To Fire On Iraq, Use A Trigger

Let me make a prediction. If the administration stays on its current path, there will be no conflict with Iraq. However justified the cause, the United States will not initiate a war against another country without a specific provocation. We are simply not going to do it. Despite September 11, no president is going to make a speech from the Oval Office saying, "Guess what, folks? Today I've decided to send American forces to invade Iraq and replace Saddam Hussein's regime. God bless and good night."

Remember that at the height of the Cuban missile crisis--when the Soviet Union was placing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba aimed directly at the United States--John F. Kennedy rejected the option of attacking Cuba. "I don't think I want my brother to become another Tojo," explained Robert Kennedy, referring to the general who planned the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

If the administration wants to take military action against Iraq--and I believe it should--it will have to find a provocation, a casus belli. Some suggest that we push Saddam Hussein and hope he reacts. Kenneth Pollack, the Council on Foreign Relations scholar, proposes that the United States launch a major covert operation against Saddam. When confronted in the past, he has lashed out. In 1996 the CIA helped launch a Kurdish uprising against him. In response he invaded Arbil, a Kurdish city under the protection of the Anglo-American no-flight zones. If once again we make him feel the heat, Saddam might do something stupid, like attacking his neighbors or collaborating with Al Qaeda.

It's worth trying but probably won't work. Saddam knows that America is praying he will do something provocative. He has learned his lesson from 1990, when small concessions from him might have derailed the gulf war. "Saddam is not going to do us a favor," said Charles Duelfer, who was deputy chairman of the U.N. inspections team from 1993 to 2000.

All of which means, inevitably, that Washington will have to try to provoke a crisis over inspections. The United States should propose a new and vigorous system of U.N. inspections--with a clear deadline for compliance. If Saddam refuses or delays, he will give America a rationale that has U.N. sanction and can be used to build international support. Unfortunately the administration is paralyzed on this issue. The superhawks think inspections are a trap. They are right to see a danger that inspections will drag things out, turning into weekly battles about their shape and nature between Washington and the other members of the U.N. Security Council. The French and the Russians will quietly support the Iraqi government and try to defang the inspections.

But that's where diplomacy comes in. An administration that constantly declares it represents the most powerful nation in the history of the world seems scared witless at the prospect of negotiating with a few French bureaucrats! And even if the inspections do not produce the perfect crisis, Washington will still be better off for having tried because it would be seen to have made every effort to avoid war.

The administration seems to believe that it already has a trigger. Saddam is building weapons of mass destruction, and the Bush doctrine of "pre-emptive action" argues that, in an age of terror, the United States does not have the luxury of waiting to be attacked. Pre-emption is a well-established idea in military history and justifies a decision to strike first, when hostilities are imminent. Israel launched a pre-emptive attack against Arab armies that had massed on its borders in the 1967 war. But Iraq is not gearing up to attack America right now. Invading it would be a preventive war, which must meet a high hurdle. After all, if developing weapons of mass destruction is enough to trigger an American invasion, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, India and China are all legitimate targets. It is the breadth of this doctrine that so worries staunch American allies.

"The United States should not argue that war against Iraq derives from some general law of pre-emption, but rather that it is a unique case," says Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs. Saddam Hussein is building nuclear weapons. In fact he wants them so badly that he has, over the past decade, forgone $160 billion in oil revenues so that he could keep his labs free of inspections. He has attacked his neighbors three times and used chemical weapons on his own people. Most important, all other methods of handling him have been exhausted. The sanctions against Iraq have crumbled. Three years ago Saddam had access to $200 million to $300 million. Today smuggling and sanctions-busting gets him about $3 billion.

This problem is not going to go away. Unless Saddam is stopped, in a few years the world will almost certainly face a nuclear-armed megalomaniac. That's why we need to get to work, find a trigger and --then carefully start shooting.