Lingering questions

April 25, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - A couple of days after the fall of Baghdad, when the leaders of France, Russia and Germany, all of which opposed the invasion of Iraq, met in St. Petersburg to assess the situation, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin struck a sour note.

The only goal, he told a news conference, "was and is the disarmament of Iraq and the attempt to find weapons of mass destruction. As we know, nothing was found, and even at the last moment of their struggle for survival, the regime did not use them. ... What was the military action for?"

Chemical, biological or other weapons of mass destruction may yet be found, or Saddam Hussein's regime may have disposed of them before being routed by U.S. and British coalition forces. But Mr. Putin was correct in noting that none was used against the invaders.

That they were not introduced may not mean the Iraqis didn't have them. You can speculate that they feared their use would bring terrible retribution on the military leaders who gave the orders to gas, poison or otherwise maim or kill the invaders. The U.S. command openly warned them in advance of just such a consequence.

But the weapons' absence from the battlefield fuels the question of how "imminent" was the danger that President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair posed in their determined, if ultimately unsuccessful, effort to coax a specific war-making resolution out of the U.N. Security Council.

As the search for weapons of mass destruction goes forward by coalition forces, with U.N. inspectors kept on the sidelines - at least for the time being - the principal Bush/Blair pre-invasion justification for going to war has been shunted aside by the success of regime change in Iraq.

Mr. Bush intermittently did call also for ousting Mr. Hussein, but Mr. Blair made clear that disarmament was his first concern. Now that the Iraqi dictator is gone, if not dead, the U.S. emphasis is no longer on self-defense but on liberation, with the news full of stories about regime atrocities and civilian oppression in justification of the invasion.

Obviously, lifting the yoke from the people of Iraq is a much-desired result, embraced by pre-invasion critics and supporters of the war alike. This is so in spite of all the insinuations or allegations by various talk-show polemicists that anyone who favored more time for U.N. inspections was "for" Mr. Hussein and against victory by the coalition partners.

Most opponents of the invasion who saw it as premature or illegal under the Constitution or international law proclaimed as soon as U.S. troops were put in harm's way that they wished for a speedy, successful conclusion of the war. Who, after all, doubted that U.S. military power would topple an infinitely weaker opponent and didn't want Mr. Hussein gone?

For all that, criticism continues in some quarters not only over how the war started but also over how the Bush administration deals with the aftermath. That includes the Iraqi people and the United Nations, whose traditional role as a peace conciliator appears to be in jeopardy.

Now that the war has been won, the administration seems to be asserting a victors' exclusive right to deal with that aftermath. It is either telling the United Nations to bug off entirely in the physical and political reconstruction of Iraq or limiting its help to picking up some of the cost and distributing humanitarian aid.

Its refusal to let U.N. inspectors in on the search for weapons of mass destruction inevitably invites suspicions of the same sort of U.S. gamesmanship in verification that marked its pre-invasion professions of "proof" that the Iraqi regime harbored them.

If the president wants to be recognized as the liberator and not the conqueror and occupier of Iraq, it will be in his interest to be seen and to act as a member of the world community working with others to achieve that end, whether it results in democracy or another form of self-government.

Finally, he also needs to rebuild the Western alliance that effectively helped ward off nuclear confrontation through half a century of Cold War. Or is further regime change by U.S. power to be the prime means of waging the war on terrorism in the Middle East?

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

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