Etchings And Then Posters

President Theodore Roosevelt explained how he helped his secretary of war, William Howard Taft, campaign to succeed him: "I told him he must treat the political audience as one coming, not to see an etching, but a poster." Bold strokes, bright colors. We are entering a poster phase of the Iraq debate.

The etching phase has been a litany of technicalities concerning United Nations resolutions not complied with. Now come other matters. The poster phase began with the president's U.N. speech, in which he accused Saddam Hussein of widespread "torture by beating and burning, electric shock, starvation, mutilation and rape. Wives are tortured in front of their husbands, children in the presence of their parents."

In this departure from the focus on weapons of mass destruction, the president was amplifying a theme--Saddam's personal viciousness--that will recur. An Iraqi doctor living in exile testifies that all the doctors at the hospital he worked at were ordered to participate in the surgical mutilation--removing the ears--of soldiers, many quite young, who did not perform well during the gulf war. Last week NEWSWEEK reported Iraqi tortures using acid baths and electric drills. There is a videotape of Saddam ordering the execution, on the spot, of several persons attending a party congress.

Saddam's atrocities are terrifying, but are not terrorism. Still, they are relevant to the relationship between the war on terrorism and the goal of removing Saddam.

Some of the president's critics say the war and the goal are competing, perhaps even incompatible, undertakings. But the clear, though necessarily unspoken, essence of the Bush doctrine is:

There is a seamlessness between the cultures of terrorism and totalitarianism. A sociopathic state is apt to have an affinity with terrorists, an affinity arising not from any particular national grievance but from a generalized cultural hatred. The most horrible tyrants cannot be allowed to possess the most threatening technologies. And to the United States falls, by the default of others, the task of making and enforcing these judgments.

Other nations, associations (e.g., the European Union) and institutions (e.g., the United Nations) are in moral and material default. The so-called soft power--economic, cultural, diplomatic--in which Europe places its faith is chimerical in a confrontation with rogue regimes. Only the United States has the confidence and capability--it spends almost as much on military power as the next 20 military powers combined--to act. The United States should not cultivate isolation, but should not be paralyzed by the wishes of our allies.

The president probably hopes that the world can be mobilized by information about atrocities Saddam inflicts on his captive people. Some observers will criticize this "poster" approach to turning up the temperature of the Iraq debate. They will recall that 1914 reports of atrocity, some fabricated, about German behavior in "brave little Belgium" announced the dawn of the age of propaganda and the often sinister conscription of public passions.

However, the reports were not groundless (see the just-published "German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial" from Yale University Press). And those reports from the first months of the war cost Germany throughout the four-year struggle.

The president's turn toward emphasis on the sufferings of the Iraqi people underscores this theme: dismantling Saddam's apparatus of totalitarianism is inseparable from disarming him.

Five consecutive paragraphs in the president's U.N. speech began, "If the Iraqi regime wishes peace, it will... " Some Americans eager for forcible regime change worried that this list gave Saddam a road map to concessions that might weaken him a bit but would immobilize the United States. However, the Bush administration is probably calculating that, taken together, the actions required of Saddam, and the compulsions and intrusive verifications involved, would render his regime invertebrate. So the president has posed for Saddam's regime this choice: slow-motion--but not very slow--suicide by compliance, or death by the terrible swift sword of the U.S. military.

Now attention turns to the writing of competing U.N. and congressional resolutions. In 1991, 45 of 55 Democratic senators voted against the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Twenty of those 45 are still in the Senate, including Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and the chairmen of the Foreign Relations (Joseph Biden) and Armed Services (Carl Levin) committees.

Furthermore, at least four Democrats who will be debating and even writing Iraq-related congressional resolutions (Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sens. John Kerry, John Edwards and Joseph Lieberman--perhaps Daschle, too) have an intense personal interest in "regime change" in Washington. Those seekers of President Bush's job will keep an eye cocked on their party's nominating electorate, which is not an aviary full of hawks.

However, resolutions are etchings. They can authorize nations to march. But it is posters that inspire them to march.