In the days leading to the congressional resolution on war with Iraq, the White House persuaded many members with the argument that the greater the president’s authority to wage war, the less likely he will need to wage it. The possibility of pre-emption provides deterrence, the administration said, in effect. This is a better argument than it sounds at first, but leaves unanswered whether the administration will adhere to the resolution by first pursuing “further diplomatic or other peaceful means” before it decides whether to attack Iraq.
For effective saber-rattling -which is provided by the overwhelming passage of the resolution – Congress needed to look no further than Kosovo, where a commitment to the use of ground troops brought about the surrender of Slobodan Milosevic. Certainly the eroding international interest in Iraqi weapons inspections and economic sanctions in an atmosphere of concern about increased terrorism gives the administration incentive to craft an agenda for eliminating Saddam Hussein, and while Congress modified the president’s original resolution, it maintained the authority for him to use his own discretion of whether to initiate war. (Sens. Snowe and Collins supported the resolution; Reps. Baldacci and Allen dissented.)
President Bush has moved from bellicose to careful in his comments about Iraq during the last several months, from the “axis of evil” speech to an appearance before the United Nations. There are sound reasons for this, as a declassified analysis from the Central Intelligence Agency suggested this week. It said Iraq appears “to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks” but “probably would become much less constrained” if an American attack seemed unavoidable. Congressional supporters of the resolution argue that the threat from Iraq is imminent; they need to be careful not to make it more than that. Targets, says the CIA, may not only be U.S. troops abroad but Israeli cities and Saudi oil fields, raising the question of what responsibility the United States will bear in these places.
The resolution properly emphasizes the requirement of active interest from the United Nations. This is something of a compromise for the president, who began this campaign leading a charge that had only British Prime Minister Tony Blair serving as cavalry. The president now is demanding the UN Security Council adopt a new resolution that requires Iraq to submit to unconditional inspections and disarm or face military retaliation. It should, but it should also set measures that are clearly achievable by Iraq so the demand is more than pretense for attack.
The congressional votes Thursday and Friday had little of the drama of the ’91 votes to invade Iraq because them UN support had already been secured, rather than still sought. As the president makes his case to the world, he should again emphasize the ideas that brought congressional support: that safety not war is the goal and that diplomatic means are preferable to military ones.