All Writings
March 9, 2003

The President’s Fateful Choice

President Bush's finest hour or his Achilles heel. In the next few days President Bush will make a final decision about war and peace; whichever way he decides will set off tremendous global tremors and may indeed be fateful in many other respects. If Mr. Bush is guided by his faith (as he stated in his March 7th news conference), we can only hope that providence guides him in making the right decisionâ€"one that is morally sustainable. Mr. Bush can take credit for making the international community focus on disarming Iraq and the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); if Iraq does disarm, the triumph is mainly his. The unanimous passage of United Nation resolution 1441, and the success of the inspection regime, although not to the full satisfaction of the administration, are also attributable to Mr. Bush's determination and the consistent pressure he has exerted on Saddam Hussein to comply. At this point in time, every single state represented in the Security Council (SC) and the overwhelming majority countries around the globe support disarming Saddam Hussein of his WMD. The question, then, is not whether Iraq should be disarmed, for which the President has made a convincing case, but rather what timetable should be set for this to happen, and by what means should it happen.

The impression American officials are leaving, especially Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Collin Powell, however, is that Iraq's full compliance is no longer enough: A change in regime must be the final outcome. But what is the incentive for Mr. Hussein to comply if regardless of what he does he will be removed from power, if not killed outright, or put on trial if captured? If there is any truth in Mr. Bush's recent statement that we seek a peaceful solution, then we must signal to Mr. Hussein that if he fully complies, the Iraqi regime will remain in power.

Under such circumstances the the inspectors can go about their duty of identifying key tasks related to each type of WMD and establish a deadline for full disclosure from the Iraqi government, including locations and quantities of such weapons as anthrax, botulinum toxin solution, sarin VX, and mustard gas it is presumed to possess. Or, if all these have been already destroyed, Iraq must produce credible evidence as proof. This approach can still meet the administration's key demand for disarmament, which makes it reasonable to extend the time frame for complete compliance from the several months proposed by Chief Inspector Hans Blix, to several weeks, a compromise to which all five veto-bearing Security Council members may agree.

The amended British-American-Spanish UN resolution establishing March 17th for full Iraqi compliance is arbitrary at best and is viewed by many other governments as nothing less than a trap–a pretext for war. If the United States is serious about disarming Iraq peacefully, then we must also agree to a time frame that makes compliance logistically possible. In addition, if a few more weeks can bring unity to the SC, and I believe such a compromise over the timetable can help, this will have tremendous implications, not only for the search for a solution to the Iraqi problem, but for how we deal with other looming crises, such as North Korea's nuclear threat. It should be noted that Iraq's current level of compliance, however imperfect, was made possible because of the SC's unanimous passage of resolution 1441 coupled with the threat of force if it did not cooperate. We can achieve that same unanimity if the administration looks for a compromise. Indeed, with more than 250 thousand American and British troops now poised to strike at a moment's notice, no one needs to convince the Iraqi regime any further of the consequences of noncompliance.

Yet, by appearing arrogant, by bullying large and small nations to follow its lead, by preempting Chief Inspector Blix's report to the SC and dismissing its conclusions, by demonstrating a lack of interest in the actual progress made by the inspectors, the administration has pushed reasonable people to ask why the United States accepted a new inspection regime mandated by UN resolution 1441 in the first place if it had no intentions of considering the Chief Inspectors' recommendations? Several former national security advisors, including Samuel Berger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft insist that, contrary to the administration's claims, Iraq does not pose an imminent danger, and most certainly not while Saddam is squeezed between America's hammer and the inspectors' hard rock. In sum, the administration has squandered much of its credibility trying to convince the international community it is genuinely seeking a peaceful solution.

Yes, the final decision President Bush is about to make is fateful. He can build on his success with the new tough inspection regime he engineered and seek international unanimity to finish the job in several weeks by force if necessary. In so doing he can strengthen the UNSC, mend the rift with our allies, and lead with enhanced moral authority. Or, he can choose to go to war prematurely, basically alone, in which case even a resounding victory will ring hollow because he will have inflicted irreparable damage on our own ability to manage future international crises. And in the process he will have also rendered the UN and NATO useless in the face of mounting international security challenges. Yes, the United States can win the war, but no one nation can win the peace alone. What Mr. Bush does next could be his finest hour since he became president, or his Achilles heel.