The terrible specter of war in the Middle East temporarily pushed the world back from the brink Thursday and gave the United Nations Security Council more time to do the job for which it was created -- keeping the peace.
France, which threatened to veto any resolution it considered an authorization of military action, left a tiny opening in proclaiming its "openness to seize all opportunities." The United States, which previously demanded a Security Council vote no later than today, said it could wait until next week. Britain helped by modifying its demands that Iraq must fulfill to avoid invasion.
The welcome delay in war may be only momentary and the battle of words is unceasing. President Bush has repeatedly said that if Washington did not get council support, the United States would act on its own.
In a post-9/11 world, the president argues, things are different. The nation must protect itself. Yes. So the question becomes, would an invasion of Iraq make the United States and the world safer? If the world community unites to do it, yes. But a U.S.-led invasion, without sanction from the United Nations, would make this nation and the world at large more dangerous.
It is well established that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. Among other things, Iraq still has tons of material that can be made into biological weapons like anthrax and into chemical weapons like mustard gas.
It clearly is in the world's interest to disarm this murderous tyrant. The Security Council, riven by both legitimate concerns about the U.S. use of power and its own petty political games played for domestic consumption in France, Germany, Russia and China, must not freeze in a critical moment. Hussein should be disarmed, and it should be done by a coalition that includes these countries and more. If the council ultimately were to refuse to act to enforce its 17 resolutions demanding that Iraq rid itself of weapons that can kill or maim millions -- a refusal made in the name of "peace" -- it would be disingenuous at best, cowardly at worst. A United Nations' failure to act after Iraq ignored its resolutions for 12 years would rightly call into question its leadership and relevance. Bush is correct about that.
But the president's next step -- in effect, "if the U.N. doesn't do it, right now, the United States will" -- is where he loses us and, we suspect, many other Americans.
The Bush administration's months of attempts to justify quick military action against Iraq have been confusing and unfocused. It kept giving different reasons for invasion. First, it was to disarm Hussein and get him out. Then, as allies got nervous about outside nations deciding "regime change," the administration for a while rightly stressed disarmament only. Next, the administration was talking about "nation-building" and using Iraq as the cornerstone of creating democracy in the Arab/Muslim world. And that would probably mean U.S. occupation of Iraq for some unspecified time, at open-ended cost.
Then, another tactic: The administration tried mightily, and failed, to show a connection between Hussein and the 9/11 perpetrators, Al Qaeda. Had there been real evidence that Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, Americans would have lined up in support of retaliation.
There's no doubt that Hussein with his stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction is an affront and a threat to the international community. Under the relentless pressure from the Bush administration, Hussein has slowly, belatedly begun to destroy some of his weapons. Can he be trusted to do the right thing without pressure? Of course not. But why insist on immediate war just as the political pressure and military threat appear to be having a positive effect?
This week's renewed diplomacy should strengthen the resolve to disarm Iraq -- a goal France says it shares with the United States. Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has said he needs months to verify Iraq's compliance. Not weeks, but not years, months. Then let him have those months, but no more. Continued Iraqi recalcitrance, underscored not by hot political rhetoric but by a final and objective inspectors' report, should convince most nations that Iraq must be forcibly disarmed.
Opposition to immediate war cuts across religious lines, but it is especially strong among Muslims, some of whom see an attack on Iraq as a renewal of the Christian crusades against Islam. Throughout the Middle East, a postwar occupation of Iraq would become part of the myth of an American empire come to wreak havoc on the Muslims. This refueled resentment would not make the world safer. It would not make the streets at home safer.
The cost of war would be high, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars. Add on costs to occupy Iraq while rebuilding it and the price tag would be higher still. Without U.N. support, these tremendous expenses would be borne largely by American taxpayers. Though decisions of war cannot be made in strictly financial terms, the nation cannot ignore the pragmatic question of how it would afford war and the occupation and rebuilding of another country.
The administration early in its term undercut its case for going into Iraq now by doing very little to help end the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Former National Security Council official Kenneth Pollack makes the best case for war against Iraq in his book "The Threatening Storm," contending that by the time Hussein becomes a true threat to the United States, able to inflict massive casualties, it will be too late to stop him. But even Pollack argued for delay until Israeli-Palestinian violence waned. This is the conflict that demanded the time and energy Bush so willingly poured instead into making a case to go after Hussein.
An Iraq invasion without U.N. sanction would be a preemptive attack by the world's only superpower. It would probably be successful in the initial military phase -- but at what cost? A preemptive strike can be justified if the threat is imminent and unavoidable. With neither of those conditions proven, a preemptive attack yields the moral high ground. The U.S. would be cast as the global bully, seeking to arrogate the installation of governments in other lands.
As the U.S. places a laser focus on Iraq, other serious challenges await. North Korea is believed to have one or two nuclear bombs and the intention of making more. It exports missiles to other countries. It is desperately poor and could raise money by selling its plutonium or bombs -- to countries or terrorists. Kim Jong Il's regime has threatened to turn the South Korean capital into a "sea of fire" if North Korea is attacked, risking the lives of hundreds of thousands, including many of the 38,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. And recent reports suggest that Iran too is making advances in its nuclear weapons program.
All of these problems require a response, and this nation cannot muscle its way out of all of its international disputes. The United States, in word and in deed, must do nothing to undermine the crucial tool of diplomacy in resolving conflicts. That's why the United States and Britain must be successful in this probably final effort to unite the United Nations to disarm Saddam Hussein. It is the way to best serve the long-term interests of the United States. It is the right way.