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A Dangerous Game | The Nation

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A Dangerous Game

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Iraq's agreement on September 16 to unconditional UN arms inspections was another move in what editorial board member Richard Falk refers to below as a high-stakes international poker game. In the following essay, Falk examines Iraq's agreement and the White House response against the backdrop of the Bush Administration's efforts over the past year to substitute US military action for collective international efforts.
   --The Editors

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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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One year later, September 11 has certainly lived up to the early claim of being a transformative moment, at least for Americans. One of the least noticed sea changes has been the abrupt shift from diplomacy to war talk as the foundation of national security. And what is most surprising about this shift is that it bears only the loosest connection to the genuine threat the deadly Al Qaeda challenge continues to pose to the well-being of the nation. It is extraordinary that at such a time the government seems to be recklessly determined to wage a pre-emptive war against Iraq that is contrary to international law and morality, constitutionally dubious and strategically imprudent, risking catastrophic side-effects.

A disturbing element in this gathering war momentum has been the deeply disappointing quality of the debate on policy toward Iraq. George W. Bush most clearly delimited the broad strokes of his post-Afghanistan policy in his 2002 State of the Union address when he identified Iraq, Iran and North Korea as "axis of evil" countries that pose a threat linked in vague and essentially unconvincing ways to the 9/11 attacks. That focus was then set forth with great specificity in Bush's speech to the graduating class at West Point this past June. There Bush articulated the necessity of pre-emption, given the prospect, as Bush misleadingly described it, that Iraq would shortly acquire nuclear weapons and would then serve as a conduit for their transfer to Al Qaeda, which seems prepared to use the most deadly weapons it can get its hands on. Addressing the cadets, Bush made his pledge: "We will not leave the safety of America and the peace of the planet at the mercy of a few mad terrorists and tyrants. We will lift this dark threat from our country and the world."

In response to this momentous change in US security policy--a shift from deterrence and containment to preventive war--one would have hoped for a vigorous debate that addressed fundamental issues of fact and law. That has not happened, at least not yet. Instead, there have been questions raised about the means of waging such a war: issues of timing, cost and feasibility. Republican heavyweights, including Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger and even Henry Kissinger, were given lots of attention for expressing public doubt, but rather than undermining the case for waging war, these establishment voices, wittingly or not, were providing the hawks in the White House and Pentagon with a road map--a politically savvy way to mobilize the country and the world for the war. It was based on two key ideas designed to soften the impression but not alter the reality of unilateralism: US insistence on the renewal of intrusive inspections in a form that Iraq was thought bound to reject, and the call to the UN to insist that Iraq uphold the letter of harsh Security Council resolutions agreed upon at the time of the 1991 cease-fire, which if not enforced by the UN would then open the way for authorized US enforcement operations.

In his widely discussed August 15 Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, Scowcroft spelled out his recommended course of action so that even a schoolchild could understand what to do: "We should be pressing the United Nations Security Council to insist on an effective no-notice inspection regime for Iraq--any time, anywhere, no permission required.... senior administration officials have opined that Saddam Hussein would never agree to such an inspection regime.... And if he refused, his rejection could provide the persuasive casus belli which many claim we do not now have." Even Jimmy Carter, in an otherwise intelligent dissent from the Bush approach, fell into the inspections trap by acknowledging that "there is an urgent need for UN action to force unrestricted inspections in Iraq."

The White House heeded these friendly critics, reshaping its tactics, as exemplified by the President's September 12 speech to the UN General Assembly. He called for unrestricted inspections as prescribed by the Security Council, which if rejected by Iraq would authorize the use of force to achieve a "regime change" in Baghdad--the predominant goal of US policy all along.

But the poker game was far from over. The hawks orchestrating support for war forgot there were others in the game with cards to play, as is so often the flaw of an imperial worldview. Iraq has now unexpectedly called America's bluff by agreeing to unconditional inspections under UN auspices. This brilliant reversal of course has clearly caught the Bush Administration off guard, at least for the moment. The White House instantly responded with a show of suspicion and now seems inclined to push the UN as hard as it can to authorize war if Iraq flinches during the inspection process. In the background is a confusion about UN goals: regime change or reliable assurance that Iraq possesses no weapons of mass destruction.

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.

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."

There are good reasons to argue that the United States should be focusing not on Iraq but on Al Qaeda. There are indications that its main forces are regrouping, especially in South Asia, in the aftermath of the Afghanistan war. There are fresh suggestions that the situation in Afghanistan remains unsettled and requires a major US effort to insure that the country is not challenged anew by Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. This is the time also to address other extremely volatile situations associated with the terrorist danger. Nothing would soften anti-Americanism in the Islamic world more than Washington's clear resolve to find at last a fair and balanced solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict. Far more menacing than Iraq is the danger of a war between India and Pakistan, which could easily be triggered in the aftermath of an attack on Baghdad, with Islamic militants taking power from the West-leaning Gen. Pervez Musharraf and India responding with its own version of pre-emption. The perplexing and nonterritorial character of the Al Qaeda network seems to have baffled the Bush leadership to the point of substituting irrelevant territorial enemies susceptible to the US form of military dominance, which creates an illusion of victory while contributing nothing to the daunting task of reducing the terrorist threat.

The challenge before the American people is the most serious since the rise of Fascism and the long encounter with the Soviet Union. It is a time to reaffirm American faith in the values of law, justice and peace, as well as confidence in the Constitution. Bush has been acting from the outset as if the decision to go to war is his alone, although there is no claim of immediacy that might justify circumventing Congress. The White House seems to believe that consulting Congress is mainly a matter of courtesy and not required by the Constitution, which vests in Congress the power to declare war and appropriate the funds for its conduct.

Similarly, the apparent bipartisan consensus within the Beltway that US foreign policy involving the use of international force is free from the prohibitions of international law is a frightening repudiation of the efforts throughout the past century to make aggressive war a "crime against the peace," and its perpetrators punishable as war criminals. Such was the US stand at Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II with respect to German and Japanese leaders, with a promise by the victors that they would in the future be held to the same standards of accountability. Instead of passively watching on the sidelines as the government goes down this path to war, citizens urgently need to resist. A first symbolic step would be the immediate formation of a panel of inquiry consisting of figures of moral authority from here and abroad that would address issues of law, morality and security in the context of US foreign policy toward Iraq.

The Bush Administration has painted itself into a dark corner, especially given its Texan pride in making words serve as prelude to action. The Iraqi acceptance of the inspections demands offers the Administration a graceful way to defuse the crisis and move on, but is it flexible enough to seize the opportunity? It is likely that Baghdad, having swallowed its sovereign pride by accepting what most observers thought impossible, has also decided to give up its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. If the weapons' purpose was to deter an attack on Iraq, then the Bush strategy succeeded in showing the Iraqis that having them was more dangerous than giving them up.

To make White House accusations of Iraqi noncompliance with burdensome UN resolutions imposed a decade ago a casus belli would be to make a mockery of UN authority. It would discredit the UN in a fundamental way, given its abject refusal thirty-five years ago to implement far clearer Security Council resolutions ordering Israel to withdraw from occupied Palestinian territory, to uphold international humanitarian law in its administration of the West Bank and Gaza and to desist from the construction of illegal settlements.

The world community and the American people need to recover their focus, especially on the moral and legal importance of pursuing national goals as peacefully as possible. We should realize that we reached this present posture of the US-Iraq encounter by stages: irresponsible and clumsy war threats by the United States; guidance from establishment pragmatists that there is a better road map for war; the Bush UN approach incorporating that advice with immediate results in the form of assurances of multilateral support for pressure on Baghdad; and then the Iraqi acceptance of the unacceptable demand for unrestricted inspections. Ironically, this cynical interplay of forces may yet, one hopes, produce a result with respect to Iraq that seemed virtually impossible days ago--a hypocritical sequence of moves that quite remarkably ends in peace rather than war.

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