Unanswered questions

February 20, 2003|By James Zogby

WHEN DEMOCRATS convene their winter meeting in Washington today, they should use the opportunity to question President Bush's plans to drag the nation into what may be a war without end.

Despite the Bush administration's efforts to win support for a war with Iraq, many Americans remain opposed, or at least uneasy and confused. What is the purpose of this conflict? And what will be its costs and consequences? The administration has not tried to answer these questions.

At times, it has argued that the threat of force is needed to press Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions that require the regime to disarm. On other occasions, Mr. Bush has gone further, speaking of some divine mandate to liberate the people of Iraq from their oppressive leadership.

The former objective is the agreed position of the United Nations. Disarmament still may be accomplished by weapons inspections and continued international pressure. The latter goal, though commendable to some, has little international support and would require a long-term U.S. occupation and a risky nation-building enterprise in Iraq.

If this is the administration's objective, it has not made its case before Congress and the American people. It has not told us how it would be done, what it would require and what are the chances for success.

Instead of presenting a fully developed case, the administration's neo-conservative supporters have projected a sort of adolescent fantasy about this war: It will take a week; it will provide such a shock to the Arab "street" and system that extremists will fall devastated; and democracy will flourish in Iraq and spread to the rest of the Middle East.

A more likely scenario, however, is projected by former U.S. diplomats and military officers who have served in the Arab world. They suggest that this war will take longer and may involve costly and deadly urban warfare and substantial devastation to the country's infrastructure. There is also the risk that a highly destabilized Iraq could create regional tension in Turkey, Iran and beyond. And while it is unlikely that mass uprisings will occur in neighboring Arab countries, there will be an internalization of anger and the resultant spread of extremist anti-American sentiment throughout the region.

This can create deadly long-term consequences for our interests and those of our allies.

More than a decade ago, Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, articulated the doctrine that defined the requirements that must be met before the United States should engage in military conflict.

Three of them were that military and political objectives were clearly delineated, that there was a reasonable expectation that the Congress and the American people understood the costs of this commitment and would support it and sustain their support, and that all possible peaceful means of resolving the conflict had been exhausted.

The Bush administration has met none of these requirements. Instead, it has played a shell game with the American people.

As secretary of state, Mr. Powell made the case for one kind of campaign - Iraqi disarmament - while it appears that the administration is heading toward a very different, much more expansive war - regime change. Mr. Powell's calm and thorough multimedia presentation before the U.N. Security Council sought to convince the world that the Iraqi leader is dishonest and brutal. But this is already widely accepted.

The case he did not make was why any of this dishonesty and brutality requires a costly, dangerous and possibly destabilizing war - especially one that risks isolating the United States from many of its important European and Middle Eastern allies and aggravates an already hostile and volatile world public opinion.

Domestically and internationally, the Bush administration has blustered itself way out on a limb and has attempted to browbeat and demean those who have hesitated or refused to join it.

Democrats fell for that game before November's election and lost. They incorrectly assumed that if they gave the president his war-making resolution, the national debate would return to "their" issues: the economy, corporate corruption and health care. They were wrong. Democrats will only compound this error if they don't act now to challenge the administration before it's too late.

Public opinion polls show that while Americans may support a war, that support drops dramatically when they are presented with details such as cost, consequences, time of involvement, casualties and the risk of fighting without U.N. backing.

This fact, combined with tough anti-war resolutions passed by city councils across the United States and recent substantial national demonstrations, make it clear that Americans have many questions and are looking for answers and leadership.

The message for Democrats is, it's time to lead or risk losing again.

James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, a member of the Democratic National Committee and the visiting Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College in North Carolina.

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