The United States led the charge to bring United Nations inspectors back into Iraq last month in search of hidden stores of nerve gas, anthrax and other chemical and biological weapons that can kill thousands of people in minutes and hundreds of thousands over time. In the meantime, some 60,000 U.S. troops have landed in Kuwait, Qatar and other nations in the region, and nearly 100,000 more are headed there in the next few weeks. President Bush, seeming to depart from diplomacy last week, wondered "How much time do we need?" to see that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is not disarming. The deputy secretary of State said he doubted that war could be averted.
The buildup to war continues. Outside of official Washington, the rest of the country is asking: What exactly compels U.S. military action against Iraq now?
Hussein is an odious dictator who used chemical weapons against his own citizens, killing at least 5,000 people on a single March day in 1988. He tortures his people. He invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. He supports Palestinian terrorists who kill Israelis. He has tried to build nuclear weapons. All that is known. It was true in September, when President Bush addressed the United Nations. It was true 10 years ago. Americans need to understand the urgency of the drumbeat coming out of the White House in the last several months. What has changed?
More Than Legalisms
Bush insists that the burden of proof is on Iraq to comply with U.N. Security Council demands and show that it has given up its weapons of mass destruction. That may be legalistically true. But the American people are demanding more than legalisms. They are seeking, and they deserve, a definitive statement from Bush about why now is the time for war. So far, he has failed to meet that high burden of proof.
Bush would find more support if Iraq had again invaded another country or been linked to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On the contrary, it has allowed United Nations weapons inspectors back into the country after an absence of four years to seek biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.
Baghdad has defied the U.N.'s Nov. 8 demand that it provide an "accurate, full and complete" list of its weapons, programs to develop them and scientists working on them. But that defiance has not convinced most other nations of the need for military action. U.N. inspectors found empty chemical warheads 75 miles south of Baghdad this month and have seized possible weapons- related documents for further examination. That discovery has prompted critics to argue that the inspections are working and that extending them is far preferable to war.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has repeatedly said the inspections will produce evidence of Iraq's refusal to comply with U.N. Resolution 1441, approved by all 15 Security Council members, demanding disarmament. That implies the United States knows more than it is saying. And that leads Americans to ask what the president knows that the rest of us do not.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators against military action packed the Mall in Washington last weekend in scenes reminiscent of anti-Vietnam War protests. Demonstrators also have taken to the streets in other cities across the country to oppose war plans.
Call to Continue Inspections
Nations allied to the United States have suggested caution, saying that U.N. teams in Iraq need more time to search for weapons. France, for instance, has threatened to veto a follow-up Security Council resolution authorizing war unless inspections continue. France and Germany successfully pressured NATO to delay drawing up plans to support U.S.-led forces.
Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, leader of the closest U.S. ally in demanding Iraq's disarmament, said inspections must be given "time and space."
When the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, reports to the Security Council on Monday he is expected to ask for more time for his teams to continue searching.
Even as inspectors were searching for evidence to justify war, reservists have been called from their civilian jobs and put on planes bound for Kuwait; a hospital ship is steaming toward the Middle East; aircraft carriers are massing in the region. Those troops, ships and aircraft are a needed show of force, intended to compel an otherwise recalcitrant Iraq to heed U.N. commands. But it's important to remember that the presence of tens of thousands of troops -- expected eventually to number more than 150,000, the vast majority of them American -- is of itself not grounds for military action.
Shadows From the Past
Bush has a steeper political hill to climb because of unhappiness abroad at his past disavowals of international treaties, from the Kyoto accord on global warming to the International Criminal Court. There also is concern that rather than an imminent threat, Iraq represents "unfinished business" from his father's presidency. Deepening that concern are Bush's frequent personal comments about Hussein, which often come across as more petulant than presidential.
Polls show Americans to be unconvinced of the need for war with Iraq but supporting military action if the president decides it is needed. In a Times poll last month, 72% of respondents said the president had not provided enough evidence to justify starting a war, but 58% said they would back a ground attack if Bush ordered one. A CBS News-New York Times poll last week found that 63% of those queried wanted Bush to reach a diplomatic solution, but if military action is necessary, 64% said they would support it.
Those worries argue for a presidential address devoted not to the overall state of the union -- as we will hear Tuesday -- but just to Iraq; not detailing Iraq's past criminality but spelling out the threat that justifies war now. Military action is not inevitable, despite the beliefs of most in official Washington. Going to war without the strong support of the American people would bring disaster.