The Race to War
he countdown to war has begun. The United Nations will hear the report of its weapons inspectors this week and begin debating the wisdom of endorsing a war against Iraq. But the Bush administration seems to be operating on a different plane, gearing up for an invasion it appears determined to conduct whether or not its allies approve. At best, it may give the Security Council a few more weeks to consider whether to approve an attack on Iraq.
We urge the administration to brake the momentum toward war. Saddam Hussein is obviously a brutal dictator who deserves toppling. No one who knows his history can doubt that he is secretly trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. But this war should be waged only with broad international support. To go it alone, or nearly alone, is to court disaster both domestically and internationally.
Mr. Bush has enough support among American voters to undertake the kind of clean, quickly successful military action his father directed in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. But every poll, every anecdotal reading of the American mood makes it clear that he has not sold the public on anything difficult or drawn out. Iraq is a large and complex Arab nation of 24 million people in the heart of the Middle East. America's overwhelming advantage in firepower might not prevent a prolonged period of street-to-street fighting in Baghdad that would be murderous to Americans and Iraqis alike. A desperate Iraq might try to attack Israel, disable Saudi and Kuwaiti oil fields or even destroy its own oil industry before it fell into American hands. It might fire whatever chemical and biological weapons it has against American troops. These are risks that could be well worth taking, but the American public has not signed on for them. This nation should never begin a fight it is not prepared to carry out to the bitter end, no matter what the cost.
That isn't true of this engagement, and the fault lies mainly with the president himself. Mr. Bush has never been open with the American people about the possible cost of this war. He has not even been clear about exactly why we are preparing to fight. Sometimes his aim appears to be disarming the Iraqis or punishing Baghdad for defying the United Nations; sometimes the goal is nothing short of deposing Mr. Hussein. The first lesson of the Vietnam era was that Americans should not be sent to die for aims the country only vaguely understands and accepts.
The second lesson of Vietnam was that the country should never enter into a conflict without a clear exit strategy. We have nothing close to a plan for how, once in Iraq, we get back out again. Even if Mr. Hussein is easily eliminated, the United States will be left to govern and police Iraq for an extended period. Without clearly acknowledging the possibility to the American public, Washington could easily find itself involved in an open-ended occupation.
These risks would be tolerable if the rest of the world were working alongside the United States, prepared to share the danger of the invasion and — much more critically — the responsibility for creating a more humane and progressive Iraqi government in its wake. There are some threats and some causes that require fighting even if America has to fight alone, but this isn't one of them. And the world — like the American public — is not yet really convinced that a Hussein-free Middle East is a goal worth fighting a war for.
Britain, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Australia and a number of Persian Gulf states have offered military assistance or access to bases, but there should be no mistaking this ad hoc group for a united international front. France, Germany, Russia, China and even Canada are not on board. They may all have their parochial reasons for not joining the fight, but their resistance to war should be a powerful signal that if anything goes wrong — and something will go wrong sooner or later — the United States will bear the responsibility alone.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the Bush administration's campaign to get broader international support is the implication that France or any other nation that fails to get on board now will be cut out of the administration of postwar Iraq and its oil fields. Freeing the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's brutality and freeing the world from the threat of his belligerence are causes worth fighting for. Winning control of Iraq's oil fields is not, particularly when the attacking nation is a country whose wasteful use of energy is an international scandal.
We hope that after the chief weapons inspectors present their reports tomorrow, the members of the United Nations Security Council will set aside their preconceptions and evaluate the findings carefully, particularly the level of Iraqi cooperation. The inspectors alone will never disarm Iraq. But they can slow Mr. Hussein's weapons programs, leaving more time for diplomatic efforts to remove him from power and for Washington to mobilize the international support it now lacks.
Forty years ago, the United States entered into a conflict in Southeast Asia with good intentions. When it emerged, it was torn at home and humbled abroad. The men and women now preparing to take the country into war in Iraq are, in the main, products of the Vietnam generation. They should be the first to remember how easy it is for things that begin well to end badly.