The Bush administration is no longer debating whether to launch a war against Iraq. The only question now is which empty gestures to make before attacking.
Some officials, according to The New York Times, think the U.S. should "seek to involve the United Nations one last time to bolster the case they want to make in Congress against Saddam Hussein." In particular, they want to demand that Saddam readmit the U.N. inspectors who are supposed to verify that he is keeping his promise to eschew weapons of mass destruction.
No one expects him to comply, of course. Even if he did, it wouldn't matter. According to Vice President Cheney, "A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of [Saddam's] compliance with U.N. resolutions."
The point of insisting on inspections is not to make inspections possible but to "bolster the case" for war. The idea is that Saddam's continued, predictable refusal to admit inspectors the administration considers useless will persuade members of Congress to back military action.
At the same time, the White House insists it does not really need permission from Congress. "One official suggested that the statements indicating that new Congressional approval was not necessary were a way of preparing the ground for talks with lawmakers," the Times reports. In other words, the president's attitude is: "Whatever. I'll do what I want."
The more cautious members of the Bush administration are thus reduced to arguing that the U.S. should go through one charade—insisting that Saddam allow inspections, and this time we really mean it—to facilitate another: "consulting" with legislators who have no real say about a decision the White House has already made.
I'm not the only one who feels he missed the part where the president explained why we're going to war with Iraq. "We Americans don't make unprovoked attacks against other nations," House Majority Leader Dick Armey said a few weeks ago. "As long as he [Saddam] behaves himself within his own borders, we should not be addressing any attack or resources against him."
Given Saddam's brutal treatment of his own people, Armey presumably meant "as long as he misbehaves within his own borders…" But his basic point was sound: Since war involves killing people, many of them innocent, it requires a justification based on self-defense.
Cheney, acting as Bush's proxy, took a stab at it the other day. His speech opened with a startling reference to "dictators [who] obtain weapons of mass destruction and are prepared to share them with terrorists," but he offered no evidence that Saddam is such a dictator.
If the Iraqi government really were helping terrorists launch a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack on the U.S., that would be a compelling justification for "pre-emptive action." But such a scenario seems to be more a matter of speculative fiction than solid intelligence.
Cheney's other warnings about the dangers posed by Iraq likewise have a feeling of unreality about them. He imagines a Saddam armed to the teeth with "the whole range of weapons of mass destruction," "who could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of great portions of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten America's friends throughout the region and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."
If Iraq is such a threat, it's puzzling that "America's friends" do not seem to share Cheney's alarm. Why is the United States, 6,000 miles from Baghdad, more worried than Saddam's neighbors?
Critics such as former chief weapons inspector Scott Ritter argue that the administration has greatly exaggerated Iraq's ability to develop chemical, biological, and (especially) nuclear weapons without detection. In any case, possessing such weapons is not tantamount to using them.
Like Iraq, North Korea—which President Bush included in the "axis of evil" he decried last January—is run by a bellicose, totalitarian regime. Unlike Iraq, it has more than the debatable potential to develop nuclear weapons. It is believed to have at least a few actual bombs. Yet the Bush administration is not talking about pre-emptive action against North Korea.
One reason may be that North Korea's leaders are considered unlikely to use those bombs, since going nuclear would invite a devastating response and jeopardize their power. Still in charge a dozen years after his ill-fated invasion of Kuwait, Saddam also seems to have a pretty strong survival instinct.