President George W. Bush has a case for going to war. It’s a slim case, but a case. And he keeps undermining it with dishonest remarks. During his Thursday night press conference–only the eighth news conference of his presidency (Bill Clinton had logged 30 by this point in his first term)–Bush once again tried to argue for war. He offered nothing new. And, to be fair, at this stage of the game–after months of prep work–no one should expect to hear much in the way of fresh argument. But Bush took one more shot at explaining his thinking.
He asserted that “Saddam Hussein and his weapons are a direct threat to this country, to our people, and to all free people. If the world fails to confront the threat posed by the Iraqi regime…free nations would assume immense and unacceptable risk….We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction. We are determined to confront threats wherever they arise.”
In the post-9/11 world, any possibility of a brutal dictator with anti-American sentiments acquiring nuclear, biological and chemical weapons has to be considered worrisome and worthy of a vigorous response. Bush and his crew are right: one cannot assume that absence of evidence (of weapons of mass destruction) is the same thing as evidence of absence (of WMD). The US government ought to identify potential foes and potential attacks and develop the means to neutralize them early. Perhaps it might even be prudent in some circumstances to move against such threats before undeniable proof can be assembled, more so if the targets are known murderers, torturers, and thugs who do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Even if questions remain about a preemptive course of action, it may still be warranted, particularly if the potential threat were sufficiently dire. (If Washington had sketchy indications that Kim Jong Il was poised to sell a nuclear bomb to a terrorist outfit, how long should it wait–how much evidence should it amass–before deciding to intervene and forcibly stop the transfer?)
One could argue that while the actual danger posed by Saddam Hussein (and whatever weapons he might possess or might develop) is difficult to assess, the United States cannot risk guessing wrongly. At the news conference, Bush declared, “My job is to protect the American people.” Clearly, his expansive view of that mandate includes going to war against a tyrant whose actions may end up threatening the United States.
Bush’s problem has been that a case for war based on the potential threat from Iraq is, obviously, not as compelling as a case predicated on an actual and immediate threat. If a nation faces a potential threat, it has the luxury of weighing–and debating–various aspects of going to war: the moral legitimacy of the action, the possible consequences and costs, how other governments and populations will react, the alternatives to an invade-and-occupy response. Many of these concerns, though, could be shoved aside, if the United States were confronting a clear-and-present danger.
Consequently, Bush has had to hype the case–to present it in black-and-white terms in order to turn a judgment call into an imperative. So there he was on Thursday night, again talking up the supposed connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. He claimed that Saddam “has trained and financed” al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He referred to “a poison plant in northeast Iraq” and “a man named Zarqawi who is in charge of the poison network.” And he said, “To assume that Saddam Hussein knew none of this was going on is not to really understand the nature of the Iraqi society.”
Bush was referencing statements Secretary of State Colin Powell had made to the UN in early February, when he claimed, “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants.” But after Powell’s speech, The Washington Post reported, “A senior administration official with knowledge of the intelligence information said that evidence had not yet established that Baghdad had any operational control over Zarqawi’s network, or over any transfer of funds or materiel to it.” And reporters who visited the so-called “poison plant”–which was set up in an area of Iraq not under the control of Saddam Hussein–found only a primitive base for a local fundamentalist outfit. Even at the eleventh hour, Bush still cannot persuasively tie Baghdad to al Qaeda. (Would he say that Pakistan was “harboring” Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the top al Qaeda official recently arrested there?)
Since Bush cannot make the threat-end of his case more convincing–he seems to have stretched the available evidence as far as it can go–he has attempted to strengthen his argument by dissembling on other fronts. During the press conference, he said he was willing to stick with “diplomacy” for a little while longer. That is not so. What he is willing to do is to spend a few more days trying to wring out of the UN Security Council a resolution that would directly or indirectly approve a US-led attack against Iraq. But diplomacy entails more than winning approval for war. In most instances, it would mean resolving a conflict without resorting to the use of force. But Bush has offered no alternatives to all-out war. Sure, if Saddam fled the country, Bush might accept that as a reason to call off the invasion.
But Bush and his top advisers have scoffed at inspections, which are one form of diplomacy. If Saddam Hussein is not to be trusted–and he is not–then no matter what steps Iraq takes, Washington can never have 100-percent confidence Saddam has fully complied with the Security Council resolutions and disarmed. And if 100-percent confidence is the working standard, as the Bushies seem to insist, then all talk from the administration of disarming Saddam is bunk. The only disarmament they can accept is de-Saddamization. And that, in all likelihood, can only come through war. Bush and his officials have refused to entertain the possibility of coercive inspections–that is, inspections backed by military force. (Imagine a no-fly zone across almost all of the country, or military raids against suspected WMD sites.) Not only is diplomacy not an option for Bush; neither is force short of war.
In this vein, at the press conference, Bush said–as he has repeatedly–“the risk of doing nothing, the risk of hoping that Saddam Hussein changes his mind and becomes a gentle soul, the risk that somehow that inaction will make the world safer is a risk I’m not willing to take for the American people.” With this statement, Bush was presenting a false dichotomy: war or nothing. If that’s the choice, war may seem less avoidable. Yet the nations opposing his push for war–France, Germany, Canada–have indeed proposed other courses of action involving more aggressive and intrusive inspections. Bush is free to argue that such means cannot succeed and are not worth even attempting. Instead, he dismisses his opposition by suggesting it is naively and foolishly counting on Saddam’s transformation into a saint. This has been one of the critical distortions he has used to promote his war.
Bush repeated his claim that war is necessary to preserve the relevance of the United Nations. This was the type of arrogant remark that has been fueling anti-American sentiment overseas since Bush assumed office. UN Security Council Resolution 1441 promised there would be “serious consequences” if Saddam Hussein did not comply with its disarmament orders. It did not define these consequences. What Bush has been saying is that unless the Security Council embraces his definition of “serious consequences”–war right now–it is a pointless body. “The credibility of the Security Council is at stake,” he maintained. But what if the Security Council were to decide to toughen up the inspections and conduct them for another five months? Why would that be evidence of its meaninglessness? Indeed, it is Bush who is placing the Security Council in a position of irrelevance. Should he ignore the deeply-felt sentiments of its member-nations (and the populations they represent) and launch a war unsupported by the Security Council, it will be he who is declaring–and proving–that the United Nations does not really matter.
At the press conference, Bush said once more that his war against Iraq would be a war of liberation for the Iraqi people. That may well be–unintentionally. Bush’s war-for-democracy pitch is essentially window-dressing. This administration would have no interest in sacrificing American lives and assuming political risks if the goal were primarily to help out people ruled by a brute. If war does occur, let’s hope a free and democratic Iraq is an outcome. But it’s hard not to wonder what the Bush administration will do if an Iranian-backed demagogue who wants to nationalize the oil industry and supports the Palestinian uprising is freely and fairly elected in the “new” Iraq.
At the moment, what Bush has to say matters little. He has no new evidence to reveal. He has no better case to make. He’s got what he’s got. Moreover, there’s no jury or judge he has to convince. It’s his decision, and it appears it has already been rendered. The only answer to this threat (real or potential) is a disarmed Saddam. The only disarmed Saddam is a dethroned Saddam. That requires war. What happens in the UN over the next days seems to have no bearing on what will transpire in Iraq. The question is merely whether Bush has to run a red-light on his way to Baghdad. His foot is already heavy on the gas. Emboldened by his own half-truths and lies, he is heading off to war.