War With Iraq Is Inevitable

23 January 2003

By Stentor Danielson

War with Iraq is now inevitable.

The Bush administration won’t put it so bluntly, of course. Modern warfare is not supported with the gusto that medieval kings and emperors could summon, so even the most dedicated warmongers have to couch their plans in the rhetoric of last resort. The U.S. has to talk as if there is always a way out, some form of compliance that can avert war, so that we can appear to have been forced to go military by the intractability of our foe. Two avenues seem open to the optimistic doves and pessimistic hawks -- United Nations opposition following the report of the weapons inspectors currently working in Iraq, and a removal of Saddam Hussein from power, either by himself or by an Iraqi coup. Neither of these options has a realistic chance of keeping American troops out of Baghdad.

The UN route has long been the favorite, and for space reasons this column will focus on it. Bush's reluctance to work through the UN has been used by the anti-war movement to argue for the illegitimacy of war. This summer, Bush backed down from his fierce unilateralist rhetoric (telling the UN it was either with us or against us) to accept a Security Council resolution largely echoing the sentiments of perpetual peacenik France. This could be taken to indicate the administration's commitment to working through the UN.

The resolution was, however, a product of pragmatism and Powell. The softness of the resolution was no doubt due to sending comparatively dovish Secretary of State Colin Powell to negotiate with the nations who had doubts about a war, leading to more compromise than would have been allowed by a hawkish negotiator like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The administration accepted Powell’s resolution because, whatever the ideological conflicts in the administration, Bush needs Powell’s shrewd diplomatic skills and popularity among moderates on his side.

Bush was willing to work with the UN in 2002 because doing so did not substantially hold back his plans. It takes time to get the military in position for an effective strike (even in the optimistic Defense Department scenario that sees Iraq as a house of cards just waiting for some marine to bump the table a bit). Thus, going the UN route would help to soften criticism of American unilateralism. Finally, from a cynical perspective, Bush gains more room to criticize the UN as ineffective and irrelevant if he seems to make an honest effort to play by the UN’s rules first.

Polls suggest that while a comfortable majority of Americans favor war with the UN’s blessing, that number drops substantially for a unilateral attack. Nevertheless, these numbers are not such a liability for Bush for two reasons. First, support may grow during the war. Bush doubtless remembers how his father faced a deeply divided Congress when he asked for authorization for the Gulf War (much more substantial opposition than junior's recent cakewalk to a war resolution), but came out of the war with astronomical approval ratings because of how easily US forces dispatched the Iraqi army. Steeped in the Defense Department's optimistic (sometimes recklessly so) scenarios for the coming war, and convinced that American success in Afghanistan conclusively disproved those who feared another Vietnam, Bush is likely to expect the best.

Second, the hawks are concentrated in Bush’s base. He would naturally fear displeasing them more than he would fear the wrath of dedicated peaceniks who wouldn’t support him anyway. It’s not unreasonable to calculate that the uncertain middle will be more likely to be won over by an appearance of consistency and moral clarity than by a sudden conversion to pacifism.

This weekend's massive nationwide peace marches would seem to indicate that Bush faces serious opposition. These demonstrations, however, are easily dismissed by those inclined to disagree with their message. The protest sign and chant medium lends itself to the kind of simplistic emotional hyperbole -- a poster of Bush with a Hitler moustache, for example -- that provides convenient straw men for critics of the antiwar movement. The protest movement's affinities with the anti-globalization movement -- certainly no favorite of the free traders and corporate welfarists of the right -- and the connections between protest organizer International A.N.S.W.E.R. and the radical communist Workers' World Party give additional outs to those who would like to discount the protests.

On the international front, Bush has worked to undermine the legitimacy of the UN inspectors since the ink of Security Council Resolution 1441 was wet. Bush seemed to know that Iraq’s declaration to the Security Council was incomplete even before he read it. The administration has repeatedly claimed that the inspectors are incompetent and unwilling to press Iraq hard lest they find something that would contradict their skepticism about Iraq’s designs for nuclear world domination. Bush’s reluctance to supply inspectors with the intelligence on which he based his claims about Iraq's weapons could be read as a desire to undermine the inspectors, making it easier to dismiss any unfavorable report as due to the inspectors' incompetence.

Recent developments have proved any hedging against an unfavorable inspectors' report unnecessary. A week ago, inspectors found eleven empty chemical weapons warheads. Then, Saturday, they found documents appearing to relate to laser enrichment of uranium, which could be part of a nuclear program. While Europe debates whether these findings are enough to constitute "material breach" of Iraq's disarmament obligations, the U.S. is more easily convinced. The warheads and laser enrichment documents provide enough justification for Bush to portray war opponents as willfully ignoring the Iraqi menace and the responsibilities of the UN. This rationale gives Bush room, in the event of an unfavorable Security Council decision, to declare the UN irrelevant (reasoning, if it won’t stand up to Iraq, how will it stand up to the US?) and invade.

Nevertheless, UN approval may be much more likely than French and German rhetoric would suggest. Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix has been growing more hardnosed as the inspections progress, weakening anti-war powers' ability to depend on the inspectors for a peaceful solution. Given that the US will invade no matter what the Security Council says, many governments will be inclined to want to get on board to avoid the kind of snubbing that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder got a taste of after campaigning for reelection on an antiwar platform. They will be more inclined to wash their hands of the matter by abstaining from the vote rather than invoke the displeasure of the US by opposing it.

The Bush administration has never given much credence to the possibility that the UN could solve the Iraqi problem without war. The UN’s role has grown even smaller in recent weeks as the administration talking point about how Iraq can avoid war has shifted from "comply fully with inspections" to "send Saddam into exile." It is unlikely that war can be averted any longer.

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