Bush Writes His Own History

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Bush delivers his ultimatum to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein

When the history of the second Gulf War is written, the events of the past week are unlikely to be cited as the fateful moments. The decision by the U.S. and its allies to withdraw a UN Security Council resolution authorizing war after failing to win sufficient support to pass it, and President Bush's final ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to leave his country within 48 hours, are simply the outcome of processes and decisions taken months, even years earlier. Historians seeking to explain the war will certainly debate the relative importance of a number of decisions and events over the past decade:
  • the first Bush administration's reluctance to overthrow Saddam in 1991;
  • Saddam's determination to hang onto those of his chemical and biological weapons he'd managed to keep out of the inspectors' hands in the early '90s;
  • the failure of sanctions, covert coup attempts and a 1998 bombing campaign to dislodge the regime;
  • the slow breakup of the Gulf War coalition as much of Europe and the Arab world found itself at odds with the U.S. and Britain over long-term sanctions;
  • the emergence in the second Bush administration of a determined and increasingly influential core of activist conservative foreign policy ideologues promoting a doctrine of unabashed American empire, advocating the preemptive projection of power to prevent the emergence of any military challenges to American dominance;
  • the September 11 attacks and the way they fundamentally changed the terms of political discussion in America;
  • the successful ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan at negligible cost in U.S. lives and treasure; and many more.
    Historians appreciative of the nuances of power and conflict will almost certainly deduce that Gulf War II was created by a combination of all of these factors, and many others. It was clear long before President Bush's speech on Monday that the U.S. plans to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein

    Monday's decisions certainly announced the failure of diplomacy on Iraq, but diplomacy had always been something of a take-it-or-leave-it sideshow. President Bush's ultimatum makes clear that his goals in Iraq are not limited to disarmament: The only way to avoid a war now is not for the regime to submit to disarmament demands, but for Saddam Hussein to leave town. Talk of regime-change had been played down during the six months that the administration sought UN sanction for an invasion on the grounds that Iraq had failed to heed UN disarmament resolutions. Regime-change, after all, is a radical concept that lies beyond the realm of the sovereignty-based UN system, and even such close allies as the British may have trouble selling their electorate a war on that basis. But some of the key architects of the administration's war plans, such as Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld never hid their disdain for the UN disarmament process, insisting over the past six months that Saddam is an incorrigible threat that can be eliminated only through regime-change.

    The administration's actions, however, were even more important than its words. Even as it pursued the UN route in the hope of maximizing international support for a war, the Bush team began moving swiftly and without pause to assemble an invasion armada capable of delivering a swift military victory over Saddam's regime. The "moment of truth" arrived not because of any crisis in the inspection process or any act of provocation by Iraq , but because the invasion force is now ready to fight and the window of optimal weather conditions for a ground war is closing fast. In the end, military logic has determined the timetable of diplomacy, rather than vice versa.

    President Bush had been persuaded last summer to return to the UN for tactical reasons, to maximize support and legitimacy for a decision that the decision to deploy a quarter million troops suggests had already been taken. There's no question that the White House, and its European allies even more so, would have preferred UN authorization for war. But he was never going to make UN backing a deal breaker. Indeed, he fashioned his initial pitch to the UN on Iraq last September in form of a challenge: Back the U.S. in going to war in Iraq, or make yourselves irrelevant.

    But while the Security Council unanimously voted last November to pursue Iraq's disarmament via inspections, the U.S. could not convince a majority of its members of its case for pursuing that goal by going to war at this stage. And the military deployments, as well as the domestic and international political and economic equation required that if President Bush was going to do it all, he had to act quickly. Thus the improbably positive reaction of U.S. equity markets on Monday to the news that war is finally upon us.

    To be sure, the markets have good reason to expect a swift U.S. victory over the armies of Saddam Hussein. But beyond that quick, or relatively quick collapse of the resistance of the bulk of Iraq's armed forces, all bets are off. The fact that Washington is planning to assume direct control over Iraq for an unspecified period and to leave upward of 100,000 troops on a long-term peacekeeping mission there suggests a recognition of potential for Saddam's removal to unleash bloody conflicts in a deeply fractured society. Although the President promises democracy and freedom to the Iraqi people, the intelligence analysis arm of his own State Department casts serious doubt over the potential to realize that vision. There's even substantial debate among oil industry analysts about whether the war will result in lower or higher prices over the next two or three years.

    And from the historians' perspective, opens a new chapter in the projection of U.S. power beyond America's borders. Gulf War I had been a classic case of the U.S. taking the lead in applying the UN's collective security principle, leading a broad and diverse coalition forged on the principle of protecting the sovereignty of a nation that had been invaded by its neighbor. Gulf War II is a preemptive attack rather than a response to any specific aggression; it is being launched without UN authorization and over an unprecedented degree of opposition from traditional allies; and victory will bring an almost colonial mandate to single-handedly remake a key Middle Eastern nation in America's image. A bold new chapter, to be sure. And one whose rules have yet to be written.