Powell Play

Would war with Iraq be self-defense?


As a reluctant warrior, Secretary of State Colin Powell is supposed to have special credibility in pressing the case for invading Iraq. But he squandered that credibility the other day, when he claimed Osama bin Laden's latest message to his followers proves he is allied with Saddam Hussein.

"He speaks to the people of Iraq and talks about their struggle and how he is in partnership with Iraq," Powell told the Senate Budget Committee. "This nexus between terrorists and states that are developing weapons of mass destruction can no longer be looked away from and ignored." State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the tape showed "bin Laden and Saddam Hussein seem to find common ground."

But according to the tape, this common ground was cleared and paved by the United States. "This crusader war targets first and foremost Islam, irrespective of whether the Ba'ath Party and Saddam were deposed or not," bin Laden (assuming it is him) says. "The sincerity of intentions for the fighting should be for the sake of Allah only, no other, and not for the victory of national minorities or for the aid of the infidel regimes in all Arab countries, including Iraq."

In other words, the threat of war has forced bin Laden's Islamist followers to make common cause with a secular dictatorship they despise. The "partnership" that Powell cites to justify war is a product of the plans for war. The fact that Powell is resorting to such circular logic at this late stage suggests that the case for military action against Iraq as an act of self-defense is as wobbly as ever.

I've never thought the question of war with Iraq should hinge on how many U.N. resolutions Saddam has violated. So the fact that he seems to be flouting yet another one, as Powell argued in his February 5 U.N. speech, does not impress me. I take it for granted that Saddam is sneaky.

And unless the U.S. has embarked on a crusade to overthrow every murderous tyrant on earth, Saddam's egregious treatment of his own people should not be the decisive factor either. I take it for granted that Saddam is evil.

The question is whether Saddam is rational. That is, can he be deterred from using chemical and biological weapons against the United States? I'm inclined to think he can, that the threat of massive retaliation would give pause to a man who, if nothing else, has shown that he is determined to stay alive and stay in power.

Most Americans probably agree that Saddam can be deterred from launching a direct attack, which is why the Bush administration has emphasized the possibility that Iraq would supply terrorists with "weapons of mass destruction." Hence Powell's insistence that, despite the religious and ideological gulf between them, Saddam and bin Laden are pals.

But an indirect attack via terrorists would make sense from Saddam's perspective only if he was confident that the connection to Iraq would not be uncovered. And that would be the case only if there were many possible sources for the weapons—which begs the question of how much security can be gained by eliminating just one of them.

If invading Iraq were justified as self-defense, it would not matter how the U.N. Security Council voted or whether other members of NATO were willing to go along. Our government has an obligation to defend American lives, regardless of what world opinion says.

The search for legalistic justifications—involving debates about whether Iraq is in "material breach" of this or that U.N. resolution, or whether another resolution must be passed so that military action comports with international law—would be utterly beside the point if it were clear that Iraq posed an intolerable threat to the United States.

In this connection, the Bush administration wants to have it both ways. Last summer Vice President Cheney declared that "a return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of [Saddam's] compliance with U.N. resolutions." So what is the point of the charade in which the U.S. has been engaged for the last several months?

Even while signaling his disdain for business as usual at the U.N., Cheney made it sound as if U.S. policy is based on the enforcement of U.N. resolutions. But surely our country does not need the U.N.'s permission to defend itself. Evidently that is not what the U.S. is poised to do.