False Alarm


It is perhaps telling that the case for war with Iraq was most
clearly made not by Republican President George W. Bush but by
Democratic President Bill Clinton. "Predators of the twenty-first
century," Clinton warned, speaking four and a half years ago, "will
be all the more lethal if we allow them to build arsenals of
nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the missiles to
deliver them. ... There is no more clear example of this threat
than Saddam Hussein's Iraq." And if the world were to allow Saddam
to continue to construct his terrible weapons? "Well, he will
conclude that the international community has lost its will,"
Clinton declared. "He will then conclude that he can go right on
and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And
some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal."As American liberals contemplate the current president's proposed
war with Iraq, it's worth pondering his predecessor's logic. For if
you accept Clinton's reasoning--and few liberals objected at the
time--you can hardly help but resolve that we must eliminate Iraq's
nonconventional arsenal by any means at our disposal, including, if
all else fails, war. Two things have changed since Clinton's
comments: First, in late 1998 Saddam effectively shut down U.N.
weapons inspectors in Iraq, breaking the back of the already ailing
inspections regime and granting himself four largely unfettered
years in which to continue developing weapons of mass destruction;
and second, in early 2001 Clinton was replaced in office by a
Republican. The first of these points unquestionably strengthens
the case for war: Saddam has provided strong evidence that he will
not allow anything to deter him from pursuing weapons of mass

But many of my fellow liberals appear driven more by the second
point. When asked about war, they typically offer the following
propositions: President Bush has cynically timed the debate to
bolster Republican chances in the November elections, he has
pursued his Iraq policy with an arrogant disregard for the views of
Congress and the public, and his rationales for military action
have been contradictory and in some cases false. I happen to believe
all these criticisms are true (although the first is hard to prove)
and that they add more evidence to what is already a damning
indictment of the Bush presidency. But these are objections to the
way Bush has carried out his Iraq policy rather than to the policy
itself. (If Bush were to employ such dishonest tactics on behalf
of, say, universal health care, that wouldn't make the policy a bad
idea.) Ultimately the central question is: Does war with Iraq
promote liberal foreign policy principles? The answer is yes, it

Liberals and conservatives share many foreign policy values in
common: encouraging democracy and capitalism, responding to direct
aggression, and so on. That is why, for instance, both
overwhelmingly supported overthrowing the Taliban and hunting down
Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In the post-cold-war era, though, liberals
have centered their thinking around certain ideals with which
conservatives do not agree. Writing in these pages in 1999,
conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer identified three
distinctly liberal principles: advancing humanitarian (rather than
merely national) interests; observing international law; and acting
in concert with international institutions, such as the United
Nations. Krauthammer cited these three principles in order to
dismiss them. I disagree. Underlying all three is an understanding
that American global dominance cannot last unless it is accepted by
the rest of the world, and that cannot happen unless it operates on
behalf of the broader good and on the basis of principles more
elevated than "might makes right."

Do these three liberal precepts militate against war with Iraq?
Certainly the liberal concern for humanitarianism should not stand
in the way. We are contemplating, after all, the overthrow of one
of the most internally violent and repressive regimes on Earth (see
"Slave State," by Robert D. Kaplan, page 10). Indeed, from a purely
humanitarian perspective, the case for this war is stronger than
for the Gulf war--in which we restored a dissolute, authoritarian
monarchy in Kuwait and left Saddam's tyrannical regime in place. No
matter how badly we might bungle a post-Saddam rebuilding of
Iraq--and Bush's record in Afghanistan, alas, suggests little
reason for optimism--it is difficult to imagine that deposing
Saddam will not greatly improve the living conditions and human
rights of the Iraqi people.

