Political fallout

April 11, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Now that regime change in Baghdad is at hand, does it matter whether those weapons of mass destruction that posed an "imminent" threat to us are found?

Their discovery in substantial quantity, along with effective means to deliver them, would certainly provide additional justification in the eyes of the world for the invasion and conquest of the Saddam Hussein regime and for the concept of "anticipatory self-defense." But in retrospect, it is clear that the U.S. emphasis before the United Nations on removing such weapons came from a calculation that the threat of them was a much easier sell than the notion of the pre-emptive invasion of a sovereign country.

That reality was seen in the 15-0 Security Council vote authorizing renewed U.N. inspections of Iraq to identify and destroy all chemical and biological weapons and nuclear weapons development facilities. Even France, Russia and China, with veto power in the council, were willing to buy into that step, which specified only "serious consequences" for noncompliance by Iraq.

Early on, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell repeatedly emphasized the importance of coping with a prospective imminent threat of such weapons to the United States, Israel and other allies. Only when it became clear that the Security Council was not going to buy into any argument for immediate war did he join in the call for "regime change."

The administration's failure to obtain a second U.N. resolution short-circuiting further weapons inspections and proceeding to use of force was a blow to Mr. Bush's chief ally in the enterprise, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who desperately needed it in the face of public opposition at home to war unsanctioned by the United Nations.

In the end, though, Mr. Bush didn't have to bother using the "imminent" threat from weapons of mass destruction as a faM-gade for his prime objective all along - getting rid of Mr. Hussein and his brutal regime.

The swift achievement of that welcome objective has relegated discovery of such weapons in Iraq to secondary significance in the scheme of things. But it remains important as a buttressing of American credibility in the basic decision to go into Iraq. Discovery is not likely, however, to end the broader question of the wisdom and the constitutional and international legality of pre-emptive invasion.

Troubling now are the flamboyant observations of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, about an American mission to bring democracy throughout the Middle East.

Plans for the imposition of an interim Iraqi government overseen by a retired American general, with a controversial Iraqi exile component, will require a deft diplomatic touch not associated with Bush & Co. to reassure Iraqis and their neighbors as well as wary critics at home.

All this poses a political challenge to the large Democratic presidential field for 2004. Those candidates such as Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri who were unambiguous supporters of the invasion are the obvious beneficiaries of the war's speedy outcome.

But all of them, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who supported the decision but was critical of the diplomatic run-up to it, will have to decide whether to rally to Mr. Bush's postwar plans for Iraq or find grounds to criticize them, a politically risky enterprise.

All of the Democrats may find it safer to put the war on the back burner and again try to refocus the voters' attention on the flagging economy at home. That strategy failed dismally in the congressional elections and may not be any more effective against a wartime president with a new feather in his cap.

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

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