What Now?

Developments, encouraging and otherwise

All autumns have a return-to-reality quality to them, and this one especially so. The season inevitably revolved around September 11, the first anniversary of the most lethal attack against Americans in America since the War of 1812. There must have been tens of thousands of individual community and religious ceremonies across the country, so presumably a lot of mediocre speeches were delivered, but the network television coverage, which is how we experience events on a national level, featured little mediocre speechmaking, and, astonishingly and wonderfully, the anchors to a great degree let the day speak for itself. The effect was to force one back to the raw fact of what happened a year ago.

The day before the anniversary Susan Sontag, writing in The New York Times and exhibiting all the sensitivity and intelligence that have graced her previous utterances on this subject, sniffed that real wars did not require commemorations, and that the fact that there would be events marking September 11 proved that what we were in now was only a "pseudo-war." The core of the commemoration in New York was the reading of the names of the murdered by family members and other speakers standing on a stage in front of the pit of what used to be the World Trade Center. They read all 2,801 names, and CBS, which was what I watched, showed for almost every one of the dead a photograph, the name printed out, and the age at death. The cameras broadcast the scene as families made their way down a ramp into the pit to lay flowers on the ground, and to mourn for a while. The litany took several hours, which provided ample time to contemplate the dimensions of suffering involved in the crime that began the war that Ms. Sontag regards as pseudo. So many dead, so many lives blighted, so much weeping. Some pseudo.

In the non-pseudo world September was the month in which it dawned that the next real war—the one with Iraq—was almost certainly going to happen. August had been an excellent month for pretending otherwise. President Bush had spent the summer mostly at his ranch in Texas. The press had passed the time hyping all the reasons why there couldn't, or wouldn't, or at least shouldn't, be a

war: Europe was against it; Russia was against it; the Arab states were against it; Bush's own Secretary of State was against it; Bush's aged father was against it (or at least his aged father's aged ex-advisers were); the American public was increasingly dubious; no one had consulted Congress or the United Nations, and in any event no support would be found there either.

Then, in very short order, a number of things happened. The Bush Administration pulled its act together and marched out first the Vice President and then the Secretaries of State and Defense and then the President himself to argue the case for war. Prime Minister Tony Blair, of Great Britain, hardened his support for "regime change"—by force if necessary. President Jacques Chirac, of France, unexpectedly softened his opposition to same, suggesting that France would support a UN resolution authorizing war if America first supported a resolution demanding Iraqi compliance with immediate and unrestricted weapons inspections and if Iraq failed to meet that demand. The White House at last acted on the need for formal congressional and, if possible, UN support for war.

The respected and independent International Institute for Strategic Studies issued a report on Iraq's military capabilities, which concluded that the development of weapons of mass destruction was the "core objective" of Saddam's regime; that the regime had pursued this goal for eleven years, in violation of the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire and various UN resolutions; and that Iraq possessed extensive stocks of biological weapons, significant chemical weapons, and a nuclear program sufficient to allow it to produce a "wild-card" Hiroshima-level bomb "in a matter of months" if it can manage to get its hands on enough black-market fissile material.

Taken together, these developments suggested a new reckoning of realities that could lead to both UN and congressional support for war. The Bush Administration had come to accept the fact that war without at least some level of both international and domestic support was, if not unthinkable, at least undesirable. But as the French proposal made clear, international support was achievable—provided the U.S. government signed on to a last-gasp effort to force Iraq into compliance with UN resolutions. This procedural compromise, which rests on the reasonable assumption that Saddam will fail to comply with the last-gasp demand and will thereby, in effect, green-light his own destruction, will be coupled with a more refined legal, practical, and moral argument for war, the basis of which is suggested by the IISS report.

Bush made the new argument reasonably well in an address to the United Nations on September 12. Previously the Administration had suggested that Saddam's regime posed an immediate threat to American lives and that it was complicit in al Qaeda's efforts. The former may be true, but it is hard to prove. The evidence for the latter has eluded searchers. Now Bush instead stated that "our greatest fear is that terrorists will find a shortcut to their mad ambitions when an outlaw regime supplies them with the technologies to kill on a massive scale." Undeniable. And Iraq, Bush argued, was the "one regime" that was likely to do that. Saddam's regime has a history of using weapons of mass destruction in war, and had even used them against Iraqis. Because of this singular history, the UN had in 1991 forced Saddam to agree to a series of mandatory resolutions whereby he would renounce support for terrorism, destroy all stocks of weapons of mass destruction, and submit to unfettered UN inspections to ensure compliance. As Bush noted, actually understating the case, Iraq had broken all these promises, defied all these resolutions, and in general "unilaterally subverted" the commands of "the world's most important multilateral body." (A nice bit of reverse spin on "unilateral" and "multilateral" there.) And by the way, Bush noted, Iraq had also defied the will of the UN and broken the peace when, in 1993, it "attempted to assassinate the Emir of Kuwait and a former American President" (the latter also known as "my dad").

"All the world now faces a test and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment," Bush said. "Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?" He summed up by agreeing to work with the UN on a new, last resolution to give Iraq a chance to come into compliance with the previous resolutions—which is all, actually, that the UN was asking for. If that fails (as Bush knows it must), the United States will go to war—with or without the blessing of the UN.

With this, the U.S. government closed the case on the essential question of war against Iraq: "Should we?" Yes, we should, and all together now, said the newly multilateralist President. One way or another, the debate ended on September 12, at least as far as practical politics is concerned.

What remained after "Should we?" was not "Will we win?"—that is as near to a given as one gets in war—but everything else. There will be a war, and there will be an American victory, and then there will be a postwar. Bush's father never gave his own postwar reality sufficient thought, and so unleashed the intolerable danger his son must now address (although the son is too observant of filial respect to say so). It is this—the postwar, the promise that this time we will think it through to the end—that the second President Bush must address, publicly, explicitly, convincingly. He made, and will win, the argument for war. He must make, and win, the case for a peace that can survive the week after the war.