Bush Adjusts His Priorities As War on Terror Evolves

The day of the 9/11 commemoration, I went to the southern lip of Union Square Park to see what thoughts people would be posting or chalking up. A year ago, the park was the site of an outpouring of emotion and debate. The scene last week was far tamer, bearing the same relation to the original that Civil War re-enactments bear to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Prominent among the slogans were calls for peace. I watched one young woman chalk her message on the pavement with determined strokes, as if she were writing directly to President George W. Bush, Vice President Cheney and Dr. Strangelove. Pacifist paraphernalia also figured in last year’s upwelling, but then it did not grate. The spectacle of New Yorkers arguing and offering their thoughts was a tacit affirmation of our ways, as opposed to the fundamentalist monovision of those who had attacked us. Even wrong opinions counted for the good, as opinions freely adopted and expounded. But now here we are, a year later, in the midst of a war not of our making. It is important to have responsible opinions about our next move.

Mr. Bush’s Sept. 12 speech to the United Nations on Iraq had the relentlessness of a prosecutor’s summation. But it also had the multiplied energy of a judo move. Mr. Bush was not advancing his case against Iraq to the United Nations. He was presenting the United Nations’ own case against Iraq to itself. The United States did not invade Iraq in 1991 on its own. It did so with the sanction of the United Nations, to undo Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait. The United States did not require a defeated Iraq to dismantle its R&D on weapons of mass destruction and to open itself to inspectors; the United Nations decreed it. President Bill Clinton did not raise his voice in lonely protest when Saddam Hussein played cat-and-mouse for years with inspectors, then finally, in 1998, threw them out altogether. Secretary General Kofi Annan made the same protests-as indeed he was obliged to do, since U.N. decisions were being flouted. These are the positions you have taken, Mr. Bush told the U.N. last week, and this is the record of Iraq’s defiance. If you meant what you said, something must be done.

I would not hold up the United Nations as the final arbiter in international conduct. More importantly, neither would President Bush. But the United Nations has taken a position on the danger Iraq poses to its region and to the world, and the United Nations has laid down a program of action for averting that danger. If the United Nations will not act upon its own judgments, what authority can it have for criticizing us and our allies if we choose to?

So much for the question of international law, and Mr. Bush’s supposed cowboy/loner status. How dangerous is Iraq? Mr. Bush addressed that question, too, largely by citing the record. In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran; in 1990, it invaded and conquered Kuwait. It has used poison gas on Iranian soldiers and on Kurds in its own northern provinces. It is an aggressive state that does not follow the norms of war. Judged by its own deeds, Iraq must be accounted likely to use weapons of mass destruction against its neighbors as its interests and its opportunities dictate. In the murky underworld of international terrorism, it could slip weapons or components to Al Qaeda, or similar entities, with a reasonable hope of escaping detection. Al Qaeda could conceivably get a rudimentary nuke from sympathizers in Pakistan, or in the black market of the former Soviet Union. But that does not diminish the gravity of the threat posed by Iraq. Rather, it increases it, since Iraq might hope to shirk responsibility for supplying Al Qaeda. If a terrorist had acquired a nuke in 1946, you would have known where he’d gotten it, since there was only one source of nukes in the world then. If a terrorist seeks to acquire one in 2003, he will have more options. All the more reason to diminish those options.

How strong was Mr. Bush’s speech? Strong enough to elicit a prostration, real or (in all likelihood) feigned, from Mr. Hussein, who offered on Sept. 16 to accept weapons inspections unconditionally. Mr. Hussein was moved by the prospect of the wrath to come. He was also moved, no doubt, by the wrath already within his borders: the American and British air raids on his defense installations and the infiltration of Special Forces into Iraq’s west and its Kurdish north.

Would you buy a rug from a dealership run by Mr. Hussein and the House of Saud, which apparently brokered the concession? “For you, madam, special price. Only for you. Guaranteed antique. You go to the villages now, is finished. Is no more. Tomorrow, I will not be open. I go to Italy.” I have heard the spiel a dozen times, everywhere I have bought a rug, from Fez to Cairo to Istanbul.

But suppose Mr. Hussein has decided that he wishes to live rather than die? This is possible. Israeli intelligence was putting out the story a few weeks ago that he was cracking under pressure, calling in his provincial governors and lecturing them, not on the grandmother of all battles to come, but on the importance of sanitation. I have not read the F├╝hrer ‘s table talk, but I suppose he discoursed on Wagner and vegetarianism as the Soviet army closed in.

What, then, should be the response of the civilized world to this latest demarche, since Mr. Bush based his case, in part, on U.N. resolutions? Propose an inspection regime-but this time, demand that the inspectors be sustained by an infrastructure of 20,000 strategically placed American, British and Turkish troops. That was not the way things were being done before Mr. Hussein threw the inspectors out in 1998. But pre-1998, 3,000 of our citizens had not been murdered. Mr. Hussein has changed his tune, in response to our pressures. But we have also changed our tune, in response to the devilry unleashed upon us. If Mr. Hussein should balk-if he should balk for 24 hours-sayonara.