Maybe it’s just me, but I seem to have missed the case for going to war with Iraq.

I am writing on the eve of President Bush‘s address to the U.N., where he will presumably make the case for intervention. I know he will because he has to make the case. Everyone has told him he has to make the case. And there is something peculiarly backward about this process.

Normally, the case for going to war — this kind of war — begins with the discovery of evidence. That was the genesis of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance: Our U-2 spy planes discovered and photographed Soviet missiles being installed in Cuba; John Kennedy took to the airwaves to share this information; and Adlai Stevenson, our U.N. ambassador, produced the photos during the Security Council’s debate on the crisis. That is, the evidence preceded the discussion.

Not here. Bush may well produce some photographic evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program, but not because it is something our spy satellites stumbled upon last Tuesday. In this instance, he is producing evidence because it is already his announced national policy to go to war with Iraq, and he has been compelled by a cabal of vulgar empiricists to come up with a reason. In short, Bush is not producing supply-side evidence. He is producing demand-side evidence. Which, as evidence goes, is inherently the shakiest kind.

And it‘s not as if the administration hasn’t been trying to find a smoking gun. Our intelligence agencies have spent a year, quite properly, trying to discover any link between Iraq and the al Qaeda attacks of last September. They have looked for any evidence that Iraq‘s nuclear program is any closer than half-a-decade away from producing a bomb. Not only have they not found any convincing evidence of a 911 connection or an A-bomb in the making, they have yet to find any indication of an Iraqi delivery system that could send a nuke, or chemical or biological weapons, our way. The intelligence agencies’ failure to come up with anything decisive, however, has never been a factor in the administration‘s determination to go to war.

Of all the genies that such a war would let out of the bottle, the most terrifying by far is that of pre-emptive war. Even were a war in Iraq to be unimaginably successful — bloodlessly replacing Saddam and his ruling clique with a stable, responsible coalition government that required no longtime assistance from other nations — the precedent of the United States arrogating to itself the right to go to war against a nation absent a precipitating cause would still outweigh the undeniably positive consequences of a Saddamless Iraq.

Ranking all the dangerous ideas and idiotic policies, foreign and domestic, that the Bush administration has churned out in its 20 months in office is an arduous task, but pre-emptive war is plainly the biggest doozy of them all. The United Nations Charter — drafted, chiefly by the United States, in 1945 — prohibits such wars, and understandably so. Both world wars began with pre-emptive German attacks on neighboring states, and the vision of a world in which states could attack rival states for fear of what their rivals might someday do was abhorrent to the charter’s authors. And for all its military ventures, justified and not, since 1945, the United States had never repudiated the charter‘s proscription of pre-emption. Until this summer, when Bush, speaking at West Point, did just that.

It was the threat of terrorism, said Bush, that rendered the charter obsolete. Today, an attack can come in a truck, in the mail; armies no longer have to mobilize, and all the spy satellites in the world may be useless if there are no discernible military actions to detect. Bush’s argument was compelling — if the force threatening to attack were a stateless network. But he did not answer, or even consider, the question of why a state that is considering a terrorist attack could not be deterred by threat of retaliation. States, after all, cannot take to the hills. Unlike such groups as al Qaeda, they cannot hide.

Over the past half-century, in fact, the U.S. faced off against an enemy just as cruel and infinitely more dangerous than Saddam‘s Iraq. The Soviet Union didn’t simply threaten to develop a crude nuclear force; it had one that could have destroyed the world many times over. And in Josef Stalin, it had a leader who made Saddam look positively bush league in his depredations. Saddam gassed thousands of Iraqis to death to bolster his control of the nation. Stalin killed somewhere between 7 million and 20 million Russians to bolster his. In the end, though, despite the magnitude of the Soviet threat and the blood-addicted madness of Stalin, we concluded that we could deter — and by so doing, eventually defeat — the USSR with the threat of retaliation. As events had it, we were right.

Yet Iraq, the Bushites argue, poses such a danger to our security that we must wage pre-emptive war. They say that Saddam has treated his own people with such monstrous disregard for human life that we cannot assume he will be deterred by a threat to destroy his nation in time of war. They concede that deterrence worked for Stalin‘s Russia — but insist it won’t for Saddam‘s Iraq.

In fact, for all their bloodletting at home, both Saddam and Stalin were cautious when it came to foreign wars. Saddam even had reason to believe he had the tacit consent of Poppy Bush’s White House when he invaded Kuwait.

And it is on this thin reed — the unique undeterrability of Iraq — that we are prepared to jettison the doctrine of deterrence (really, of international law itself) for one of pre-emption. As if this shift had no other consequence. As if India could not invoke pre-emption for an attack by its superior nuclear force on Pakistan‘s inferior one. As if China could not invoke pre-emption for an attack upon Taiwan. Once pre-emptive war is the standard, any nation’s apprehensions of its rival can be grounds for war.

So put aside the other objections. Let us, for the sake of argument, not consider the possibility that our going to war on Iraq a will ignite the already inflammatory Middle East, that it could bolster or even bring to power Islamic fundamentalist forces in shaky regimes (for instance, Pakistan, whose nuclear weapons are a matter not of conjecture but established fact). Let us dismiss concerns that the war will make it harder, not easier, to get international cooperation in our efforts to track down al Qaeda. Let‘s not even think about the casualties, U.S., Iraqi and other, that such a war is likely to cause.

Let us focus simply on the changes we will bring to our world by sanctifying the policy of pre-emptive war. It won’t quite mean, to sound a Dostoyevskian note, that anything is permissible. It will merely mean that the most awful form of human endeavor is more likely to occur.

A question worthy of some congressional consideration, one must hope, before our war on Iraq is put to a vote.

The one thing even more dubious than the case for going to war is the timing of the debate. The administration has made very clear that it wants a congressional authorization this fall — before the elections. National Security Adviser Condi Rice recently told a Sunday talk show that Congress should bestir itself to give Bush a free hand by voting before it adjourns in early October.

Keep in mind that Bush has been in office for 20 months now, during which time the threat posed by Saddam has been ever present. If at any point during that period the administration had been convinced that he posed an immediate threat to the U.S. or its allies, it doubtless would have taken real pre-emptive action. For that matter, no one in the administration is talking about charging into Iraq the day after a congressional authorization passes, either. Amid the torrent of leaks, there‘s been no speculation of military action before Christmas at the earliest.

In short, if the administration believes a congressional vote is of the utmost urgency, might it just have some ulterior motives? Changing the subject away from the economy, say, as the election looms? Forcing Democrats in marginal districts to choose between giving Bush a blank check and casting an unpopular vote? I don’t mean to suggest the administration is unduly preoccupied with elections: In 2000, Bush took power essentially by negating one. Still, assuming they mean to win this one without falling back on Rehnquist and Scalia, it‘s possible they’re thinking of more than just Saddam.

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