If the Bush Administration has its way, Iraq will be the first test of its new doctrine of pre-emption, which calls for early unilateral action against enemies suspected of posing a threat to America. For the United States, the world’s military and economic superpower, to abandon a defensive, international-law stance and adopt such a destabilizing strategy is profoundly contrary to our interests and endangers our security. What was once the frothing of right-wing ideologues is now on the verge of becoming national policy. Yet we hear no opposition from leading Democrats either regarding the new doctrine–which will alienate allies and makes us even more hated around the world, and will be used by other nations as a pretext for settling their own scores–or regarding its specific application in Iraq. Instead, the Administration gained several influential supporters for an Iraqi regime change, including House minority leader Richard Gephardt and Senate majority leader Tom Daschle.
In making the case for taking pre-emptive action against Iraq, the White House has been long on innuendo and very short on evidence of an Iraqi threat requiring such drastic remedies. What we do know is that since the Gulf War, Iraq’s military capabilities have weakened significantly, to the point where they pose little or no threat to its neighbors, a fact reflected in Saddam Hussein’s bid to improve relations with both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The United Nations inspections regime that operated in Iraq until late 1998 destroyed most of Iraq’s ballistic missiles and nuclear and chemical weapons program. Since then, UN financial controls have deprived the regime of the money it would need to rebuild its military machine or redevelop the infrastructure needed to produce weapons of mass destruction. We know that the regime lacks the reliable means for using any weapons it might have. Of the 819 Scud missiles that Saddam once possessed, all but two were accounted for before the inspections ended. The regime has some short-range missiles, and it is suspected of working on longer-range missiles, but since none have been tested they therefore would be of highly questionable reliability. Even if Saddam had been able to hide away one or two longer-range missiles, it is not clear what he would hope to gain from irrational and ultimately suicidal attacks on Israel or his other neighbors.
The Administration seems to recognize the weakness of its case and has begun to shift the rationale for a pre-emptive strike to the danger that Saddam may pass weapons of mass destruction on to terrorist groups that threaten the United States. Again, there is no evidence that Saddam has cooperated with Al Qaeda or other "terrorist groups with global reach," in the Administration’s words. In fact, according to the State Department’s own report, Iraq’s support for terrorist activities is modest compared with that attributed to some of the other states on its list. As the State Department said earlier this year, Saddam has not been involved in any terrorist plots against the West since his attempt to target Bush Senior during his 1993 visit to Kuwait. Nor is there any reason for the Iraqi leader to aid the apocalyptic goals of Islamic fanatics, who are seen to threaten his secular regime and his bid for leadership in the Arab world.
Even the Administration’s zealous supporters on Iraq, like the ubiquitous R. James Woolsey, have not been able to come up with any evidence of Iraqi collusion with these terrorist organizations. The accusation that Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi diplomat in Prague before the September 11 attack appears to have no basis in fact. And the wild claim that Iraq was the most likely source of the anthrax sent to Senator Daschle and others has been contradicted by the Administration’s own investigation.
So the case for the pre-emptive use of force seems to boil down to conjecture at best. Certainly our European allies, who have access to much the same intelligence, are not convinced that Saddam poses a threat. Nor, seemingly, is the security-conscious Israeli government, which chose to derail the Administration’s timetable on Iraq by pursuing its aggressive strategy in the West Bank.