Drawing First

The U.S. has faced deadly showdowns before, but this time, in Iraq, it's the nation that could start a war.

February 02, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Marshall Matt Dillon walks into the center of the dusty main street of Dodge City. At the other end of the Old West town stands a gunslinger. Dillon's hand hovers just above his holstered six-gun. The gunslinger draws, but Dillon's move is faster. A blast from his Colt and peace is restored.

That scene that began each episode of the weekly series Gunsmoke is familiar to many who turned on a television during the two decades it was on the air between 1955 and 1975. . Western lawmen like Marshall Dillon have an iconic status in American mythology that resonates today as the United States pins on the sheriff's badge and heads out to tame the world's evil creatures.

The image of the single shot -- a quick, overwhelming strike into Iraq -- taking care of the bad guy who is terrorizing the world appeals to the Bush administration.

But there is one crucial difference -- unlike Marshall Dillon, and every cinematic cowboy hero who faced off against evil in a gunfight, the United States is proposing to draw first.

It violates a basic precept of American warfare -- like those Western heroes, the United States doesn't land the first blow, it only strikes back. This is a tradition that goes back to the town square in Lexington, Mass., where British troops fired on Continental soldiers and goes up through Fort Sumter and Pearl Harbor.

So important is this concept that some of those first strikes have smacked of contrivance. A young congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln challenged the Polk administration to identify the spot of American soil where American blood was shed, a fight that provided the pretext to invading Mexico. Similar doubts were raised about the explosion of the battleship Maine before the Spanish-American War and the attack on a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin by the North Vietnamese that cleared the way for all-out war.

But the point is that it has always been necessary before launching a war at least to contend that the United States -- or its ally -- was the victim of aggression before launching a war.

But since it first began focusing on Saddam Hussein and his armaments, the Bush administration has tried to make the case that international law endorses the United States making the first strike -- in part because Iraq is in violation of United Nations resolutions and also because if Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, it would be like the baddest gunslinger in the West showing up in town with a Gatling gun, so he should be taken out by any means possible.

There have been attempts to link Hussein with al-Qaida, but none argue seriously that Iraq was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. The case for war clearly hinges on the potential for problems.

This apparent violation of such a long-standing American tradition disturbs many.

"I think we have to be very careful in explaining why Iraq is a distinctive and unique case," says Steven R. David, an expert on security issues at the Johns Hopkins University. "We don't want to create an international norm that a country that is uncomfortable with another country can simply attack. In India and Pakistan, the Middle East, in all sorts of situations we do not want to encourage this kind of attack."

Shibley Telhami, who holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development in the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that it was the violation of this doctrine by Hussein that caused such widespread support for the first gulf war in 1991.

"Iraq had invaded Kuwait," he says. "Think of all those countries that really didn't like America very much, indeed who feared America to some extent -- including countries like Syria -- that ended up saying to Iraq, `No, we intend to join this coalition.'"

Telhami contends that is because, at the end of the Cold War, "the worst thing that could happen would have been to allow a powerful state to establish the norm of getting away with attacking a weaker state that was perceived or claimed to be a threat to its interests.

"Now we see exactly the same fear going the other way," he says. "That's the real issue that explains why many countries are very much reluctant to join with the United States -- they see it as establishing a new norm that they don't like."

Could backfire

Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Chicago, agrees.

"If someone asks me if Iraq is a country that would benefit from a regime change, I would say, yes. Should there be an international role in that change? Possibly," he says. "But it must be done very carefully, not in violation of the United Nations charter or of the sovereignty of nations. If it is not done by international decision, multilaterally, it will be a terrible precedent that will be used against the United States in the future, again and again."

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