ALBANY, N.Y. - The recent statement by Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri that Iraq was not opposed to dialogue with the United States has gone mostly unreported, largely because there seems to be no desire on the part of the Bush administration for a diplomatic resolution to the rapidly worsening crisis with Iraq.
Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, prefers bombing to dialogue. Richard Perle, an assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, together with James Woolsey, former CIA director under President Bill Clinton, have undertaken a concerted public relations campaign to lobby for a U.S.-led military attack to oust Saddam Hussein.
They have been joined by Richard Butler and Charles Duelfer, the former executive chairman and deputy, respectively, of the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, that oversaw the disarming of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs from 1991 to 1998. Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and, most recently, Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York have spoken out in strong support for immediate military action to topple Hussein.
To hear the proponents of war tell it, the Iraqi regime presents a clear and present risk to U.S. national security. This thinking is accepted at face value by major U.S. media outlets with barely a token effort to dig deeper into the actual state of affairs in Iraq. Such terms as "grave," "imminent," "dire" and now "axis" conjure up images of the Japanese fleet cruising off the coast of Hawaii or German Panzer divisions charging across Europe. However, no comparable threat like these exists.
Iraq today is, by all accounts, a "defanged tiger" in terms of conventional military force. Its status as a "state sponsor of terror" hinges on Baghdad's continuing to harbor Palestinian terrorists, its sponsorship of a Marxist Iranian opposition army and a plot to assassinate President George H.W. Bush in 1993. All of the above are offensive activities that the United States rightly condemned. But none of these constitutes a clear and present danger to America or the American way of life.
The remaining issue often cited as a war-worthy threat is Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. The programs, outlawed by a U.N. Security Council resolution in 1991, were tracked down and largely dismantled by U.N. weapons inspectors from 1991 to 1998. But the final disposition of the programs remains unresolved since the departure of the inspectors from Iraq in 1998. While it is impossible to know what, if anything, has transpired inside Iraq since 1998, the lack of knowledge does not constitute a justification for war.
When one takes into account the considerable level of disarmament achieved by the United Nations in Iraq - more than 90 percent of Iraq's WMD programs were dismantled, according to Rolf Ekeus, who headed the U.N. weapons inspections from 1991 to 1997 - the picture of Iraq's WMD capabilities becomes less threatening. Yet, according to the rhetoric put forth by those lobbying for war, Baghdad continues to pose a threat similar to those of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
A war with Iraq without the cover of international legality, such as the invocation of Article 51 of the right to self-defense outlined in the U.N. Charter, might well succeed militarily, but it would be a political defeat. International condemnation would be widespread, with the resultant anti-U.S. sentiment encouraging the emergence of more al-Qaida-like terrorists.
While Iraq's WMD programs may not pose an immediate threat to U.S. and regional security, they remain a concern. Diplomatic engagement intended to return U.N. inspectors back to Iraq, in exchange for lifting economic sanctions that have punished the people of Iraq but have done nothing to hurt the Iraqi regime, offers a path toward peace and stability that should be vigorously pursued before any act of war.
If President Bush is serious about the resumption of U.N.-led weapons inspections, he should instruct Secretary of State Colin Powell to pick up the phone and give Baghdad a call. Mr. Sabri is waiting and willing to talk, so we should call his bluff before getting mired in a bloody and costly war.
Scott Ritter is a former chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq and currently is a contributing analyst for Fox News Network. He lives in Albany, N.Y.