Why now? We're still waiting for answer

January 31, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - For all the forceful rhetoric in President Bush's State of the Union speech, his dispatch of Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations next week underscores that a major sales job still needs to be done to convince doubting U.N. members that now is the time for an invasion of Iraq.

And the fact that Mr. Bush wants Mr. Powell to address the Security Council in public demonstrates his awareness that much of the American electorate also wants more proof that Saddam Hussein represents an imminent threat to the world.

Mr. Bush's recitation of Iraq's failure to prove that it has destroyed its chemical and biological weapons was clearly intended to respond to those U.N. and public doubts. But again he offered no tangible new evidence that those weapons still exist.

"Some have said," the president noted, "we must not act until the threat is imminent." Then he asked: "Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words and all recriminations would come too late. Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option."

Others, however, noting that such weapons may have been in Iraqi hands for more than four years and haven't been used against us, ask whether it isn't more likely that they will be used if Mr. Bush's "coalition of the willing" attacks with the intention of deposing the Iraqi dictator.

The whole question of imminence is what is producing a potential roadblock to the full-fledged U.N. backing for the invasion for which the president is openly mobilizing. Nobody in the world organization, except perhaps the occasional resolute pacifist, is denying that Mr. Hussein is a rancid apple in the barrel of national leaders. The issue remains: Why go after him now?

Although pressure from U.N. members earlier obliged Mr. Bush to soft-pedal his demand for "regime change" and call instead for disarmament, he has not abandoned it. In his speech, he left no doubt of his intent with his message to the Iraqi people: "Your enemy is not surrounding your country - your enemy is ruling your country. And the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation."

That promise does not necessarily mean that the president intends to sentence Mr. Hussein to sleep with the fishes. Mr. Powell has indicated if some means could be found to have him accept exile to make invasion unnecessary, the United States might well go along. That would be the best outcome, for Mr. Bush as well as for the country and the world.

In the meantime, it's to the president's tactical advantage to have the Iraqi dictator believe that what is imminent is American tanks rolling toward Baghdad. Sending Mr. Powell to the United Nations loaded with visual aids to make the case that Mr. Hussein also is geared up for imminent action is designed to convince the doubters that the time to move is now.

We're told, however, that there won't be any "Stevenson moment" to make the case, a reference to U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson's famous photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis. Absent something similar, Mr. Powell faces an uphill effort to crack the resistance of key Security Council members like France, Germany, China and Russia to going to war this winter.

If he fails, considering Mr. Bush's supreme muscle-flexing in the State of the Union speech, the president appears more than ready, after granting the U.N. inspectors another few weeks to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, to hitch up his "coalition of the willing" and start shooting.

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

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