When It Comes to Disarming Hussein, Even the Hawks Are Split

One line of division over the prospect of war with Iraq was vividly displayed on the streets of America and Europe nine days ago: the chasm between those who support the use of force against Saddam Hussein and those who marched to oppose it.

But another critical division has emerged over the war. This one is between two distinct groups of those supporting force. On one side are those who consider international cooperation the key to confronting new threats to global security. On the other are those who see Iraq as the opportunity to prove that the surest way to a safer world is for America to lead through assertive action, even if that increases friction with allies in the near term.

Over time, this argument over how to make war against Iraq may have more lasting implications than the debate over whether to invade. The odds are high that President Bush will make the question of whether to use force moot sometime in the next few weeks by ordering an attack. But the dispute over how to pursue war will have implications for years. It will color America’s relations with its traditional allies in Europe long after the shooting stops in Baghdad. And it is likely to emerge as the central foreign policy debate in the 2004 presidential election.

These contending views are expressed in the purest form by two sets of foreign policy analysts. The go-it-alone case is made most aggressively by neo-conservative thinkers inside and outside of the Bush administration, such as Republican strategist William Kristol and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz. Bush doesn’t accept all their arguments, but his approach to Iraq, and the world more broadly, bears their clear imprint.


The bring-others-along argument is expressed most passionately by a group that writer Harold Meyerson, in American Prospect magazine, recently dubbed “tough doves” -- center-left Democrats such as Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander. The dwindling band of Republican foreign policy moderates, such as Sen. Charles Hagel of Nebraska, holds similar views. The unquestioned international leader of this camp is British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Both sides agree Hussein must be disarmed. Both are willing to use force to do so. But the two camps are seeking to establish in Iraq very different precedents for how the world deals with new threats in the age of global terrorism.

The “neo-cons” want to demonstrate America’s willingness to act decisively against potential dangers, with allies if possible, but alone if necessary. In Iraq, they believe, the United States can stamp the template for an international order built on the unapologetic assertion of American power. “The maintenance of a decent and hospitable international order requires continued American leadership in resisting, and where possible undermining, aggressive dictators and hostile ideologies,” write Kristol and Lawrence F. Kaplan in their new book, “The War Over Iraq.”

While the neo-cons wouldn’t mind U.N. support for action against Iraq, they aren’t willing to sacrifice much American freedom of action to obtain it. In the neo-con view, those in the United States and Europe demanding U.N. approval of an invasion are motivated primarily by a desire to restrain America “and the lingering suspicion that American self-interest and the interests of humanity are inherently incompatible,” as Kristol and Kaplan write.

Rather than waiting for an illusory international consensus to materialize, the neo-cons argue, the United States should send in the tanks; however reluctantly, others then will eventually sign on. That appears close to Bush’s thinking too. For months he’s made clear that he will engage the United Nations only so long as it supports the military action he appears to consider unavoidable.

In stark contrast, the tough doves see international consensus, and the strengthening of international institutions, as sources of American power. While they don’t rule out unilateral U.S. action in Iraq or elsewhere, they argue that the administration should make every effort to obtain U.N. support, to temper hostility toward American power and to foster the cooperation we’ll need to confront other dangers, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation.

“We are far more likely to gain the support we need by working through international institutions than outside of them,” wrote Clark, who’s considering a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, in Washington Monthly last fall.

Kerry, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination, made similar arguments in a major foreign policy address in January; likewise Hagel warned in a speech last week that invading Iraq in a way that divides the United States from its allies and undermines the U.N. could hurt America’s security more than it helps.


“America must steer away from actions that could produce the unintended results of fracturing those very institutions that have helped keep peace since World War II,” Hagel said.

Even the tough doves acknowledge that military action can’t always wait for international consensus: Blair supported, and Clark directed, a war in Kosovo that lacked U.N. sanction (because of opposition from Russia). But at the price of difficult negotiation with allies over strategy and tactics, the United States did fight that war through NATO -- and Clark now argues the solidity of that alliance was essential to victory.

As Kosovo suggests, the real-world choices don’t always divide cleanly between collaboration and autonomy. The debate is a matter of degree. The tough doves join the neo-cons in believing the United States can’t wait indefinitely for U.N. authorization before moving against Iraq. But the tough doves believe Bush should have placed a higher priority from the outset on building international support, and are willing to wait longer than neo-cons to obtain it now.

In the end, the two sides are trying to make very different points from the same war. The neo-cons want to frighten the bad guys in rogue states by demonstrating U.S. power and resolve. The tough doves want to unify the civilized world against emerging dangers by demonstrating the value of what Blair has memorably called “a new doctrine of international community.” The two camps are marching into battle together, but their own conflicts have just begun.



Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ Web site at: