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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.

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