Making the case

September 13, 2002

BY PUTTING world leaders on notice that they must act "deliberately and decisively" against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush fulfilled the responsibility of an American president contemplating an unprecedented pre-emptive strike against another nation. In his speech before the United Nations yesterday, Mr. Bush forcefully delineated Iraq's repeated defiance of U.N. resolutions, providing the international body with ample reason to move against the regime.

At the same time, he skillfully included the United States in that community of nations by relying on the collective "we," and in so doing made a persuasive case that the grievances against Mr. Hussein were not the United States' alone. He respectfully challenged the United Nations to live up to its obligations, advising that "we've been more than patient" with Mr. Hussein.

But he warned the General Assembly that America was prepared to take on the rogue nation and its murderous dictator, absent any U.N. action.

While he laced his speech with enough atrocities of the Iraqi regime to give diplomats and television viewers cause for concern, Mr. Bush brought neither the international community nor his fellow Americans to a better understanding of the essential dilemma of the Iraqi question: Is the risk of not acting greater than the risk of acting?

His cryptic line about Iraq's possession of nuclear weapons -- "The first time we may be completely certain he has nuclear weapons is when, God forbid, he uses one" -- cannot stand as the definitive answer to this critical question.

But the president needed to personally make the case against Iraq before an audience such as the United Nations. The administration's intention to pursue a unilateral strike has been perceived abroad as characteristic of the United States' brash arrogance, an image the country can ill afford in this post-Sept. 11 arena.

Mr. Bush invoked the right tone in his speech, pledging to work on a new U.N. resolution to return international weapons inspectors to Baghdad after four years in exile. That pledge was a welcome departure from the adamant, often obstinate, stance of Bush administration hawks who have made the case against Iraq in recent weeks.

After a point-by-point compilation of Iraq's egregious behavior over a decade, who could argue with Mr. Bush's contention that "Saddam Hussein has made the case against himself"? With that, he set the stage for an attack, with or without allies.

But this country is already at war, or so we are told. What's to become of the global fight against terrorism and U.S. efforts to rebuild Afghanistan? Are Americans willing to risk the lives of their soldier sons and daughters to wipe out something as illusive as "a grave and gathering danger"? Can the United States afford to alienate its European allies and disrupt the fragile balance of power in the Mideast to oust Mr. Hussein? And if such a campaign were to succeed, how would the United States proceed in a leaderless Iraq?

Mr. Bush's dialogue with the country and the world has begun. It can't yet be over.

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