Politics & Policy

Time’s Up

The president's clear, consistent message.

What’s to say that hasn’t already been said? Looking back on the essays I have written in NRO on Iraq, and many more by other NRO commentators, one can find all the key elements of the President’s speech. For example, I had noted that the use of force to disarm Iraq was legitimate under UNSC Resolution 687 back in November, 2001. But it’s not just NRO that has been ahead of the curve on Iraq — the administration has been remarkably consistent in its view of the threat, and the means to deal with it. For example, the rationale behind the doctrine of preemption, which the President explained in some detail last night without using the term, was also stated in the 2002 “Axis of Evil” State of the Union address (the Iraqi context analyzed here in NRO). The preemption doctrine is rooted in the “risk-balancing” framework, which takes as a premise that no decision comes without risks, some of which are created by the decision itself, others of which are the result of the actions of adversaries. In this case, the risks of inaction outweigh those of action, primarily because the technologies potentially available to the enemies of civilization are so suddenly, immediately and thoroughly devastating that, to paraphrase the president, it would be suicidal to allow even the threat of the use of such weapons to exist. One could gamble the other way of course, but the consequences of miscalculation in that case are the vaporization of Washington, New York, or another major American city. Those who oppose the total disarmament of Iraq — especially those who believe that WMD-armed rogue states will accept the MAD-era deterrence framework — must explain why their vision of stability is worth sacrificing the lives of millions of Americans if they are wrong. That is high-stakes gambling, and President Bush doesn’t think the odds are worth the bet.

The Coalition has also recognized the poverty of the inspection process. The last few months have seen the intellectual basis of inspection lapse into form of self-fulfilling argument. When arms are not found, proponents of diplomacy-only options claim that the weapons do not exist. When later the banned arms are in fact found (as in the case of the Al-Samoud 2 missiles), they claim that the inspection process is working, and must continue. The irony is that the inspections would not be taking place at all were it not for the threat of force — for as Frederick the Great observed, “diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.” There comes a time when the game has to be ended and the objective circumstances assert themselves. Apparently that time is 48 hours from last night at 8 P.M. EST.

A report from Russia states that the Russians and French are seeking to continue diplomatic efforts, even in the face of the “declaration of war” from the Americans. “Both sides stress the need to continue political and diplomatic efforts within the U.N. framework, despite the exacerbation of the situation,” the report stated, which was filed after a phone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Jacques Chirac. They will no doubt seek to craft some sort of compromise (c.f. Frederick the Great comment above — amazing how imminent force focuses the issue), or perhaps seek to condemn the Coalition for acting outside the U.N. framework. But, given the U.S. and British veto powers on the Security Council, the French may find themselves hoisted on their own petard.

Look for Saddam Hussein to try a last-ditch diplomatic gesture of his own, perhaps even suggesting his near-term retirement (he alluded to this last year), or making other promises intended to give those who oppose the use of force enough cover to continue their own efforts. Alas, it is too late for Saddam, he has run out of peaceful options. His only chance to survive now is exile. Separating Saddam from the Iraqi people or the state of Iraq as a focus and cause of conflict is reminiscent of the March 13, 1815 declaration of war against the recently returned Napoleon Bonaparte as “an enemy and a disturber of the tranquility of the world.” Then, the European powers rallied around the “legitimate sovereign” of France, the restored monarch Louis XVIII, against the criminal usurper Napoleon. In the same way, the president appealed to the legitimate rulers of Iraq, the Iraqi people, against the man who has enslaved them for decades, Saddam Hussein. Napoleon was castigated as a “criminal and impotent madman,” words which could easily be applied to Saddam as well, though he may still be potent enough to let loose a few surprises once hostilities erupt. However, I’d bet that the Coalition has some surprises in store as well, but we will have to wait another couple of days to find out what they are.

— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.


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