It's true that absent an internal coup, toppling the Iraqi
government would lead to the loss of life among innocent Iraqis.
But the fact that a military action causes casualties does not mean
it cannot be justified in liberal eyes: Witness liberal support for
U.S. action in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Somalia. Moreover,
post-Gulf war advancements in precision bombing have made the
American military better at minimizing civilian casualties. And
there is abundant evidence that a large portion of the Iraqi
populace is willing to endure physical danger in order to oust
Saddam: All of the major Iraqi exile groups--even those that oppose
the current sanctions regime--support a war to overthrow Saddam.
Iraqi Kurds and Shias rose up against Saddam when he looked weak in
1991, and thousands gave their lives in the effort. Humanitarianism
may not be a sufficient rationale for war in and of
itself--liberals don't want to go around overthrowing every
government that mistreats its citizens. But it certainly isn't a
compelling reason not to go to war.

A more serious sticking point would seem to be international law.
War with Iraq worries liberals in part because it seems to come
right out of the blue. The Bush administration has inadvertently
stoked this fear by blundering the argument. First, it has framed
war with Iraq as a continuing response to the September 11 attacks.
But there's not yet convincing evidence that Iraq lent meaningful
support to Al Qaeda, and the lessons of last year's attack would
suggest action against terrorist groups and the states that most
aggressively support them (e.g., Iran and Syria), not Iraq. Barbra
Streisand's contention in a memo to the Democratic leadership that
"Sadam [sic] Hussein did not bomb the World Trade Center,"
is--however facile--true.

Second, the Bush administration has justified war with Iraq as the
first exercise of its new doctrine of "preemption," whereby the
United States, in defiance of international law, can attack rival
states that pose a non-imminent threat. Liberals, normally, find
such a prospect alarming. "International law seems to count for
nothing in this administration's view of the world," the editors of
The American Prospect wrote in a joint antiwar editorial. "Not only
does preemption violate the U.N. charter and set a dangerous
precedent for other countries, it also risks triggering wars we
might otherwise avoid." By framing war with Iraq as the model for a
new foreign policy doctrine under which we can attack anybody we
deem a threat, without any regard for the opinion of the world or
even our allies, Bush has made it anathema to liberals.

But opposing the administration's expansive new preemption doctrine
does not require one to oppose its intended war with Iraq. Here,
again, the administration has bungled the argument. The more
persuasive justification for war is that Iraq has violated a series
of U.N. resolutions requiring its disarmament and compliance with
weapons inspections. Yes, lots of countries violate U.N.
resolutions. What makes Iraq's violation a casus belli is that it
agreed to disarm as a condition of ending the Gulf war. War with
Iraq does not require trashing international law. Just the
opposite: Sustaining international law is central to its very

Indeed, if you want to get technical, the Gulf war never really
ended. Hostilities came to a halt April 9, 1991, when Iraq agreed
to U.N. cease-fire resolution 687, which required Iraq to
"unconditionally accept the destruction, removal or rendering
harmless" of its weapons of mass destruction and missiles with a
range of 150 kilometers or more. But Iraq refused to cooperate with
the U.N.'s efforts to locate and destroy these weapons. Time and
again, Iraq demanded concessions from the inspectors--requiring
advance notice, barring them based on nationality, and exempting
"presidential sites," which included areas as large as Washington,
D.C. Its allies on the Security Council continuously supported
Iraq's cause, which merely emboldened Saddam to demand more
concessions, until at last he dispensed with even the pretense of
cooperating with UNSCOM. In a pathetic display of appeasement the
United Nations created a new inspections regime to be staffed by
more compliant inspectors, operating under absurdly restrictive
conditions, but Saddam refused to cooperate with even that.; "The
dangerous legacy of this episode is obvious.. .."

The dangerous legacy of this episode is obvious. When a belligerent
dictator sees that he can flout the dictates of international law
without resistance, he and other dictators will grow emboldened to
pursue future aggression. And, of course, the underlying substance
of Saddam's conflict with international law-- his ongoing efforts
to build long-range missiles and nuclear, biological, and chemical
weapons--has only grown more crucial since his 1998 expulsion of
the weapons inspectors. Nonetheless, this latter point has come
into dispute of late, with many liberals arguing that the threat of
annihilation would deter Iraq from using, or even threatening to
use, nuclear weapons. "I think Saddam knows that if they ever used
a weapon of mass destruction, that they'd be destroyed in turn,"
argued Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin. "They
are interested in power." It naturally follows from this argument
that Iraqi nuclear weapons would pose no significant danger to the
world. If that's the case, though, not only should we not threaten
war to stop the Iraqi weapons buildup, we should lift all sanctions
designed to halt it. (After all, sanctions undoubtedly harm the
Iraqi people.) The very fact that liberals vehemently insist upon
the necessity of an inspections regime at the same time they claim
deterrence will protect us suggests that they do not truly believe
the latter argument.

