Why now? Still waiting for answer

September 13, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's pitch to the United Nations to join him against Saddam Hussein certainly spelled out his rationale. But it didn't provide the evidence that most other nations say they need to be convinced that the threat to peace posed by the Iraqi dictator is sufficiently dire to warrant war, and now.

Nevertheless, the president did invite the U.N. Security Council to produce a new resolution that would call on Iraq "immediately and unconditionally" to "disclose and remove or destroy all weapons of mass destruction" and delivery systems. He did not, however, specifically call for a resumption of unfettered U.N. inspections there.

Mr. Bush laid down other conditions, such as an end to repression of the Iraqi population. But the central purpose of his speech was to serve notice, not only to the Iraqi dictator but also to the world body, that if the Security Council does not join him in his demands and if those demands are not met by Iraq, he intends to go it alone.

The closest the president came to establishing urgency was to note that the Iraqi regime "employs capable nuclear scientists and technicians," "retains physical infrastructure needed to build a nuclear weapon" and has tried to obtain the means of enriching uranium to do so.

"Should Iraq acquire fissile material," he said, "it would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year."

Suggesting that Mr. Hussein might also give such a weapon to American enemies, Mr. Bush said, "Our greatest fear is that terrorists will find a shortcut to their mad ambitions when an outlaw regime supplies them with the technologies to kill on a massive scale."

As to doubts that the Iraqi dictator is close to developing a usable nuclear device, the most Mr. Bush could offer was to observe that "the first time we may be completely certain he has nuclear weapons is when, God forbid, he uses one." This is a leap that until now only Britain's Tony Blair, among major international players, has been willing to make in supporting military action. But the Security Council never has blessed such action on such iffy propositions.

The question thus arises whether Mr. Bush really has hopes of achieving such a war-making resolution or merely wants the record to show before the world that he went through the motions before unleashing U.S. military might. Allies in Congress have counseled him to go to the United Nations, at least as a gesture, to combat the allegation that he is once again bent on the unilateralist course he was pursuing before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made him an overnight multilateralist.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the president's speech was his conspicuous extension of purpose beyond disarmament to the deposing of Mr. Hussein, which many international critics have argued goes beyond the world community's responsibility. If Iraq were to accede to his demands, Mr. Bush said, "it could open the prospect of the United Nations helping to build a government that represents all Iraqis -- a government based on respect for human rights, economic liberty and internationally supervised elections."

This sounded like a philosophical conversion of convenience from the George W. Bush who, as a presidential candidate in 2000, emphatically dismissed the concept of nation-building as a legitimate U.S. function in the international community.

Mr. Bush took pains in his speech to recite previous U.N. resolutions calling on Iraq to comply with the conditions that were set after its defeat in the Persian Gulf war involving weapons inspections, renunciation of terrorism, human-rights guarantees against repression, prisoner return and the rest. The repeated Iraqi failure to comply over the last decade, he said, now confronts the United Nations with "a difficult and defining moment" -- to enforce them or "be irrelevant."

But again, the question other U.N. members continue to ask is: Why now? The specter of nuclear weapons in Baghdad or environs doesn't seem to spook them as it does the American president. Unless he does a better job convincing them, he may have to do without that U.N. resolution -- which, after all, may be all right with him.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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