first issue, international law has authorized action in self-defense only if an armed attack has occurred. True, there may be a tolerance of pre-emption if an attack is imminent, as was the case with Israel's initiation of war against Arab neighbors massed on its borders in 1967. But the facts here do not begin to create that case for an exceptional right to wage pre-emptive war as an extension of self-defense. There is no indication that Iraq is likely, even after several years, to acquire more than a nominal nuclear weapons arsenal, and its role would almost certainly be one of deterrence and defense. However distasteful Saddam's rule, there's no evidence that he possesses either a visionary agenda or a disposition to engage in suicidal politics. Iraq's regional behavior is indeed lamentable in many respects, but it should be recalled that America backed Iraq's attack on Iran in 1980 and a decade later seemed noncommittal about Kuwait until after Iraq invaded. The record suggests that Iraq is fully susceptible to deterrence and containment, that what worked against a far more formidable and ideologically driven Soviet regime would certainly succeed against a severely weakened and outgunned Iraq.

What should clinch the argument for prudence is the most dangerous scenario of all: one in which Iraq is attacked, creating the only occasion in which it is likely to use whatever lethal weapons it has or hand them over to America's terrorist enemies. The Administration war advocates never address this argument when they blandly conclude, in Cheney's much noticed words, that "the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of action."

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