January 28, 2003

Criteria for War

Hans Blix, head of the UN inspection team, has delivered a somewhat ambivalent report on Iraqi compliance with the UN inspection regime. There is undoubtedly enough there to satisfy many elements within the Bush administration, and perhaps the president himself, that Saddam Hussein has once again shown himself nasty enough to deserve a military attack from the United States. With the State of the Union Show due for this evening, we could get a somewhat larger insight into the president’s thinking – or, if real thinking doesn’t seem to be part of his modus operandi, an insight into what his most recent plans are.

Most Americans, even those who have doubts about the idea or oppose it vehemently, seem inured to the idea that there is going to be an attack on Iraq. Both President Bush and his press spokesman, Ari Fleischer, keep repeating that time and American patience are running out. U.S. troops, materiel, and support personnel have been moving into the region in increasing numbers. The military has been inviting various organs of the media to observe training and war-games in the Kuwaiti desert. It has been fascinating to watch Beltway denizens like Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke talk about the inevitable war as if it were a foregone conclusion, and somewhere on a par with tax cut proposals and chatter about health insurance in terms of significance.

Everything seems to be in place – except for a good reason for the United States to attack a third-rate regional power that poses no particular threat to the sole superpower except that of a self-inflicted irritant.


By the time this sees print I expect that media analysts and their self-styled hired experts will have pored over the highlights of the Blix report in search of a smoking gun of the sort that would trigger an American invasion. Will the criticism of Iraqi non-cooperation outweigh the apparent fact that the UN team has so far not found credible evidence of caches of weapons of mass destruction – and recommends, like almost every government agency, panel, board or advisory committee ever formed, that it needs more time and more money to continue its important work?

For some it’s pretty easy. Paul Wolfowitz and his crowd have wanted to attack Iraq since the early 1990s, and have not been shy about saying so. They apparently believe that the mere existence of a regime that has not acted as if it lost the 1991 Gulf War is effrontery enough to spur the sole superpower into action.

Whether they really believe, as some of the more rosy-picture neocons do, that it can be done quickly and will spark a democratic revolt that will in turn spark democratic reform throughout the Muslim world and bolster American power and influence over the next several years, is difficult to tell. It can be easy to concoct rosy scenarios when you don’t know much about the area, and the incuriosity of most of the war hawks about the history, current situation and genuine prospects on the ground in Iraq and the Middle East should have become legendary by now. But they were itching to attack Saddam Hussein long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks provided an opportunity to increase the possibility of bringing their hegemonic dreams to fruition.

But until 9/11, the neocons were simply a noisy minority in the United States – a noisy minority with people ensconced in government positions of real influence, to be sure, but still a group that was unlikely to have its wish to oust Saddam fulfilled.


The attack still didn’t provide the kind of convincing rationale for attacking Iraq that the hawks might have desired.

Saddam’s Ba’athist regime is ostensibly and for the most part actually an explicitly secular regime (although Saddam invokes Allah about every third word when he’s trying to stir up the Iraqi people to support him) rather than a friend of the kind of militant fundamentalist brand of Islam that seems to motivate al Qaida and other non-state terrorist groups. The CIA and Israeli intelligence burned the midnight oil trying to find a connection between the 9/11 hijackers and Saddam’s regime, but except for a possible meeting in Prague have come up empty. In fact, the CIA has several times said that Saddam hasn’t had much to do with outright terrorists of the al Qaida stripe for the past dozen years or so.

There is the matter of Saddam providing payoffs to some families of Palestinian militants from Al Aqsa, Islamic Jihad and other outfits who carry out suicide/homicide bombings against Israelis. That is a link to terrorists of a sort. But they are terrorists who, for various reasons, some of them quite understandable in light of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States has chosen not to go after except rhetorically so far. And there’s the complication that Saudi Arabia and Syria have provided similar kinds of subsidies. If paying bounties to Palestinian bombers is enough to spark an attack, why does the United States not want to attack them? Better not to raise the question.


The most aggressive of the hawks deplored the administration’s decision to go to the United Nations to seek another resolution most observers believe Saddam Hussein will eventually violate from the get-go. It delayed the onset of a war, and it weakened the rationale for a go-it-alone policy if that was deemed desirable. And it allowed unpleasant and undesirable people like the French, the Germans and the Russians to have a pretense of a say on the eventual decision. Why should we pretend to care what those "old Europe" types think?

But for those who want a war eventually but also want the cover of a semblance of a coalition, the U.N. route has offered a number of advantages. Any resistance, or even hesitation, by Saddam or any of his minions, can be spun as a breach of the resolution. And since the resolution, like most political documents, is susceptible of numerous interpretations, surely there will be something that emerges from the inspection regime that can be viewed by enough people as a smoking gun to have cover for a war.

And what the resolution requires is vague enough in people's minds that a President Bush can look sufficiently leaderly while saying that it’s clear on the basis of the inspections that Saddam is not disarming when the inspections in fact don’t show anything of the kind. They’re not designed to show whether he is actively disarming (whatever that might be) but to determine if he has weapons hidden.

Another advantage of the U.N. resolution method is that the process can be interpreted as Saddam welching on an agreement he made to cooperate fully with the inspectors. That sidesteps the little matter that the resolution was passed without Iraqi participation and would be viewed, if contested in a real court of law, as an agreement made under threat or duress. It’s not an agreement entered into mutually and voluntarily, but something forced on Saddam.

The leaks so far suggest that President Bush will not use the State of the Union address to announce an imminent war, nor will he announce a smoking gun that the inspectors missed or didn’t get to yet. One would think that since every administration spokesperson declares as a fact that we already know what the inspections are putatively designed to determine – that the nasty guy does have nasty weapons and that’s simply a fact – the pressure would build to let the American people know why their government personnel are so convinced.

