Bush and Iraq

George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine

What is President Bush’s ultimate objective in Iraq? Is it to make sure that Saddam Hussein does not have weapons of mass destruction? Or is it to remove Saddam by force and remake the politics of Iraq? And if the latter, would it be the first step toward a new American imperium?

Weeks of Bush administration rhetoric concentrated relentlessly on Iraq have left the answers to those questions in doubt and confusion. Thus on October 1 Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed to say that the United States was following the path of United Nations inspections. He held a press briefing to explain that, as inspectors planned a return to Iraq, American policy was to give them “new instructions, strong instructions, and the strongest support possible from the Security Council….” But on the same day President Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said, “The policy is regime change, and that remains the American position.” Mr. Fleischer went on to suggest that an efficient means to that end would be the murder of Saddam in a coup. He said:

The cost of a one-way ticket is substantially less than [that of an invasion]. The cost of one bullet, if the Iraqi people take it on themselves, is substantially less than that.

President Bush himself has sent sharply conflicting signals. At West Point last June he introduced the idea of preemption. The cold war strategies of deterrence and containment were no longer adequate, he said. “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” In September, when he began his drumbeat about the Iraqi threat and the need for “regime change,” he was generally thought to be planning a preemptive military attack.

Then, on September 12, Mr. Bush spoke in a very different way to the UN General Assembly. His emphasis was on the need for action by the Security Council to enforce its own past resolutions. “We want the United Nations to be effective, and respectful and successful,” he said. “We want the resolutions of the world’s most important multilateral body to be enforced.” The speech disarmed many of his critics, at home and overseas. They saw it as a step away from war as a first choice, a recognition of the inspection process as the right way to deal with the weapons threat in Iraq.

But on September 20 the administration published its lengthy paper, “The National Security Strategy of the United States.” Much of it was a thoughtful analysis of changed realities in the world. It said, for example, that “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.” But what attracted attention was an explicit, formal statement of the preemption doctrine. “The greater the threat,” the document said,

the greater is the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for…

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