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    A Times Editorial

    The looming war

    Artificial deadlines should not curtail the Bush administration's effort to rebuild a broad international consensus for dealing with Iraq's illegal weapons.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 9, 2003

    The Bush administration appears determined to go to war in Iraq later this month under circumstances that could leave the United States and much of the rest of the world less secure, not more so. Artificial deadlines should not limit our government's efforts to build a genuine consensus for dealing with Iraq's illegal weapons programs. If war comes, it is in the United States' interests to go into battle, as it did 12 years ago, with the full support of a broad international coalition. Yet the White House has made little effort to win support through logic or reason. Instead, it has attempted to bully traditional friends such as Germany and France -- and to bribe important Islamic allies such as Turkey. Either through inept diplomacy or contempt for the very concept of collective security, the administration risks shattering the alliances that bolstered us through the Cold War and during the first Persian Gulf War.

    To this point, U.S. and British representatives have found scarce Security Council support for an amended resolution that would give Iraq a March 17 deadline to comply fully with U.N. resolutions or face war. The international skepticism is understandable; Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged during Friday's Security Council discussions that U.N. inspectors have made substantial progress in recent days. Given Saddam Hussein's history, that progress could end at any moment. But as long as it continues, a rush to war is unjustifiable.

    At home, President Bush's Thursday night press conference barely began the process of preparing the American people for the likely costs -- in blood, treasure and diplomatic capital -- of ousting Saddam Hussein and rebuilding Iraq. There is reason to believe that the coming war and postwar occupation will not be as quick and simple as the 1991 intervention to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait. This time, we cannot count on military and economic help from a broad international coalition. Faced with being removed from power or killed, Hussein will be under fewer constraints about using whatever weapons he still has. And our military and political aims are more ambitious -- including, according to the president's most recent comments, a continuing military presence intended to bring democratic reform to Iraq and its neighbors.

    We are not pacifists, nor do we wish to keep company with the predictable antiwar ideologues who instinctively are more skeptical of our own government than they are of tyrants such as Hussein. Under the appropriate circumstances, we would support without reservation an American-led military action to eliminate Iraq's illegal weapons programs. Those weapons violate international law, as expressed through a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions over the past 12 years. If the council's actions are to have any meaning, its member nations must be willing to enforce them through any means necessary. Moreover, the danger that Hussein might share chemical and biological weapons with stateless terrorist groups is one that demands the attention of the United States and every other civilized nation.

    However, the manner in which the Bush administration has moved our country to the brink of war has left us with several serious misgivings, including these:

    We have not yet exhausted all options short of war. In fact, the work of U.N. weapons inspectors has just produced its most concrete success, with Iraq destroying dozens of illegal Al Samoud 2 missiles. No one should be under any illusion that the inspection process is anywhere close to achieving the elimination of Iraq's illegal weapons programs. But it is equally difficult to argue that the inspection process has stalled or failed. Continued inspecions and sanctions -- backed by the continuing threat of military action should Hussein clearly defy the process -- deserve a reasonable amount of additional time to succeed. Given the context, March 17 sounds less like a deadline than a launch date.

    Iraq does not pose an imminent threat to the United States or its allies. President Bush and other administration officials have been persuasive in describing the long-term risk the world would face if it fails to deal with Iraq's illegal weapons programs. However, Iraq's ability to produce or use weapons of mass destruction is dramatically reduced as long as Hussein's regime remains under the thumb of aggressive international scrutiny.

    A pre-emptive attack could set a dangerous precedent. Again, President Bush makes a persuasive case, up to a point, when he argues that the devastating scope of modern terrorist attacks such as those perpetrated on our country makes it irresponsible to wait for threats to be carried out before acting to eliminate them. However, such a profound change in our nation's historic standards for waging war should be fully considered and carefully drawn. Under current circumstances, a pre-emptive attack on Iraq -- which, despite broad misconceptions, has not been connected in any way to the Sept. 11 attacks -- could set a precedent that hostile governments might one day use against the United States or its friends.

    We risk undermining the broader war against terrorism. Removing Hussein from power could reduce the dangers of terrorism -- but not if it is done in a way that destabilizes Iraq and surrounding countries for years to come, makes us millions of new enemies in the Islamic world and does lasting damage to our traditional security alliances. The recent arrests of al-Qaida leaders have shown the necessity of cooperation from Islamic governments such as Pakistan. Going to war without broad international backing could provoke an anti-American backlash that endangers governments whose help will be crucial long after an Iraq war ends.

    The Bush administration's stated war aims keep shifting and expanding. At the start of this crisis, the United States and other governments focused on the goal of eliminating Iraq's illegal weapons programs -- a goal explicitly authorized by multiple U.N. resolutions. In recent days, though, the White House distanced itself even from Britain by expanding its stated goals to include "regime change." And in a nationally televised speech on Feb. 26, the president for the first time spelled out a vision of making a war in Iraq the first step in a broader intervention to democratize the Arab world. We have grave reservations about such a grandiose scheme. (U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., called it "a very far-fetched rationale" for war.) We have even greater concerns over the administration's failure to prepare the American people for the enormous costs and risks of such an ambitious plan.

    Even in the absence of a March 17 deadline, renewed Iraqi intransigence might still necessitate war in the coming weeks or months. But that would still give the United States and other governments time to rebuild a framework for collective action. We can win a war against Iraq with little or no help, but the broader challenges the world faces today do not give us the luxury of alienating our staunchest NATO allies, threatening the progress of detente with Russia and inflaming much of the Islamic world. A great alliance was amassed to uphold international law during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Through effective diplomacy, we can build a great alliance for addressing today's broader challenges.

    If, as now seems all but inevitable, war begins in the next few days, we will join virtually all other Americans in supporting our armed forces and praying for a quick and successful conclusion to the conflict. But the massive buildup of troops in the Persian Gulf should not make war a fait accompli. Those who argue that our government would somehow lose face if our troops are pulled back from the brink of war are creating a false constraint on U.S. policy. Our military buildup already has succeeded in forcing Hussein to make unprecedented concessions. Continued patience and pressure might bring even greater concessions, without the terrible costs and risks of all-out war.

    We are under no illusion that our opinions will carry weight in Washington or beyond. However, it is the highest calling of every citizen in a representative democracy to speak out as clearly as possible on matters as grave as war and peace. Now is the time for every American to be heard in calling upon our government to uphold the values that historically have guided us in times of crisis. Voices of reason and screams of horror will be drowned out once the bombs start falling.

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