Why now? Why, one year after September 11, is the Bush Administration attempting to overthrow decades of precedents and precepts of international law, along with the best traditions of US foreign policy, in a relentless push to war? As high-level officials try to sell the Administration’s case to the American people and the President prepares for an appearance before the UN General Assembly, the White House continues its attempt to restrict the debate on Iraq to details of timing and tactics while ignoring the basic question of whether an invasion of Iraq should be considered at all.

Elsewhere in this issue Stephen Zunes provides a detailed refutation of the points the Administration has used to argue for war. The arguments are debatable at best, spurious at worst–like the innuendo that Iraq is linked to Al Qaeda (in fact, Osama bin Laden regards Saddam Hussein as an apostate); that “containment has failed” (since the Gulf War, Iraq’s military capabilities have weakened significantly and the regime poses little or no threat to its neighbors, who oppose invasion); or that inspection cannot adequately determine whether Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction (from 1991 to 1998, inspectors destroyed much of Iraq’s stockpile of chemical and bioweapons). One could go on, but the point is that all along, this Administration has followed the Alice in Wonderland logic of the Queen: sentence first, verdict later.

The White House has sought to justify the right to mount an attack by the new Bush doctrine of pre-emption–or anticipatory self-defense. But this country is a member of the United Nations, which was founded to prevent wars of aggression. And under that body’s charter, the United States can use force only in response to an attack on itself, or if approved by the Security Council. Otherwise, the Administration has no right to take this country into war–or even to threaten the use of force.

The Administration has found this doctrinal deviation a difficult sell even among its closest allies and thus has begun to search for new ways to bestow some international legitimacy on its actions. Hence the talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair, out of which has come a plan for a Security Council ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to meet British-American terms unconditionally or face “severe consequences.” In short, the Administration, with British support, may have devised the perfect pretext for war: a UN demand for the reintroduction of inspectors into Iraq that Saddam will likely not accept. The Administration is hoping its plan will provide enough of a UN cover to gain French, Russian and Chinese support, or at least acquiescence.

Those who question the need or legitimacy of a war against Iraq should not be fooled. What incentive does the Administration’s commitment to “regime change” give Iraq to readmit inspectors, especially when the inspectors could, like the last group, use the inspections for US espionage purposes? Washington should instead announce its support for inspections insulated from improper influence and pledge to abide by the UN’s findings.

With the executive branch committed to war, those who morally oppose an invasion of Iraq–because of the suffering it would inflict on US soldiers and Iraqi civilians, because of its potential to destabilize the region, because it would distract this country from the brokering of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, because a war in Iraq would detract from the campaign against Al Qaeda and from pressing domestic needs–have only Congress to turn to. That prospect doesn’t offer much comfort, since the Democratic leadership in the Senate appears ready to write the Administration a resolution authorizing military action, albeit with some conditions.

If Congress abdicates its role, it will harm not only the country but itself. Bush’s claim of the right to make pre-emptive war would give him and future Presidents the authority to determine when a threat exists and to take action on that threat without subjecting it to debate or to verification by other branches of government. The principle of Congressional oversight of the most fundamental decision government can make–whether to send its sons and daughters into danger–will have been entirely abandoned. And because Congress is the only arena where the people’s concerns can be aired, the structure of democracy itself will suffer a grievous blow. Even if UN inspections find that Iraq is trying to develop an advanced bomb program, there are ways of responding short of war. A Congressional vote for pre-emptive assault would create a damaging precedent, abrogate the UN charter, imperil the Constitution and transform the President into an imperial overlord.

Write, call, act now (see the box on page 5). Americans who oppose the war and this unconstitutional expansion of power must make their voices heard.