Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 13, 2002
WAR: CASE CLOSED
There's been an unreal quality about the whole Iraq debate, arising from the gulf between the real, practical considerations for going to war and the legal arguments, under international and U.S. law, for doing so in a way that will bring Congress and the U.N. with us. The real reasons include Saddam's motive to use terrorist proxies and weapons of mass destruction against us, his opportunity to do so, the interconnection between Saddam's tyranny and aggressiveness and the general cesspool of government in the Muslim and Arab worlds and the positive example of fear we set by taking out our #1 declared enemy among nation-states. The legal arguments, by contrast, include the pre-existing Congressional and U.N. resolutions authorizing force, the legal and practical fact that we remain at war with him by virtue of his violation of cease-fire conditions and the unabated hostilities over the no-fly zone, and specifically Saddam's noncompliance with weapons inspections. Eventually, as with all fictions, this fiction will collapse under its own weight; international law will have to be brought up to date with the post-Cold War world, in recognition of the changed nature of force and threats.
BUT THE ALARMISTS who say that Bush is trampling the old order now are missing a criticial point: even under the old rules, we've got the goods on Saddam. The people, domestically and otherwise, calling on Bush to "make the case" have fallen into four groups. Group One is the people like McCain and Lieberman, and some conservative commentators, who think that Bush's underlings have already laid out a persuasive case for war but think that the President needs to put his own prestige behind the argument to make sure the nation and the world are really with us. Group Two are the people who are open to persusasion but think there hasn't been enough evidence laid out yet. Tony Blair started out in this group but is now almost out in front of Bush. Group Three are the weathervanes -- people who will go along if and only if they are convinced that Bush has popular and world opinion behind him. Many congressional Democrats are in this boat, and Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin are as well (although Putin may be more interested in horse-trading for practical concessions than in international popular opinion, which has never been a big factor in Russian foreign policy). Group Four are the people, like the New York Times, who are simply immune to persuasion but prefer to couch their opposition in terms of a failure by the President.
Bush will get Groups One and Three, particularly since the general popoulation here in the U.S. seems largely to be in either Group One or the enough-talking-already-let's-start-bombing crowd. Hopefully yesterday he started winning over Group Two. But to do so without changing the way principles of international relations are viewed, he needs to convince them, as he began doing with his masterful closing argument before the U.N., that the question is not whether we can meet the heavy burden of developing a casus belli from scratch. Bush is not a prosecutor overcoming the presumption of innocence; he's the exasperated parole officer of a guy who's violated all the conditions of his probation. And he made it quite plain that the international community has to understand that if Saddam gets away with this, the U.N. will never be able to put anyone on probation again.
Of course, if you believe that the real mistake of the Gulf War was leaving Saddam in power, maybe that's not such a bad conclusion, either. In essence, Bush turned the "bad precedent" argument -- the idea that war against Saddam means unilateral U.S. authority to attack anybody who hates us -- on its head: If you want the U.S. to keep playing by the old rules, you have to enforce them. If not, we're taking your gun and your badge.