Questions remain about Iraq's `imminent' threat

April 30, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In a visit to the heavily Arab community of Dearborn, Mich., the other day, President Bush made a strong case for his invasion of Iraq, ticking off the deprivation of its people under Saddam Hussein.

"In a nation where the dictator treated himself to palaces with gold faucets and grand fountains," he said, "four out of 10 citizens did not even have clean water to drink. While the former regime exported milk and dates and corn and grain for its own profit, more than half a million Iraqi children were malnourished."

The president went on: "As Saddam Hussein let more than $200 million worth of medicine and medical supplies sit in warehouses, one in eight Iraqi children was dying before the age of 5. And while the dictator spent billions on weapons, including gold-covered AK-47s, nearly a quarter of Iraqi children were born underweight."

These references and others were powerful justifications for the invasion, as was his promise that the essential needs of the Iraqi people will now be met with American aid. But is it indelicate to point out that this was not the primary justification for launching the war when it was undertaken, in the face of the opposition of most of the world community?

It's now being argued in many quarters that it doesn't matter that the American people were told that the invasion was imperative as a pre-emptive defense against the "imminent" threat of weapons of mass destruction, either being used by Iraq against the United States or given to terrorists to do the same.

We're being told also that it doesn't matter that no such weapons were used against coalition forces in the war or that up to now they haven't been found. The administration obviously knows better, or it wouldn't be greatly beefing up the small army of searchers assigned to locate them.

The war's revelations have proved, as if any doubt ever existed, that Saddam Hussein was truly monstrous in his treatment of his own people and that they and the world are much better off with his departure, from Iraq or from this world.

But there remains the critical question of whether there ever was an imminent threat that required the administration to proceed without allowing more time to build the sort of broad coalition for action that the senior President Bush mustered in driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991.

No doubt that task of achieving such a coalition was more formidable for his son. His father, after all, was asking other nations to respond to an invasion of another sovereign country -- to bring about, if you will pardon the expression, regime change in Kuwait. The United Nations of sovereign states has never been very enthusiastic about using force to achieve regime change, as the current President Bush found out.

You have to wonder why the administration felt it had to warn the American people of an imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction when it now seems clear its main objective was regime change in Iraq. One problem was that Mr. Bush's strongest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, didn't buy into it until he nearly had his arm twisted off.

For the sake of American credibility, it has to be hoped now that those weapons are found, and in sufficient quantity and potency to enable the president to say, "I told you so." There will remain, nevertheless, the whole dispute over the White House national security strategy paper of last fall that declares pre-emptive war to be a legitimate act of self-defense. What is being urgently pre-empted in the absence of an imminent threat?

In the well-warranted public happiness and relief over the swift and successful end of the war against Iraq, it's important that questions continue to be asked about the legality and wisdom of near-unilateral, pre-emptive use of force by the world's superpower -- not in self-defense, but to bring about regime change, no matter how desirable it may be.

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

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