And why should they? The claim that Saddam can be deterred from
using weapons of mass destruction rests on the assumption that he
is a rational actor. But Saddam's history, as former CIA Iraq
analyst Kenneth Pollack argued in The New York Times last month, is
replete with irrational behavior. In the 1970s he attacked
Iranian-armed Kurds, resulting in a humiliating accord in which he
ceded territory to Iran. He has launched two costly, ill-fated wars
and ordered an assassination of President George H.W. Bush--an
adventure that, had it succeeded, may well have led to an American
invasion and the end of his regime. These are not the actions of a
man concerned only with survival and power.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of Saddam's irrationality, however,
is his very obsession with obtaining weapons of mass destruction.
Had Saddam acceded to U.N. demands at the close of the Gulf war,
international sanctions against Iraq would likely have been lifted
years ago. In the absence of sanctions, Iraq could have pumped as
many as six million barrels of crude oil per day; with the tens of
billions of dollars that came from this, Saddam could have pursued
his passion for palace-building to an unprecedented degree, built a
conventional military more than strong enough to deter aggression
by his neighbors, and perhaps even made his country a better place.
Instead, under the sanctions regime, he has been allowed to pump
just 1.4 million barrels of oil per day and has been prohibited
from purchasing steel, computers, and other goods he surely covets.
As a result his army is dilapidated and his populace poor and
restive. Moreover, his intransigence has earned him repeated
attacks from American planes and missiles, and large chunks of his
country are, for all practical purposes, independent of his rule.
If American deterrence renders Saddam's weapons of mass destruction
useless, then why does he endure such sacrifices to acquire them?
Perhaps his mania for building them is irrational--but, then, it's
hard to see why he would be irrational in the acquisition of these
weapons but rational in their use.

Perhaps because they don't fully trust deterrence to protect the
world from Saddam, liberals have fallen back on another argument:
OK, we can go to war with Saddam, but only if we garner the support
of our allies and the United Nations. This line of reasoning,
relying on the third liberal principle, multilateralism, has become
the most prominent objection of war critics. A full- page
advertisement in The New York Times last week, paid for by Common
Cause and signed by the likes of Derek Bok, Mario Cuomo, and Arthur
Schlesinger Jr., sums up this thinking: "It would be unacceptable
for the United States (except if it had to repel sudden attacks) to
enforce the authority of the United Nations by actions that
dispense with U.N. approval." The suggestion here is that U.N.
approval amounts to a sine qua non of American military action. But
liberals have not elevated it to this level before. Many opposed the
Gulf war at the time, even though we led a broad international
coalition and enjoyed U.N. backing. And many supported U.S.
intervention in Kosovo, a campaign that lacked U.N. authority and
was condemned by Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a result.
International support, then, is neither a sufficient nor a
necessary condition for liberals to support a war.

Nor should it be. While some war critics speak of the U.N.'s
judgment as if it came from Mount Olympus, in practical fact it is
influenced by all sorts of considerations that liberals ought to
abhor. When critics invoke U.N. backing, they mean not the General
Assembly, which represents all nations, but the Security Council or
generally just the four other permanent members thereof. And almost
nowhere are the principles of power politics more evident in
international affairs than among the permanent members of the U.N.
Security Council, who owe their position to the fact that they are
(or, in the case of France and Britain, were) the world's
preeminent military powers. Indeed, one (China) is a dictatorship,
and another (Russia) is a quasi-dictatorship. Not only have
Security Council members undermined inspections and appeased
Saddam, they have done so less because of any moral scruples than
because they want to safeguard their corporations' profits.
Liberals don't want to see U.S. foreign policy dictated by the
interests of American oil companies. Why is it better if it is
dictated by the interests of French and Russian oil companies?

