The Justification Game

Does George W. Bush plan to go to war against Iraq early next year to defend the honor of the United Nations? That's how his Iraq policy is shaping up -- at least publicly.

Throughout Washington, the word is January or February. Don't ask me how this word got started or if it is accurate, but many of the military analysts and talking-head commentators you see on cable news shows are betting an invasion will be launched shortly before or after Groundhog Day. One retired general who is still plugged into the Pentagon says, "Between the 16th and 26th of January -- just like in 1991." Familial symmetry? Or perhaps a tie-in with the Super Bowl?

Yet the administration is still working on its justification for war. For the moment -- and the moment can change before you reach the end of this paragraph -- Secretary of State Colin Powell seems to have his hand on the joystick. After the UN inspectors and the United States spent a few days assessing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction declaration, both the UN and the Bush administration pronounced it shoddy, which is probably a reasonable finding. Powell noted the document omitted relevant information and was, thus, a "material breach."

In UN-speak "material breach" is often code for "reason to go to war." But, Powell added, the weapons inspection process must continue and intensify. He said that a high priority should be interviewing Iraqi scientists -- even if that means escorting them and their families out of Iraq. (One problem: Iraqi families tend to be extended clans. If the UN is going to spirit away relatives of a scientist so he or she can speak freely without fear Saddam Hussein's goons will whack a family member, they better have plenty of bunk beds available.)

Powell and the White House obviously are looking for Saddam to violate UN Security Council Resolution 1441 beyond producing an inadequate declaration. (The day Powell delivered the administration's harsh critique of the report, Saddam's government was already promising to "clarify' the report.) The Bushies want a "material breach" that is clearer and more undeniable than a lousy report. Then they can claim military action is required to enforce UN authority -- whether or not the UN feels such action is warranted. (The assumption in Washington among the pro-war crowd is that Bush will find the means -- bribery, pressure, etc. -- to persuade the Security Council to support the strike or, at minimum, not throw a hissy fit about it.) Hence the focus on out-of-Iraq interviews with scientists and technicians.

The script has been flipped. Months ago, Bush and his crew were claiming Saddam had to be booted by force because he posed a threat to the United States and the region. (Bush Inc., of course, still makes that case.) But the polls showed the public was nervous about a go-it-alone, screw-the-UN-and-our-allies approach, and a bunch of Democrats and a few Republicans howled about the prospect of unilateral action.

Most of the critics did not challenge the foundation of Bush's policy -- that Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction (real or yearned for) presented an immediate danger and Iraq had to be de-Saddamized PDQ. Instead, the skeptics fixated on the cowboy angle and urged Bush to work through the UN and to support weapons inspections. They succeeded in nudging Bush in that direction. And after a fair amount of wheedling, coaxing, and muscling, Washington persuaded the Security Council to pass a resolution that it could read as granting a green light to war should Saddam thwart the inspection process. (Other SecCouncil members interpreted the resolution differently, but such is the way of international diplomacy.)

So now, administration officials are focused on portraying Saddam as the violator of international governance. Their argument: He can be taken out because he defied the UN.

This justification-to-come camouflages the basic issue: Is Saddam a threat? In recent weeks, the Bush White House has not made progress in producing a convincing case. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 40 percent of the respondents said they believed Bush "has presented enough evidence showing why the U.S. should use military force to remove" Saddam. Fifty-eight percent said Bush has not. The same poll, though, showed that 89 percent believe Saddam now possesses chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, and 81 percent did say they view Iraq as a threat to the United States.

How to interpret this? My hunch: People assume the worst about Saddam but many want to see proof.

Still, there has been no sign that the CIA has changed its position since October, when CIA chief George Tenet sent a letter to the Senate intelligence committee stating that agency's analysts had concluded Saddam was not an immediate threat to the United States. (The CIA also concluded -- big surprise -- that Saddam was more likely to contemplate a terrorist-like strike against the United States if he were to be attacked.)

