If anything was strikingly clear from President Bush’s de facto declaration of war this week, it wasthat the war is anything but pre-emptive. Pre-emption presupposes an imminent threat, and if Iraq actually posed an imminent threat, our government would hardly be giving Saddam & Sons a 48-hour advance notice that we were about to attack them. This is, rather, a preventive war, in which the threat from Iraq is something we must gauge in advance.
And one of the problems with this war is that while the United Nations’ monitors have not been granted much access to do their gauging, the United States’ decision makers haven’t really been much interested in impartial gauging in any event. The CIA’s George Tenet may have said last fall that Iraq did not constitute an offensive threat to the U.S., but Tenet is an intelligence pro who lacks the neocon and imperialist zeal to make it into Bush’s inner circle.
And the inner circle believes otherwise, though it increasingly asserts its belief free from any obligation to adduce evidence. Indeed, the core argument of Bush’s speech was precisely that Iraq did pose a mortal threat to the United States. And this past Sunday on Meet the Press, Dick Cheney was still asserting that Iraq had been acquiring the materials it needed to build nuclear weapons, though the documents we had released to expose this project have been shown to be forgeries — a fact that our government now acknowledges, except when the vice president chooses to forget it.
So the time for diplomacy has run out. France’s proposal for a 30-day ultimatum to Iraq, with detailed demands that the Baghdad regime would have to comply with, was a nonstarter at the White House, as was a similar proposal, with a time frame of roughly two weeks, floated by Canada. Time has run out because the administration evidently feared that the longer the international debate continued, the more that opposition to our course would rise in every nation except, possibly, our own. It ran out because our troops were already deployed — though it’s important to note that key military units have yet to arrive in the staging areas. In short, war is starting because we’re losing the international debate, so we may as well shift to something we know how to do: win a war.
In a way, the last half-year has been unfolding as a kind of absurd replay of 1914, set in a macabre hall of mirrors where the timetable of one nation determines the question of war and peace. In 1914, the governments of the major European nations plunged the world into bloody chaos because the logic of military mobilization rolled right over the attempts of every government’s foreign ministry to stop the war. The actual grounds for a continental war were close to nil, but as tensions rose, both Berlin and Paris grew suddenly fearful that the other could mobilize his army in just 14 days, and that he who hesitated to mobilize his own army would be not just lost, but, worse, the loser. The clock started ticking despite the lack of a casus belli between Germany and France, and on the 14th day, German troops pre-emptively crossed their frontiers lest France do the same.
Fast-forward to 2003, where the same rhetoric and urgency, the same catch phrases are, bizarrely, heard again. Time is running out. The time for diplomacy is exhausted. The armed forces are now at full readiness. The troops are already on the march.
This time, however, the ticking clock with which our government is trying to keep pace is entirely its own. Our deployment of forces has become in effect a massive argument for invasion; indeed, it’s been Cheney and Rumsfeld and the neocons’ ultimate argument against Colin Powell’s counsels of caution. Simply to keep the forces in the Kuwaiti desert, to stand down now, after all the times the administration has proclaimed its right to wage pre-emptive war against Iraq, would be to undercut all the administration has said and done. Thus the logic of unilateral mobilization has forced the United States into the war that its neocon champions have been seeking for more than a decade. In a nation that has proclaimed pre-emption as its strategic doctrine, to deploy a sizable force is now tantamount to declaring war.
Which is why the U.S. parted company from those Security Council members who voted for Resolution 1441 back in November. For a nation committed to a policy of pre-empt-and-deploy, weapons inspections were a sideshow, or better, a justification for starting the war as soon as the troops were in place. For the rest of the world — including the overwhelming majority of citizens of nations whose governments have sided with the U.S. — inspections were actually a valid process in themselves. (Though, paradoxically, it’s unlikely the inspections would yield anything unless backed by military force. Real inspections would require, for instance, U.N. inspectors being able to call in immediate [and necessarily, U.S.] air strikes on any facility to which they were denied entrance — a serious strategy in which the U.S. had no interest, and Europe, only slightly more.)