American presidents bear solemn responsibilities that most us can only begin to imagine. Paramount among those responsibilities is ensuring the nation's security against foreign enemies. If Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime poses a clear and present threat to U.S. security, President Bush would have a duty to take any means necessary to eliminate that threat.
However, the president has not yet made a public case that establishes such a threat. In his recent public comments, his impatience and petulance have been clear, but his rationale for going to war now, while U.N. weapons inspectors and most of the world community are asking for more time, has not. As a result, he has failed so far to fulfill other solemn responsibilities of his office, including demonstrating respect for our nation's democratic traditions and the rule of law.
U.S. forces will be fully mobilized in the Persian Gulf by mid-February, and they cannot be expected to sit there idly for long. But that still gives the White House ample time to make a compelling case to the American people and the world community. In the past few days, several White House officials (including national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, whose column appears elsewhere on this page) have begun to make a more detailed indictment of Iraq's defiance of international sanctions. Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix will give an interim report on his team's work on Monday. The president makes his State of the Union speech the following evening. Those occasions could help to provide a more edifying explanation of the real threat posed by Iraq, as well as the realistic options for dealing with it.
Even most of our closest allies believe that Hussein's ability to develop and use weapons of mass destruction is neutralized as long as Iraq remains under the constraints of international inspections. If the Bush administration has evidence that Iraq poses a present danger demanding immediate military action, it should share that evidence with the American people and the world.
Polls show that most Americans oppose going to war in Iraq without broad international support. If the president is prepared to take unilateral, pre-emptive action against Iraq, he should explain how such a war would set acceptable precedents for future military action on the part of our government and others. He also should explain how we would expect to regain the international community's support for the broader war against terrorism.
Many national security experts argue that we face greater immediate danger from al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, as well as from North Korea's escalating nuclear provocations. They also argue that a unilateral attack on Iraq would spur further terrorist acts against Americans at home and around the world. The president apparently disagrees with those assumptions, but he hasn't adequately explained why.
Finally, every president also bears a solemn responsibility to the men and women who are called upon to fight our wars. We have the strongest armed forces the world has ever known, and our military personnel are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to protect our nation. However, they have a right to expect that our political leaders will commit themselves to war only as a last resort in a just cause. President Bush often has said that war against Iraq would come only after all other options were exhausted, but his actions have created the suspicion that war was all but foreordained months ago.
The war against terrorism places every American on the front lines. Most Americans are willing to bear the risks and burdens of war when their leaders explain why war is necessary. As we saw during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, most of the rest of the world is willing to join us when the cause is just. But as the mobilization of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf nears completion, President Bush still hasn't made a compelling case to the people, at home and abroad, who will bear the burden of his decisions.
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