But the threat-mongering has continued. At a press conference after the recent elections, Bush declared that Saddam "is dealing with al Qaeda." This was a provocative statement -- ignored by the mainstream media, as far as I could tell -- meant to cast Saddam as an urgent threat demanding neutralization. If Saddam is indeed in league with a revived al Qaeda, that certainly would change the equation. But Bush offered no evidence to back up his assertion, which probably was the result of his eagerness to get the war going, not any intelligence briefing he received.

A month later, The Washington Post on its front-page reported "the Bush administration has received a credible report that Islamic extremists affiliated with al Qaeda took possession of a chemical weapon in Iraq last month or late in October." The paper's source: Two unnamed government officials "with firsthand knowledge of the report and its source."

A discerning Post reader would have a tough time determining if there was anything to this story. But a cynic could be forgiven for wondering if the administration was clumsily manufacturing a modern-day Tonkin Gulf episode. The next day -- buried inside the newspaper -- was a remark from an unidentified senior administration official who had lunched at the Post and been asked about this report. He replied, "Let me just say that there are stories and there is evidence; I won't call it evidence, but there are stories and there is information coming out that we're running down and checking out. I don't believe that there is an overwhelming body of evidence yet that there has been great leakage [of Iraqi chemical weapons to terrorists]."

Stories, not evidence. Is that the basis for war? Some in the get-Saddam crowd don't even need stories. At a recent conference sponsored by The National Interest, columnist Charles Krauthammer, a cheerleader for the coming war, remarked, "There is one thing that I think everybody has overlooked -- we are going to have retroactive evidence. Even though I would like us to be able to have a smoking gun, I don't know how close we are going to come to producing it when the President decides that it is time." Invade first, answer questions later.

At this gathering, Krauthammer also urged war to preserve "American credibility." That is, since Bush has vowed to regime-change Saddam, he now has to send over 100,000 troops to the region and initiate a war to guarantee he is regarded seriously. Another reason for war, Krauthammer argued, was to demonstrate that the United States is now "coming ashore" in the Arab world. He explained: "Our attitude to the Arab world has always been that we could be the 'offshore balancer' of last resort. We would pacify the regime by buying off the corrupt governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. We would police and we would patrol offshore. This hands-off, offshore policy, I think, is over. Iraq will be the first act in the play of an America coming ashore in Arabia.... It's not just about weapons of mass destruction or American credibility. It's about reforming the Arab world."

Is Krauthammer merely sharing the thoughts of one armchair geostrategist or do his remarks reflect a sentiment held by administration officials? (Paging Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney.) The retired general quoted above recently took me aside at a reception and, sotto voce, said, "There are five reasons for going into Iraq and Iraq is only one of them." And the other four? Do they involve other countries? Setting up a staging platform for other actions in the region? Oil? "We can't talk about them." But he added, "We have to help the Arabs help themselves."

What, then, is this war about? Disarming a threat? Standing up for the UN? A new white man's burden? There might be good arguments for war. If there were proof Saddam intended to attack the United States or pass a nuke to anti-American terrorists, that would be cause for military action of some sort (preferably with UN backing, but perhaps, in certain circumstances, without). If the UN called for the use of force to compel compliance with a non-proliferation order, that could well deserve support. (Israel, watch out.) And given the right set of factors, the United States could justifiably mount a military strike against a regime that had gone too far in repressing -- or killing -- its people. (Was doing nothing in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide there the appropriate choice?)

The Bush case for war, though, does not meet such standards. Moreover, it is unwise to accept war-making decisions rendered by leaders who are untrustworthy. Bush and his lieutenants have little credibility. They claim to be for the inspection process, while brazenly signaling -- wink, wink -- its results don't matter. Bush refuses to address the findings of the CIA when they are out of step with his own biases. He and other administration officials oversell the Saddam-al Qaeda link (if one exists). They hype indications of a threat -- stories? -- and pretend to care about democracy overseas, while supporting autocratic Iraqi exiles eager to replace Saddam.

Unfortunately, they cannot be believed on the serious matters involving Iraq -- including the efficacy of the ongoing weapons inspections. With the Bush posse, truth is a casualty before the war begins.

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