Will Bush Take Iraq Strike to U.N.?

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Bush discusses Iraq during a bipartisan meeting with members of Congress

Supporting a call for new U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq is tricky ground for President Bush, and some of his more hawkish advisers have made no secret of their disdain for the idea. Vice President Cheney warned this week that Saddam has mastered the art of confounding the inspection regime, and argued that renewed U.N. inspections could create a dangerous "false comfort" over Iraq's weapons programs. But Secretary of State Colin Powell has been a strong advocate of demanding that Iraq submit to renewed inspections, along with such key international allies as Britain's prime minister Tony Blair. President Bush's comments after meeting congressional leaders in Washington on Wednesday suggest he may have signed on to the idea of using his September 12 U.N. address to deliver an ultimatum to Baghdad to unconditionally readmit weapons inspectors by a prescribed deadline, or else face the consequences.

The President made clear he plans to use his speech to insist that the international body has an obligation to enforce its own resolutions, which require that Iraq submit to inspections of its suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sites — a resolution Iraq has violated since 1998. Moderate voices in the administration, as well as Blair and perhaps also other allies struggling to convince skeptical electorates of the need for action against Iraq, see a U.N. ultimatum as a means of legitimizing an armed response should Iraq refuse to comply. It also allows the Bush administration to challenge the naysayers among its European and Arab allies to come up with an alternative means of enforcing the U.N. writ on Iraq's weapons program, as opposed to the current situation in which most allies perceive the U.S. as the would-be initiator of an unpopular aggression.

But calling for new inspections is also, as the hawks insist, potentially a trap that gives Baghdad plenty of room for maneuver. Although Iraq has consistently rejected the demand for unconditional return of the inspectors, Saddam's regime now says it's ready to work with the U.N. over the arms inspection issue. While few believe Saddam intends suddenly to be a good global citizen, his own strategic calculations dictate that submitting to inspection is in his best interests. The Arab League governments currently meeting in Cairo are doing their utmost to prevent a U.S. attack that most believe will jeopardize stability throughout the region, but in order to do so they're insisting that Iraq comply with U.N. resolutions.

Washington is determined to avoid opening a new season of Iraqi cat-and-mouse games with the inspection regime, and yet demanding inspections appears at this stage to be the key to establishing an internationally acceptable "trigger" for military action to remove Saddam. Of course the Bush administration is also promising to make an overwhelming case for such action independent of how Iraq responds to the inspection demand, and Blair has promised to publish in the coming weeks a dossier of damning evidence of the Iraqi leader's growing WMD threats. But unless either Washington or London offers up compelling new intelligence that has been kept out of the discussion thus far, their ability to generate a sense of international crisis requiring action may depend largely on the inspection demand.

That's because in order to make the case at home and abroad for a war to oust Saddam Hussein, the administration faces the daunting task of changing the way the Western world thinks about war and peace. Invading Iraq (outside of U.N. authorization) in order to remove Saddam Hussein even on the grounds of his weapons programs would be a preemptive aggression against another state in order to eliminate a potential, rather than an imminent threat — an action both unprecedented for the U.S. and at odds with the system of international relations that has for the most part kept the peace between states for the past half-century. But that's precisely what the advocates of the administration's "preemption" doctrine, laid out in the President's graduation speech at West Point in June are advocating. The Cold War frameworks of containment and deterrence simply don't apply in an era of suicide terror, they argue, and America can't tolerate outlaw states developing weapons of mass destruction which, even if they don't use them themselves, may fall into the hands of terrorists. By this logic, Saddam Hussein must be taken out because of his active pursuit of nuclear weapons, and this must be done before he realizes his nuclear ambitions.

The idea of America erring on the side of action, projecting power according to its own rules in order to eliminate regimes it deems potentially threatening to its own global interests is alarming not only to traditional U.S. allies abroad, but also to many luminaries of the Republican foreign policy establishment reared on doctrines of containment, deterrence and maintaining the stability of an imperfect world. While the new hawks are prepared to tolerate a degree of instability — in the Middle East, for example, as a result of an attack on Iraq — in order to eliminate what they identify as the primary danger, many of the old "realists" fear such instability could be even more dangerous. Other powers — China, India or Israel — may be tempted to pursue their own version of "preemption" in their regional conflicts, and the U.S. will have to be ready to commit American lives and treasure for extended periods to secure its victories in an increasingly dangerous world.

For the "realists," the best way to get rid of Saddam would be to reassemble (politically, if not militarily) something akin to the 1991 Gulf War coalition and the appropriate U.N. resolutions triggering military action as a consequence of Iraq defying the inspection regime. But under present circumstances that may be wishful thinking. And their own doctrine suggests the hawks will respond by insisting that America prepare to do the job, and quickly, with or without international endorsement.