Is there credible American intelligence that there are usable chemical or biological weapons concealed somewhere in Iraq? If so, the government should at least let the inspectors know so as to guide them to a possible site, or let the American people and the world know what evidence allows them to speak so confidently. Administration spokesmen have talked darkly of the danger of revealing sources and methods and thus compromising intelligence operatives, but it’s impossible to know whether that’s simply a cover for the fact that they don’t have the goods on Saddam even now.


All this discussion of the minutiae of the inspections regime or the likelihood of finding weapons, however, is a little beside the point. The real question is whether there is a justification for war that would be in keeping with, as some obscure document written long ago put it, "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind" and the best of the American tradition. I doubt if the president will supply it, tonight or ever.

We are talking, remember, about an attack on a country recognized as sovereign in the international system. The usual rule in international law – at least until now – is that an attack on a sovereign nation can be justified only if that nation has attacked another sovereign nation. The whole point – well, maybe not the whole point, but certainly an important aspect – of recognizing sovereignty in the international system is to reduce the frequency of military attacks, preferably confining them to truly outlaw nations and necessary actions to punish outlaw nations.

International law and common sense recognize a narrow exception to this general rule in the case of an imminent attack or breach of the peace, such as reliable information about troops massing on borders or intercepted electronic signals ordering troops or equipment to be moved around in preparation for an imminent – days or weeks at most – attack. That is what a pre-emptive strike would be.

But is there any evidence that Iraq poses an imminent threat to attack the United States in weeks or months? Do any of its neighbors fear an imminent attack? Is Kuwait actively quaking in its boots? Is Turkey? Is Qatar? Is Saudi Arabia? Is Iran? Is even Israel expecting an attack anytime soon that would justify a pre-emptive attack to keep it from happening?

So far the case for an attack on Saddam – even if it is demonstrated that he has certain weapons and even if he has a semi-active program to develop nuclear weapons – is based on the projection that if he does get usable weapons he might, sometime in the future – months, years, even decades from now – do something that seriously threatens Israel or the United States. That should not be viewed as justification for the America I love to initiate an attack.

– Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the new book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column appears every Tuesday on Antiwar.com.

Archived Columns by Alan Bock

Criteria for War

On the Eve of War?

Slouching into Iraq?

Can Exile Solve the Saddam Problem?

In Search of a Peace Culture

A Ray of Hope?

Pacifist, Passive or Realistic?

A Slight Detour on the Road to a Police State

The Whitewash Commission

Deck Chairs on the Ship of State

Living in an Inspection Bubble

Turkey's Election: Complications and Blowback?

Destroying the Hostages to Save Them?

Bending Posse Comitatus Brings Bad Results

Pipsqueak Adversaries

War For Frivolous Reasons

A Hunger For War Criticism?

Will War Wreck the Economy?

Don't Take the UN Too Seriously

Preventive or Preemptive War?

Weak Arguments for Attack

Bush Cutting Legal Corners: A Wartime Pattern

Choosing Up Sides

Invasion Complications

U.S. Government Behaving Badly

Homeland Security Horrors

Mixed Signals on Iraq?

Iraqi Warmonger Complications

Assessing the War

Bush: Planning int he Whirlwind

Colombia: Mapping a Quagmire

Roots of Discord

The Empire Strikes First

Underlying Problems in South Asia

Creating A New Axis

The Real Failures

US Wades Into More Imperial Outposts

Convening Futility

Financing Venezuelan Mischief

Chalmers Johnson: Changed Cold Warrior

Meeting Robert Fisk

Arrogance of Empire

Middle East Bloodshed: The US Role

The Terrorists Are Winning

Mideast: The Iraqi Connection

Colombia Vote Presages More Instability

The War Comes Home 3/6/02

Consorting With the Axis of Evil 2/27/02

CIA: Avoiding Reform 2/20/02

The Empire Plans Strikes 2/13/02

Military Pork by the Barrel 2/6/02

State of the Union at War 1/31/02

Guantanamo and Geneva: The Missing Questions 1/30/02

Nation-Building or... 1/23/02

Naming the Beast 1/16/02

Strange Versions of Democracy 1/9/02

Making Artificial Distinctions 1/3/02

The Empire Ruminates 12/28/01

Tracking the War 12/19/01

The Road Not Noticed 12/13/01

New Dangers in the Middle East 12/5/01

Afghan Women and the Northern Alliance 11/28/01

Long and Winding Road Toward Peace 11/21/01

Defending Peacetime 11/7/01

Nagging Questions About the War 10/31/01

Collateral Damage 10/24/01

Wartime Resignation or Endorsement – 10/17/01

Building A Peace Movement In Wartime 10/10/01

Flying the Guarded Skies 10/3/01

Anti-Terrorism for the Long Haul 9/26/01 Impressions Amid the Winds of War 9/19/01

The Price of Empire 9/12/01

War on X … When the Metaphor Becomes Too Real 9/5/01

Sticking with an Andean Disaster 8/29/01

Middle East Status is Quo 8/22/01

A Macedonian Fantasy – 8/15/01

FBI Taking Wrong International Path 8/8/01

Defining Terms Unilaterally 8/1/01

European Overtures 7/25/01

Further into the Colombian Morass 7/18/01

Taiwan Changes More Important Than US Policy – 7/11/01

More Confusion Than Closure at The Hague 7/4/01

Testing Government Reliability 6/27/01

Making the Subgrand Tour 6/20/01

The State's Dark Underside 6/13/01

Reassuring Nobody – 6/6/01

Multiplying Balkan Confusion 5/30/01

Powell on Mideast: Seduced or Cynical – 5/23/01

International Aspects of Drug Wars Undercovered 5/16/01

China: Getting Chillier 5/2/01

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