The Selling of the President's War

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To put it mildly, the Bush administration just had a great week. In addition to the President's triumph in the mid-term elections, two months of patient American diplomacy at the United Nations eventually produced a draft resolution on Iraq which won the unanimous endorsement of the Security Council. The way is now open for U.N. inspectors to return to Iraq to secure its compliance with past resolutions; if Baghdad stiffs the U.N. again, "serious consequences" are promised, and everyone knows what the Bush team understands those two words to mean.

Yet no matter how hard the Administration tries to convince people that Saddam Hussein is a monster who threatens us all, many still aren't buying it. A recent poll for the Pew Research Center found that the proportion of Americans who favor taking military action in Iraq to end Saddam's rule fell from 62% in early October to 55% at month's end. If the banners at the recent antiwar demonstration in Washington are any guide, many Americans don't believe that the "true" goal of Bush's Iraq policy is to eradicate the threat from weapons of mass destruction. A war in Iraq, many protesters think, would "really" be about two things: access to Iraqi oil and helping Israel by neutralizing an enemy that's poured more than $15 million into the Palestinian intifadeh. The same arguments are common in Europe and the Arab world. The Administration could simply ignore the doubters. But if it's smart, it will find ways to remove Israel and oil from the discussion and so win broader support.

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Given the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to call new elections, it's highly unlikely there will be progress anytime soon on peace initiatives in the Middle East. But that doesn't mean the U.S. should be idle. If it is to gain trust in the Arab world and dispel the notion that it will support Israel no matter what, the Administration needs to spell out publicly what the Palestinians must do to win U.S. support for their longed-for state. Washington should also show what it believes the boundaries of such a state should be, with real maps, and outline any proposals it might have for satisfying Israeli and Palestinian claims to Jerusalem. In the weeks before Sharon's government collapsed, the Administration's emissaries were peddling a "road map" toward peace. The plan — a draft of which Time has seen — is designed to establish "clear phases and benchmarks leading to a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict." It calls on the Palestinians to reform their institutions and end violence, and it outlines the ways Israel should soften its iron-fisted security policies. If all conditions are met, the U.S. plan envisages Palestinian statehood by 2005. The document is a good beginning, but it needs greater detail and public light; otherwise Bush's good intentions toward the Palestinians simply won't be believed.

Proving that a war wouldn't be about oil requires a bit more imagination. Iraq has the second largest reserves in the world, and a steady flow from its fields would help secure medium-term stability of both price and supply. That should be the policy of any sensible Administration. (Anyone who thinks it is in America's interest to drive down the price of oil should ask Bush what Houston was like in the mid-1980s, when oil sold for less than $10 per bbl.) The issue is not the price of oil but which companies will reap the rewards by developing Iraq's reserves. Baghdad has signed several contracts with non-American firms — including those from France, China and Russia — to develop the oil industry once U.N. sanctions are removed. But outside the U.S. it is widely suspected that a post-Saddam regime would rip up those contracts and favor American firms in the reconstruction effort.

There is a remedy at hand. The U.S. could jam the guns of its critics by suggesting that after any change of regime, the Iraqi oil industry would operate under international supervision. My proposal: create a Petroleum Exploration and Construction Enterprise (PEACE), reporting to the U.N. Security Council, which would ensure that any new contracts for developing Iraqi oil are awarded transparently, on terms dictated by commercial norms, not political preference. Existing contracts should be honored or compensation paid for their breach. Whatever its evils, Saddam's regime is the legally recognized government of Iraq; companies that have entered into contracts with it should not be sacrificed to politics.

All this would mean that American oil firms could not monopolize the benefits from a change of regime in Iraq. But after Saddam, there will be plenty of work and profits in Iraq for everyone, and a little sacrifice on the part of the U.S. oil industry is surely a price worth paying to help forge a broader international consensus behind the Administration's policy. Many will say that this is all pie-in-the-sky. Marchers at future demonstrations can reply, Give peace a chance.