Closing Time: Is the Case Against Saddam Hussein a Case for War?

America's Challenge

Rarely has a cause been so well heard: One way or another, George Bush’s United States wants to go to war with Iraq, while, with every means at their disposal, the governments of “old Europe”—France and Germany—want to avoid it. Rarely have the latter had behind them a public opinion so fervently determined in its opposition to war, reflecting a widespread sentiment in Europe. It must be said that the conditions of a fight between the American Army and a few allies on the one hand, and Saddam Hussein on the other, leave little room for subtlety.

What is it all about? Ostensibly an idée fixe on the part of a president who, before he was elected, vowed to “deal with Saddam once and for all” and who now wants to make good on his promise in anticipation of an upcoming presidential election. This is somewhat shortsighted but probably effective. No matter that this will deplete the spontaneous, and sometimes forced, capital of solidarity the United States accumulated after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Buoyed by the massive approval of the American people, the Bush administration went to war and vanquished a regime—the Taliban, which had provided the logistical base for Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. In seeking to take the war to Iraq, the administration is going after a hateful regime, deserving of the highest condemnation, but it has not been implicated in interna-tional terrorism, until this is proven otherwise. How does Bush get from one war to the next? By suspecting Saddam Hussein of heading a list of potential suppliers to Osama bin Laden. True, ideology separates the Iraqi leader from the Saudi terrorists, but hatred of America brings them together. The British, for their part, also are convinced that it is only a matter of time before Saddam Hussein offers his support to Bin Laden. But this is a belief, not a fact.

America argues a rather different point. The potential danger of Baghdad alone demands pre-emptive action. Such are the lessons of Sept. 11: One must act in anticipation of tragedy, not afterward; one must prevent the fruition of a plausible threat. Such arguments explain, in Washington and London, the refusal to discuss “priorities”—which hold the fight against terrorism as the first order of business, and North Korea (a well-known danger) as the second.

The Americans and the British believe in the importance of waging war against Al-Qaeda-style terrorism along with a war to prevent the stockpiling of Iraqi weapons. What the United States and Britain feel they must prevent is the joining of the two. The United States, still reeling from allowing the “unthinkable” to happen, does not want to see it happen again.

Yet, at this stage, public opinion in the United States is largely against the idea of war with Iraq. The reason is that it perceives a discrepancy between war as the proposed response and a threat that is still only a risk. To the eventuality that Iraq could provide weapons to Islamist terrorists, the United States would respond with a very concrete and real war. And so public opinion demands “proof.” It wants the “mass-destruction” potential of Iraqi weaponry confirmed. It asks for United Nations’ expertise. It wants a proper casus belli established ahead of the fight. In the absence of both proof and reason, public opinion is naturally led to wonder about what really lies behind George Bush’s war.

The Iraqi situation illustrates the new American doctrine—and the major reason for the disconnect between America and the opinion of “the rest of the world.” At stake is the way in which the “new United States of America” intends to lead the world. The following directive seems to prevail: The United States shall be neither threatened nor challenged. It must put a distance between itself and any potential rival through an immense program of defense research and development, and as long as America is convinced it is facing a significant emerging threat, it must implement the famous pre-emption clause, with or without the acquiescence of the international community.

This new policy breaks with the traditional twins of containment and deterrence that have dominated—successfully, we might add—the last half-century. It also breaks with the Clinton doctrine, which suited Europeans far better since, for the Democratic president, American “hyper-power” created obligations, while for Bush it creates rights. In the former case, this allowed the United States to make itself indispensable. In the latter situation, it makes the United States an “unchallenged” power. The result is imbalance and fodder for universal resentment.

This state of affairs is catastrophic because it conflates fact-based opposition with a phenomenal resurgence of anti-Americanism—passing as official policy for certain governments. This widespread skepticism toward the United States is sustained by the Bush factor. Bush’s style, his binary rhetoric, his quasi-biblical “oversimplifications” show how rare it is that a U.S. president represents the beliefs of that segment of his nation in government.

These beliefs hold that America alone incarnates Good. If Good is beneficial to the United States, it is also beneficial to the rest of the world, and the American project of rearranging the region around Iraq is better than the perpetuation of the “chaos” that produced Sept. 11. The other side of this newfangled universalism may simply be a return to nationalism. Are we not in the presence of a unilateral definition of foreign policy, where everything depends upon a strict definition of American interest combined with an aggressive policy of keeping a low dollar? This reading can only encourage—indeed, does encourage—the nationalism of Russia and China.

Given these conditions, it would behoove us to wait and give the U.N. inspectors a chance. Not that war must be discarded out of hand, as Germany has done. It is by refusing to rule out force that we can refuse to use it today, in the current phase of the Iraqi situation, and especially in the present strategic context.

We cannot, however, leave things where they stand. First, because the U.N. cannot leave Iraq to its own devices. That country has been under the de facto guardianship of the U.N. since 1991. If there are “smart” and possibly effective sanctions in place since spring 2002, it is precisely because the international community deems that Saddam Hussein continues to pose a danger to his neighbors and within Iraq to the Kurds and the Shiites. For the United States, either the Iraqi leader disarms to show he no longer harbors bellicose intentions, or he must be removed from power. (Incidentally, can’t we characterize France’s attitude toward Laurent Gbagbo’s Côte d’Ivoire in exactly the same way?) If we reject regime change as a policy, then we also must supply an alternative means to put an end to a situation that has maintained the ruling elite while abandoning the Iraqi people to despotism and oppression, thanks to the perverse system of “oil for food”—denounced by a unanimous Security Council through Resolution 1441.

In other words, we cannot remain locked within a “war-no-war” dilemma. That is why we must show that we are capable of going beyond a mere negation of the American stance. This is the problem that Europe in general and France in particular must now face. What is the strategic doctrine that Europe would propose as an alternative to the preventive war sought by the United States? When have our heads of state and government ever dealt with this issue in a concerted manner? What can they suggest, even at a minimum?

As for France, too much opposing without proposing alternatives can not only result in isolation but also kindle renewed doubts as to our own motives. Are they not to be found in the realm of that famously vague “Arab policy,” often invoked and never defined, and which we take to mean the rather ample complacency ex-tended to current Arab regimes from Syria to Libya? Suffice it to say that the United States does not have a monopoly on hidden agendas, including oil-driven ones.

In anticipation of the coming two weeks, at the end of which a second U.N. Security Council resolution will lead predictably to the start of a war with Iraq—unless of course France or other European nations manage to define a third way between passive cooperation and war—we must meet two challenges. The first is immediate. While there may be good reasons for wanting to deal with the Iraqi problem swiftly, the manner in which the United States is trying to achieve this—as a chance to disengage itself from the obligations incurred by a newborn international order—is simply not acceptable. The respect of international legitimacy must prevail. The U.N.-led inspections must run their full course.

The second is the U.S. challenge to achieve, over the long term, a supre-macy that does not guarantee a stable, balanced world. This challenge concerns America itself. Men like Clinton and Powell promote a partnership with Europe based on containment and development. This is the desirable path, the one that in the past gave birth to a Euro-Atlantic cohesion and that may revive it tomorrow. Other people around Bush believe that since the United States is a “moral” power, there can be no limit to its power. This path is dangerous and can lead only to further distance between our two shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

America’s new challenge is also Europe’s. It must understand, with neither automatic alignment nor system-atic opposition, that the century demands the emergence of the Old Continent as a power that is peaceful but not pacifist, and that it is a full partner of the United States but not its satellite. We must seek to build into the international order what has succeeded so well in the American model—a system of checks and balances. Let us not take the risk of erasing for a long time to come the path that we have only just glimpsed.