The March to War

After meeting Vladimir Putin last year, President Bush assured the American people that he had looked into the Russian leader's eyes and established that "he was a good man." Whether Putin, who has expressed reservations about invading Iraq, retains that status is uncertain. It is clear that this president has extraordinary confidence in his ability as an ophthalmologist of the soul. Discerning obvious good and evil in the world, he moves single-mindedly with little tolerance for dissent. When political leaders of the left are motivated by such confident, singular visions, media portray them as mindless apostles of political correctness, demagogues, and utopians. When such a style emanates from the right, it becomes moral courage and political conviction. I believe that neither left nor right is well served by this mindset, but its dangers grow if the march toward war is likely to take center stage once again after the recent elections.

Though this administration repeatedly invokes self defense to rally a cautious citizenry, the evident contradictions in its case -- and occasional administration outbursts -- belie that rationale. The real case against Iraq rides on the administration's obsessive quest for "regime change." Every state in that vital region must not only respect borders but also promise never to become a threat to US cultural, economic, or military interests.

Early on the administration asserted clear Iraqi connections to Sept. 11, but soon had to back off. Then it floated the anthrax attacks, but most careful analysis now attributes this problem to domestic agents. The real agenda then became more clear in the course of the weapons inspection saga. As the London-based Guardian reported last August, even after Saddam had "begun to signal a climbdown on inspectors (apparently going a good deal further in private messages passed to the US administration via Jordan's King Abdullah), they seem to be something of a side issue after all. As John Bolton, the US undersecretary for arms control, blurted out, the 'regime change" policy "will not be altered, whether inspectors go in or not.'"

Responding to such criticisms, the administration now seeks to resurrect the al-Qaeda connection, but, as the Washington Post comments, even US intelligence officials discount such reports. The Administration's further contention, that an al-Qaeda official sought medical treatment in Iraq would, even if true, hardly constitute a role in sustaining terrorism even remotely equal to the part played by many prominent Saudis.

Iraq's Arab neighbors fear a US attack on Iraq more than an Iraqi attack on them. One Israeli military analyst even comments: "there is no such thing as a long-range Iraqi missile with an effective biological warhead. No one has found an Iraqi biological warhead. The chances of Iraq having succeeded in developing operative warheads without tests are zero." In any case, Saddam Hussein, a ruthless, secular tyrant interested in preserving his own power, is unlikely either to unleash biological weapons or pass them to suicidal terrorists. As Middle Eastern expert Stephen Zunes points out, if Osama had such weapons, Saddam might be his first target.

Attacking Iraq offers few certain benefits and poses open-ended risks. Even the bombing of the weak and despised Taliban network yielded much less than many now suggest. The New York Times reported in June that: "Classified investigations of the Qaeda threat now under way at the FBI and CIA have concluded that the war in Afghanistan failed to diminish the threat to the United States … Instead, the war might have complicated counterterrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers across a wider geographic area." Recent gains by fundamentalist Islamist political parties in Pakistan are one more outcome of that war and promise greater instability in a nation that has openly brandished nuclear weapons.

An attack on a far stronger Iraq both licenses and might catalyze war between Pakistan and India, Saddam's use of his remaining arsenal against US forces or Israel, a possible Israeli nuclear strike, and dangerous responses by other Arab nations facing new domestic unrest in the wake of an intensified US presence. Terrorism on US soil, as even the CIA acknowledges, becomes more likely if the US threatens Saddam's survival.

Defenders of pre-emptive strikes against Iraq are right about one thing. Simply opposing this war is not enough. But there are better preventive strategies than war. In the seventies and eighties, grass roots mobilizations -- often collaborating across borders -- encouraged democracy in formerly totalitarian societies, limited the testing and development of nuclear weaponry, enabled mutual security pacts, and forced more generous international economic policies. Contrary to views now widely held, activism both in the developed West and in many "Third World" states did inhibit the use of nuclear weapons and their spread to many nations once expected to gain them.

It is time to enforce UN Resolution 687 -- in full. That resolution requires establishment throughout the Middle East of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, which would eliminate not only Iraqi weapons but also nuclear and chemical stores likely held by Israel, Syria, and Egypt. Yet for these hopes to bear fruit, this administration must be forced to acknowledge that it is not the sole source of and means toward a just world order.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He invites comments at

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