As convoys of TV trucks descended Monday on the United Nations in New York to witness the report of the Iraq inspection team, it was clear that most of the media have adopted the White House way of seeing events: as a series of ultimatums and triggers to start war on Baghdad. The inspectors themselves had promised no such event, nor had the U.N. Security Council. It was the hawks in Washington who had whipped up the press, yet again, to build the war fever with a roll of drums and the sound of administration-leaked punditry dripping away at common sense.
After a year of total immersion in American TV, it’s difficult to remember that as the New Year of 2002 dawned, Iraq and Saddam Hussein were not in the headlines. They weren‘t even on the horizon. Still reeling from the shock of September 11, the world had united behind the United States as it fought the forces of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Then President George W. Bush stood up and used a speechwriter’s catch phrase — “the Axis of Evil” — in his State of the Union address on January 27, 2002. He lumped together Iraq and Iran, two bitter enemies, and North Korea, which did not have much to do with anyone else, but at least was still avowedly communist and so had to substitute for the former Evil Empire (RIP). The world laughed at his geopolitical naivete. As it faces a war that could destabilize the region, and whose threat is already rocking the wobbly world economy, no one is laughing anymore.
Iraq did not change on January 27. It was every bit as evil before as it was after the president‘s road-to-Baghdad revelation and conversion. Since then, however, Bush has successfully made a previous back-burner issue the one with the fat in the fire, regardless of the near unanimous opinion of the rest of the world that, while Iraq may be “a” problem, it is just one of several.
In fact, the Bush administration has reversed von Clausewitz’s dictum about war being diplomacy continued by other means. For the last year, the U.S. has regarded diplomacy as war in waiting. Luckily for the world, the White House‘s diplomacy has been as inept as its approach to winning the hearts and minds of the world’s public.
It has not helped the White House‘s crusade against Iraq that its stated reasons keep changing. About the only one that has stayed consistent is Bush’s claim that Saddam Hussein “tried to kill my dad.”
Not only do the war aims change weekly, but almost every other stated reason fails the test of American practice. Defiance of U.N. resolutions? All year the administration has either vetoed resolutions about Israeli practices in the Occupied Territories or ensured that they were not implemented.
Was it about Saddam Hussein‘s tyrannical and bloodthirsty rule at home? If the president is so concerned, where were the tears for the Chechens, the Western Saharans, the Tibetans and the other contemporary victims listed in the State Department’s own human-rights reports?
Was it about threats to other countries? But none of Iraq‘s neighbors felt in the slightest bit threatened by Iraq, with its crumbling economy, obsolete conventional weaponry and inspected-into-the-sand-dunes weapons of mass destruction. Even Israel did not really feel threatened. Ariel Sharon is just a person who harbors monstrous and long-lasting grudges, as he demonstrated at Sabra and Shatila.
Is it about democratization? Then why is the administration publicly discussing a Ba’athist regime without Saddam as an option. And what to do about Syria, or Saudi Arabia?
Was it about the oil? Well, the U.S. has been buying oil from Iraq to make up for the shortfall from Venezuela and, if the war breaks out, risks losing not only that but the Saudi and Gulf oil, either through military action or fundamentalist insurrection if their regimes help the U.S.
So it must be about disarmament and control of weapons of mass destruction, then? Well, perhaps that would be a little more convincing if the administration were not considering the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq. Most damningly, Richard Butler, the former head of the U.N. inspection teams, and much reviled by Saddam and his supporters for being a tool of Washington, said this week that the U.S. was displaying a “shocking double standard.”
Butler needs no convincing that Iraq possesses forbidden weapons and is cheating, but he points out, “The spectacle of the U.S., armed with its weapons of mass destruction, acting without Security Council authority to invade a country in the heartland of Arabia and, if necessary, use its weapons to win that battle, is something that would so deeply violate any notion of fairness in this world that I strongly suspect it would set loose forces we would deeply live to regret.”
Butler churlishly pointed out that Israel, Pakistan and India do actually have nuclear weapons now and that the United States and other permanent Security Council members are themselves the possessors of the world‘s largest quantities of nuclear weapons.
It seems he did not mention North Korea, which has been the severest test for the consistency of White House policy at home and abroad. Why is this other charter member of the Axis of Evil, with a tyrannical and murderous regime and an actual nuclear weapons program, a state that can be cajoled and negotiated with, while the world must go to war immediately with Iraq, which has no currently working nukes, and little opportunity to build them?