But while international support cannot be an absolute moral
prerequisite, then neither should its pragmatic advantages be
discounted. For example, we certainly should not squander
international goodwill on trivial things like buying off domestic
pressure groups. If Bush truly put national security ahead of
political concerns, for example, he wouldn't have infuriated
American allies by pushing lavish farm subsidies and steel and
textile tariffs or by ostentatiously opposing the Kyoto Protocol.
But on critical issues--such as the potential threat posed by a
nuclear Iraq--our national interests may supersede the advantages
of international consensus. If given the choice of maintaining good
relations with the rest of the world or disarming Saddam, I would
pick the latter.

Still, the best-case scenario would be an aggressive effort to
disarm Saddam that enjoyed substantial international support--and
many liberals believe this is an attainable goal. "I could support
an Iraq war with a genuine purpose of getting at its weapons of
mass destruction, whether by force or (ideally) by forcing it to
accept weapons inspections," submitted TNR contributing editor
Robert Wright, arguing against war in Slate.com last week. Paul
Starr, writing an antiwar column in The American Prospect,
maintains, "If the Bush administration had proceeded
differently--if it had established a legal basis for military
action, perhaps by working through the United Nations; if it had
built allied support; if it had genuinely pursued alternatives to
forcible `regime change'--war might have emerged, by general
agreement here and abroad, as a necessary final resort."

What makes such liberal criticisms so strange is that they hinge
upon the assumption that Bush's unilateralism is the main obstacle
to a tough, U.N.- backed inspections regime. This reading gets
cause and effect backward: The only reason the Security Council is
even considering a tough Iraq resolution is Bush's talk of regime
change. After all, the United States spent nearly a decade trying
exactly what liberals now implore Bush to do--working
collaboratively with other members of the Security Council to come
up with an Iraq policy that splits the difference between America's
(overwhelmingly security-related) interests and Russia's and
France's (overwhelmingly economic) interests. The result was a
clear failure. France and Russia allowed Iraq to reduce the
inspections regime to near-meaninglessness and then, when Iraq
would not abide even by that, refused to endorse any consequences
whatsoever. If our allies were too solicitous of Iraq to support
loophole-ridden inspections backed by the threat of pinprick
bombing, why would they support tough inspections backed by the
threat of full-scale invasion now?

The only thing that might change their minds is the threat that Bush
would attack Iraq without them. Such a prospect would weaken the
relevance of their Security Council seats and endanger their
economic standing in a post-Saddam Iraq. If forced to choose
between tough inspections and nothing, the allies have shown they
prefer nothing. If forced to choose between tough inspections and
unilateral war, it now looks as though they will choose inspections.
Had Bush foresworn unilateral action, as liberals have implored,
the prospects for the tough U.N. inspections they now urge would be

So, if Bush is heading in the direction liberals want to go, why do
they regard his policy with such hostility? The answer seems to be
that they regard their policy as one that will render war a remote,
mainly theoretical, possibility. The Common Cause ad pleads that
war be only "a last resort" and maintains that Saddam "can be made
to respond to diplomatic pressures if these are backed by a
credible and sustained military threat." But of course a threat is
only credible if you're prepared to follow through on it. And at the
moment it would seem to be impossible to design a military threat
credible enough to alarm Saddam but not so credible that it alarms
Derek Bok.

Deluded by the hope that they can have multilateralism and
disarmament without the risk of war, liberals have concentrated
their intellectual energies on the slim possibility that the United
Nations will approve an airtight inspections system and that Saddam
will submit to it. If that happens, they would not support a
unilateral Bush war. And for that matter, neither would I. But the
chance of that happening is small. We have eleven years of
accumulated evidence suggesting that the United Nations will not
approve loophole-free inspections and that even if it does, Saddam
will defy it once more. Which is why it's strange to find so many
liberals who consider themselves antiwar conceding that, if all
else fails, they would support military action against Iraq. "All
else" has failed for more than a decade. And barring a profound
character reversal by Saddam, "all else" will likely fail again in
the coming months. Just how many times are we supposed to go down
this road before we realize our last resort may be our only

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