March 19, 2003
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration portrays war with Iraq as a last resort against a dangerous regime hiding weapons of evil.
Why the urgency for military action, in the face of rising global antiwar demonstrations and resistance from allies and from large segments of the U.S. public?
Supporters of the hardline U.S. position say President Bush is convinced that failing to deal with Saddam Hussein now would lead to far greater dangers down the road. High among the concerns is that Iraq would use its weapons of mass destruction or supply them to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida or other terrorists.
With a massive military force in place in the Persian Gulf region, administration officials also are concerned that delaying war would take a higher toll on troop morale and cause increased anti-Americanism.
Polls suggest a majority of Americans support attacking Iraq but would prefer that key allies help. At the same time, a U.S. rift with NATO and U.N. partners over how to deal with Baghdad has widened.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld summarized the administration's case by describing a 21st century world marked by an increasing number of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and technologies for delivering them.
"They are available and they are being developed in terrorist states, and the terrorist states have relationships with terrorist networks," Rumsfeld said. "The threat that poses is of such considerably greater lethality than anything that has been experienced in the earlier periods."
Bush and his advisers cite the risk of a Sept. 11-style attack -- but with weapons of mass destruction.
Though some critics suggest such rhetoric is overblown, intended to muster public support for war, there's little doubt the potential of weapons of mass destruction is devastating.
Still, why not give the weapons inspectors more time? Here are some factors underlying the administration's case for haste:
Inspections: The administration contends chances are slim that U.N. inspectors will ever find much in a country the size of California as long as Hussein is trying to evade them. Secretary of State Colin Powell used intercepted phone conversations and satellite photos to show the U.N. Security Council what he said was evidence of preinspection cleanups and furtive movement of weapons equipment from place to place.
Terrorism: At the core of the administration's case is the contention that Hussein will provide lethal weapons to terror groups for use against American targets. Seizing on an audiotape purportedly of bin Laden urging Iraqis to attack Americans, Powell said it showed al-Qaida's leader in a "partnership with Iraq."
Oil: While the administration insists oil is not a major factor, the significance is apparent to everybody. Iraq controls a substantial amount of the world's oil resources, with reserves second only to those of Saudi Arabia.
U.S. troops: They can't be left in the Persian Gulf indefinitely because of costs and regional politics. In addition, military planners would prefer to fight before the onslaught of summer desert heat.
Allies: Bush promises a "coalition of the willing" if needed, but its makeup is uncertain. Administration officials argue more will join because it is in their long-term interests to side with the United States.
But Sandy Berger, who was President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, said, "The prospects of quick success are greater if we involve the international community and the risks are greater if this is essentially a U.S.-British coalition."
Middle East dynamics: Hostile at first, many gulf nations have come to accept a U.S.-led strike as inevitable, with some offering bases. But they would prefer to see it done quickly and cleanly. The administration sees this as a good window, particularly since there's a lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence.
North Korea: The administration would like to wrap up Iraq as soon as possible so it can give more attention to North Korea, whose nuclear weapons and long-range missiles pose what may be a more dangerous threat than Iraq. The Pentagon says it can fight two major battles at once, but why test that concept?
Completing the job: Bush denies there's anything personal, but many conservatives and military analysts believe his father erred in ending the 1991 Persian Gulf War short of ousting Hussein. The younger Bush now has a chance to finish the job.