It is no wonder that the desks of the world’s chancelleries are covered in drifts of dandruff as they scratch their heads wondering just what the Bush administration is on about. Even so, there are indeed double standards, and being the world‘s biggest military and economic power does have its privileges. So, for a time, despite other countries’ awareness of the inconsistencies in the American position, or rather positions, it looked like Bush had succeeded in putting Iraq on top of the world‘s agenda.
In September, when he told the United Nations that he was going to go the multilateral route, most of the world was deeply relieved that the U.S. was not going to rip up the U.N. Charter and mount a unilateral attack on Iraq. It does help that most of what he said about Iraq’s behavior was true, so even if they would not have put Baghdad at the top of their agendas, many nations were prepared to go along, although no one outside the U.S. bought seriously the suggestion that Iraq had anything to do with September 11.
But even at that stage there was a sort of quantum indeterminacy about the U.S. position. Other countries are never sure at any moment whether they are dealing with the caring Colin Powell, who shares their concerns for due process and consensus, or with the motley obsessive crew around Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld, whose fundamentalism and complete unconcern for the views of others rub even the closest allies the wrong way. Powell has had to do a lot of stroking to smooth the feathers the hawks have ruffled.
Thanks to Powell‘s diplomacy and flexibility, the U.S. managed a unanimous vote for Resolution 1441. Even until a month or so ago, if the White House had produced the conclusive evidence that it had told everyone it had, it would have had the support of the Security Council, even for military action. Even so, the hawks maintained an annoying background squawking about the failures of the inspectors.
The inspectors, who are no fans of Iraq, grumbled back about the lack of promised intelligence information from the U.S. Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix made comments about librarians who refuse to lend books. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told the press that Bush and top U.S. officials “would not assert as plainly and bluntly as they have that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction if it was not true and if they did not have a solid basis for saying it.”
Demetrius Perricos, chief inspector of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), commented, “What we’re getting and what President Bush may be getting is very different, to put it mildly.”
The events of the last weeks make it seem likely that in the best Texan death-row tradition of first deciding verdict and sentence, and only then looking for clues, the White House does not in fact have any substantive evidence.
As that became increasingly obvious, so did the change in what passes for American diplomacy. One sign of desperation was when both Brits and Americans began to say that instead of looking for the smoking gun or the bubbling vat of botulin, the Security Council should draw conclusions from the “cumulative” buildup of clues that Iraq was in flagrant material breach, and therefore the Security Council should attack.
However, even much of what has been brandished as part of this pattern has not held up under examination. The aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons materials were in fact for artillery rockets. Even people with UNMOVIC think that the empty chemical warheads discovered were in fact mislaid rather than concealed.
In the meantime, instead of showing the proof, the administration warned the U.N. that its relevance and survival depended on complete and prompt acquiescence to the American agenda and timetable.
Unnamed U.S. officials threatened “dire consequences” for Germany if it persisted in asking for evidence before a vote. France was accused of being anti-American. You would really expect guys who are so hot on American sovereignty to have a little more empathy with others‘ tender feelings about their independence.
A steady stream of leaks about the military deadline and the need to get the troops moving before the desert got too hot alarmed even the British, who warned against “climatic deadlines.” The “cumulative” evidence of White House threats and bluster is actually convincing other countries that the U.S. does not have the smoking gun that it has bluffed about all along, Ari Fleischer notwithstanding.
Neither Blix nor anyone else at the U.N. thinks that Saddam Hussein is “innocent.” The mere suggestion will raise the same type of sardonic smile as President Bush’s description of Ariel Sharon as “a man of peace.” But none of them is prepared to trigger a war that would kill thousands, or hundreds of thousands, and have ripple effects across the region and the world, simply because a fundamentalist White House truly, deeply and sincerely believes that Iraq is guilty. Washington‘s hostile reaction to this skepticism has converted passive support from other countries into active opposition.
The result has been to make it even harder for Colin Powell to use his charms on his foreign colleagues. Indeed, so fevered are the hawks in the White House that Powell himself has had to abandon his usual tact and make threatening noises to cover his back with the fundamentalists.
So where are we? Despite, or rather because of, the bluster from the White House, it has become less likely that there will be a U.N. resolution for war. Without that resolution, many crucial countries, such as Turkey and neighboring Arab states, may demur at lending support. Certainly if the U.S. goes ahead without the resolution, it will be ostentatiously ripping up the U.N. Charter and the corpus of international law.
Without those allies, the military cost, both in dollars and body bags, will go up, and the American public, whom polls show to be already deeply skeptical of any go-it-alone venture, may react badly. Is this administration so fundamentalist that it would risk the chances of a second term for a war on Iraq? We can hope not — but on the evidence so far, I wouldn’t bet the shop.