President Bush's State of the Union address conveyed precisely the wrong message to persuade other countries and leaders around the world to support the use of force against Iraq.
Bush paid some attention to the importance of a U.N. mandate, but he emphasized two points in justifying an attack on Iraq. First, he argued that the United States will use military force because Saddam Hussein represents a threat to the United States. Second, he emphasized that the United States will use military force whenever and wherever it has a unilateral interest in doing so.
Justifying an attack on the basis of a supposed threat to the United States is simply not credible. The International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program and believes that within a few months it can determine with certainty that Iraq does not possess such a program. Nobody believes that Iraq has the ability to deliver any weapon -- chemical, biological or otherwise -- onto U.S. soil, nor has anyone produced any evidence that it seeks to do so. Iraqi chemical and biological weapons may pose a threat to Iraq's neighbors, but the Bush administration has not made a credible argument that Saddam cannot be deterred from using any such weapons by the threat of retaliation.
Iraq, Al-Qaida aren't allies
The only way Iraq could pose a threat to the United States would be to transfer its weapons to al-Qaida. But there is no reason to believe Iraq would do so. Saddam is an adversary, not an ally, of al-Qaida. They threaten him as much as they threaten the United States.The Bush administration has presented no credible evidence of a significant connection between Saddam and al-Qaida. For example, while Bush is right to point out that al-Qaida is operating in Iraq, he neglects to add that it is operating in the Kurdish controlled area that is beyond Saddam's control because of the U.S.-imposed no-fly zones. This kind of selective evidence undermines trust in American intentions.
Acting without the support of other countries would be a major defeat for American foreign policy that would damage our national security for years. If the United States takes military action without grounding its decision in the widely recognized, legitimate standards of behavior endorsed by the United Nations, it risks becoming a rogue nation in the eyes of many around the world. That would be devastating to the war on terrorism -- which requires the cooperation of many countries. It would also limit America's ability to respond to future security threats.
A war against Iraq and future wars against other threats will be more costly -- in both human and financial terms -- if they must be fought with the passive opposition of other states.
Threat is to U.N. credibility
The president could avoid those problems if he chose to justify the actions on different grounds. Iraq is not a threat to the United States, but it is a threat to internationally recognized standards of legitimate behavior and to the credibility and authority of the U.N. Security Council.
Iraq has been allowed to evade compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions and international bans on chemical and biological weapons for more than a decade. Security Council Resolution 1441 clearly stated that Iraq had one more chance to be forthcoming in complying with these norms. Hans Blix's report clearly indicated that Iraq has not yet decided to comply with the substance of U.N. resolutions. If Saddam continues to refuse compliance, then the credibility of the U.N. Security Council and international norms against the production of chemical and biological weapons demand that compliance be enforced.
More patience needed
The United States shares a common interest with a wide range of countries in articulating and enforcing such norms of behavior. Indeed, if any link can be drawn between Iraq and international terrorism, it is that the United States can combat both of them by creating an international community that has a greater respect for widely recognized standards of legitimate behavior. Following this path would require greater patience from the Bush administration in forcing Iraqi compliance. It would mean waiting for the process of inspection to continue and waiting for Blix to determine whether Iraq continues to stonewall in the face of his specific requests.
These few weeks or months of patience would cost America little compared to its long-term gains in respect and credibility around the world.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 31 Charlotte Observer.