Regime change in Iraq is a worthy goal. But regime change by itself is not a justification for going to war. Absent a Qaeda connection, overthrowing Saddam Hussein — the ultimate weapons-inspection enforcement mechanism — should be the last step, not the first. Those who think that the inspection process is merely a waste of time should be reminded that legitimacy in the conduct of war, among our people and our allies, is not a waste, but an essential foundation of success.
If we are to put American lives at risk in a foreign war, President Bush must be able to say to this nation that we had no choice, that this was the only way we could eliminate a threat we could not afford to tolerate.
In the end there may be no choice. But so far, rather than making the case for the legitimacy of an Iraq war, the administration has complicated its own case and compromised America’s credibility by casting about in an unfocused, overly public internal debate in the search for a rationale for war. By beginning its public discourse with talk of invasion and regime change, the administration has diminished its most legitimate justification of war — that in the post-Sept. 11 world, the unrestrained threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein is unacceptable and that his refusal to allow in inspectors is in blatant violation of the United Nations 1991 cease-fire agreement that left him in power.
The administration’s hasty war talk makes it much more difficult to manage our relations with other Arab governments, let alone the Arab street. It has made it possible for other Arab regimes to shift their focus to the implications of war for themselves rather than keep the focus where it belongs — on the danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his deadly arsenal. Indeed, the administration seems to have elevated Saddam Hussein in the eyes of his neighbors to a level he would never have achieved on his own.
There is, of course, no question about our capacity to win militarily, and perhaps to win easily. There is also no question that Saddam Hussein continues to pursue weapons of mass destruction, and his success can threaten both our interests in the region and our security at home. But knowing ahead of time that our military intervention will remove him from power, and that we will then inherit all or much of the burden for building a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, is all the more reason to insist on a process that invites support from the region and from our allies. We will need that support for the far tougher mission of ensuring a future democratic government after the war.
The question is not whether we should care if Saddam Hussein remains openly scornful of international standards of behavior that he agreed to live up to. The question is how we secure our rights with respect to that agreement and the legitimacy it establishes for the actions we may have to take. We are at a strange moment in history when an American administration has to be persuaded of the virtue of utilizing the procedures of international law and community — institutions American presidents from across the ideological spectrum have insisted on as essential to global security.
For the sake of our country, the legitimacy of our cause and our ultimate success in Iraq, the administration must seek advice and approval from Congress, laying out the evidence and making the case. Then, in concert with our allies, it must seek full enforcement of the existing cease-fire agreement from the United Nations Security Council. We should at the same time offer a clear ultimatum to Iraq before the world: Accept rigorous inspections without negotiation or compromise. Some in the administration actually seem to fear that such an ultimatum might frighten Saddam Hussein into cooperating. If Saddam Hussein is unwilling to bend to the international community’s already existing order, then he will have invited enforcement, even if that enforcement is mostly at the hands of the United States, a right we retain even if the Security Council fails to act. But until we have properly laid the groundwork and proved to our fellow citizens and our allies that we really have no other choice, we are not yet at the moment of unilateral decision-making in going to war against Iraq.