Right war at the wrong time
By H D S Greenway
A season of botched diplomacy ended this week, and war came tentatively on a waning March moon. In the end the intense negotiations that had consumed the chancelleries of the world came down to an ultimatum that seemed quintessentially American: Saddam and the Hussein boys had 48 hours to saddle up and get out of town. In the end, regime change trumped disarmament in the president’s rhetoric, not that the two were ever separable. But it confirmed to the French, Russians, and their allies that the United States had more in mind than simply disarming Iraq. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin spoke for them when he said: “We do not subscribe to what may be the other objectives of a war. Is it a matter of regime change in Baghdad? Is it finally a matter of recasting the political landscape of the Middle East? In that case we run the risk of exacerbating tensions in a region already marked by great instability.’’
Not that the French and the antiwar coalition hadn’t hidden agendas of their own. It became clear that hobbling the American “hyper puissance,’’ hyper-power, as the French say, was a primary objective. It was as if the trumpeting unilateralism of which the Bush administration, with its disregard of international agreements, had become a worse danger than Iraq. If the United States thought it could back out of a host of treaties, including the banning of antiballistic missile systems, with impunity, those chickens have come home with a vengeance.
In the end, during the weeks leading up to the funeral of the diplomatic effort in the Azores, it was almost as if Iraq itself had become a secondary matter. As the debate went on, huge fissures within the trans-Atlantic alliance, within NATO, within the European Union, within US-Russian relations, opened up as if to swallow the old order with its notion of collective security. It was as if Pax Americana was no longer to be by broad international consensus, but by American power alone. The miniaturisation of American foreign policy seemed to be in high gear.
Voices on both sides of the Atlantic stated their concerns. “It is clear that the way in which we resolve this problem will determine not just the future of Iraq,’’ said Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot put it even more bluntly. “The regime that President Bush is going to change and perhaps destroy is the regime of international order that the United States built over the past 50 years.’’
The cause of disarming Iraq by force, however, is clearly both legitimate and just. It is hard to talk about an international order and a rule of law if Saddam Hussein is allowed to again slip the noose of so many Security Council resolutions, and no one has seriously argued that he is in compliance. To do nothing was no longer acceptable. But the US effort to build a coalition was seriously flawed.
It is also clear that the efforts of France and others to constrain US power gave Hussein reason to think he could continue his bluff, and one cannot help but sympathize with Britain’s Tony Blair and Bush when they said the final death knell for an international consensus rested with France’s assertion that it would veto any measure, no matter how worded, that would bring Hussein to account. France, too, is to blame.
It came down to a question of containment versus disarmament. And although containment, with inspectors on the ground, might have prevented a nuclear build up at least until the world lost interest and the inspectors left again “this cannot be said about chemical and bacteriological weapons, and we all know that,’’ said Spain’s foreign minister, Ana Palacio. Containment was not the long-term answer, but it could have sufficed in the short term while other, more pressing priorities were addressed.
The war in Afghanistan is far from over. The running sore of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the greatest recruiting poster Al Qaeda has, and a war in Iraq runs the danger of lessening international cooperation in the war on terror.
Thus I found myself in agreement with Harvard’s Joseph Nye when he said “right war at the wrong time.’’ One can see the necessity for pre-emptive action in the age of terror, but if the threat is not immediate, international consensus is all the more important. And that, sadly, is what we do not have.
It is easy to over dramatize. All the permanent members of the Security Council have gone to war without United Nations approval, and the UN has survived. Tony Blair and Colin Powell, however, may not survive if things go badly in the Gulf. The Bush hawks never wanted to take their Iraq case to the UN in the first place, but Powell’s view won out.
“Blair and Powell can hardly have imagined, when they set off down the UN route last year, that their political futures might come to depend on what the Fulani tribesmen of the Republic of Guinea thought of their draft resolution,’’ as The Times of London put it. The spectacle of the Fourth Army division wallowing at sea off the Turkish coast, because permission to land had not been obtained before it sailed, became a symbol of incompetence and mismanagement.
The Prussian military theorist, Karl von Clausewitz, once wrote: “War is the province of chance. It increases the uncertainty of every circumstance and deranges the course of events.’’ The fate of Saddam Hussein is sealed. But the uncertainty of every circumstance in the Middle East after the war is over will still be with us for a long time to come. —Boston Globe