Chatterbox goes to war.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Feb. 10 2003 6:52 PM

Chatterbox Goes to War

A dove on Iraq is persuaded by Colin Powell.

Strong argument for strong-arming
Strong argument for strong-arming

Until Feb. 5, Chatterbox opposed going to war against Iraq, mainly on the grounds that it would interfere with the war against al-Qaida. Chatterbox was worried that the civilian death toll in a U.S. invasion, and the inevitable continued Western presence in Iraq after Saddam is defeated, would inflame anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, making it more difficult to get Arab countries to help us hunt down the many al-Qaida terrorists who remain at large. Chatterbox was unconvinced by those who asserted, without providing any real evidence, that Iraq collaborated with al-Qaida in the Sept. 11 attacks.

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Chatterbox still believes that an Iraq invasion is likely to interfere with the war on al-Qaida, and he still believes the link between Iraq and al-Qaida mostly represents wishful thinking. But after seeing Secretary of State Colin Powell make his case to the U.N. Security Council, Chatterbox no longer believes these two arguments outweigh the argument for toppling Saddam. Reluctantly and somewhat belatedly, Chatterbox follows Mary McGrory into what the New York Times' Bill Keller calls the "I-Can't-Believe-I'm-A-Hawk Club."

How did Powell's speech change things? By providing overwhelming evidence that Iraq is in violation of U.N Resolution 1441 (2002), which calls for "full and immediate compliance" with U.N Resolution 687 (1991), which in turn required Iraq to rid itself of all chemical and biological weapons "and all related subsystems and components and all research, development, support and manufacturing facilities." No honest person can dispute, after reviewing Powell's satellite photos and telephone intercepts, that Iraq still has all these things, and that Saddam's regime is actively interfering with the inspection process (another violation of 1441).

But hasn't Iraq been in violation of U.N. Resolution 687 for some time? Yes, and we've gone to war over this before. (Remember 1998's awkwardly named "Operation Desert Fox"?) Is Chatterbox saying that every time the United States learns that some country is in violation of some U.N. resolution, or some U.S. treaty, we have to go to war? No. North Korea is an obvious counterexample. The fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons—the only weapons that can accurately be called "weapons of mass destruction"—is reason enough to exercise caution. That quandary is also a reason not to let Saddam acquire nukes. But it isn't why Chatterbox changed his mind about Iraq.

We have to go to war with Iraq—or at least threaten to go to war until Saddam accepts exile—because the Bush administration and the United Nations threw down the gauntlet. We mean it this time, we said. Lose your chemical and biological weapons or we'll take them away. Once we said this, any proof that Iraq had not gotten rid of those weapons gave the United States two choices. One choice—a choice that Chatterbox, given the war against al-Qaida, would have likely preferred—would be to keep secret our evidence that Iraq disobeyed the United States and the United Nations, and to continue trying to resolve the conflict diplomatically. But the Bush administration didn't make that choice. It went public with the evidence, and in so doing laid the credibility of the United States and the United Nations on the line.

Is "credibility" reason enough to go to war? Slate's Bob Wright believes that the threat of eventual Muslim retribution makes war too risky. (Wright's calculus changes if it's the United Nations, and not the United States, that goes to war. Katrina vanden Heuvel, however, says war isn't worth the risk even if the United States wins U.N. support.) Chatterbox agrees that the threat of increasing Islamist hatred is worrisome. But the possibility that explicit and highly public U.S. and U.N. ultimatums will no longer be taken seriously is, in Chatterbox's view, even more life-threatening. What little restraint we can impose on the world's thugs and terrorists is due to the belief that the international community and/or the world's biggest superpower will only let killing and territorial aggression go so far. Having threatened retribution, we have to follow through.

Who is "we"? Preferably, the United Nations It would be infinitely better, for all the reasons Wright cites, if any action against Iraq were multilateral. The Bush administration should continue its efforts to persuade Germany, France, and Russia that Iraq's duplicity with the U.N. inspectors constitutes a casus belli. As part of that effort, it should muzzle Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who by insulting France and Germany as the "Old Europe" seems actively to be working against a U.N.-supported war. An excellent U.S. bargaining chip would be a promise to jettison quietly the Bush administration's ludicrous "pre-emption" doctrine, which is at odds with any plausible notion of a just war. (Actually, we should discard the pre-emption doctrine even if we aren't asked to.) The United States should be reasonably patient, and not impose artificial time deadlines on a U.N. decision. It should even make some effort to persuade Belgium that NATO should defend Turkey.

That said, we should recognize that it will be necessary, if these efforts fail, for the United States to wage war alone. To do so would be "multilateral" in the sense that we'd be enforcing a U.N. resolution that even France, Germany, and Russia don't want to see ignored. With some luck, we could persuade the United Nations to enforce the peace after Saddam is gone, lending additional multilateral legitimacy after the fact. No matter what the rest of the Arab world might say, most Iraqis would surely thank us for removing a brutally murderous regime.

Among anti-war types, there's been a lot of talk since Powell's speech about steps Iraq might take to prevent war. We should get them to allow surveillance flights, we should get them to provide greater access to weapons scientists, etc. None of these steps would be meaningful now that we know Saddam has chemical and biological weapons. There's nothing left for the U.N. inspectors to do, except perhaps buy a little time to allow the Bushies to win over the Security Council holdouts. The only card Saddam has left to play is exile for himself and his family. Barring that, Chatterbox sees no alternative to war.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.