What the world should hear from Bush
What the world should hear from Bush
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
Op-Ed / Global 3 minutes

What the world should hear from Bush

It is highly appropriate that President George W. Bush has chosen his UN General Assembly address on Sept. 12 as the occasion to fully lay out U.S. concerns and intentions on Iraq. For all its faults, the United Nations remains the only universally representative and comprehensively empowered body the world has to deal with threats to international peace and security.

In the present environment, any acknowledgment by Washington of that status, however implicit, is welcome indeed.

But the choice of forum won't count for much if the substance of the speech is not compelling.

If a military assault is to be launched against Saddam Hussein - with all the carnage, destruction, loss of innocent life and sheer human misery that warfare always entails, and that armchair generals too often ignore - then Bush is going to have to do more than point out the monstrous way Saddam has behaved in the past and undoubtedly still can. He is going to have to be persuasive on at least five key issues on which the world is waiting for answers. Call them, if you like, the five Rs.

Rationale. A case has to be made not only about Saddam's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons capability, present and future, but also about his intent, and the incapacity of the international community to contain him, as it has for the last decade, by measures short of military action. Preemptive self-defense can certainly be justified, but only if there is a clear and present danger in every sense of that phrase.

Right authority. For proposed military intervention anywhere, the Security Council should always be the first port of call. The optimal course here would be a new ultimatum demanding the return of fully empowered weapons inspectors and authorizing all appropriate means of redress in the event of non-cooperation. If the United States seriously pursues this course, its position will be infinitely stronger, even if the process breaks down with a veto by another permanent member. But if Washington is to be seen as serious, there can be no more talk of insisting on regime change even if inspectors go in.

Region. There is every reason to believe that military action against Iraq, especially unilateral action, will be seriously destabilizing through the whole region, and there are not many grounds to hope that it will set flowing a democratic tidal wave. The bottom line must always be that the consequences of military action not be worse than the consequences of inaction, and the president simply must be persuasive on this score.

Confidence in a manageable regional reaction would be higher if the United States were to make a big new commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian problem by initiating negotiations now on a final status political blueprint. But that, regrettably, seems very unlikely.

Retaliation. There is much well-founded concern that by far the most likely scenario for Saddam actually using such weapon capacity as he has is the threat of his own imminent annihilation. The worry, as it has been put, is "T - 2" - what he will do two days before he is turned into toast. It would set a few minds at rest, not least in Israel, for Bush to have plausible answers to this, even if the Sept. 12 speech is obviously not the occasion for discussing how precisely the military job will be done.

Reconstruction. The international community needs a much clearer sense than presently exists as to who or what will replace Saddam if he is overturned, whether the new regime will be much better than the old, and in particular whether the United States will be able and willing to maintain the occupying presence that may be indefinitely necessary.

There is also the usual question mark, accentuated by Afghanistan's experience, as to whether the resources really will be available to accomplish the necessary postwar reconstruction. Those of us working full-time on the prevention of deadly conflict - wars between states, war within states or terrorist wars on states - can get consumed with the complexity of it all: long-term structural measures to deal with underlying causes; the toolbox of short-term responses to deal with imminent crises; what kinds of interventions work and what don't in dealing with situations heading out of control. But it's important from time to time to remind ourselves of some simpler verities, starting with the time-honored one of "Do no harm." War is an ugly, awful thing, and if we are in the business of preventing deadly conflicts, it's a good idea not to start new ones. Unless, that is, the case for doing so is overwhelming and the means chosen are absolutely responsible.

It is that case that the world will be waiting to hear from President Bush on Sept. 12.

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