Attacking Iraq Would Be War, but It Wouldn't Be Aggression

Though you need to look closely to tell, doves in the Iraq debate come in two distinct species. The pragmatists, led by former Vice President Gore, fear that an American-led attack would be too messy, too destabilizing, and too diplomatically costly, at least if it lacked the United Nations' blessing. Those arguments may or may not be right (I lean toward "not"), but it's a hard call.

The thousands of protesters waving "Don't Attack Iraq" signs, however, are doves of a different color. They are not mainly bothered about political fallout in Pakistan or Indonesia. They believe an attack would be immoral. Specifically, they believe that America—particularly if it acted without a U.N. mandate, though possibly even if it acted with one—would, by killing many people in an act of unprovoked aggression, be guilty of at best an abuse of power, and at worst a war crime.

The objection here goes beyond the technicalities of Security Council resolutions, and beyond international law, whatever that is. The question is fundamental: If America uses naked aggression as an implement of foreign policy, is it not a rogue nation?

The moralists think so. "You defend yourself, but you don't initiate a war," a Boston University historian named Howard Zinn told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on October 4. "I believe the U.S., right now, is the most dangerous nation in the world." A number of distinguished people, if not prepared to go quite that far, are deeply troubled:

Nelson Mandela: "One country wants to bully the world."

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.: "America fights wars, but America does not begin wars."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. (making a pragmatic point but with moral overtones): "I've reached the conclusion that pursuit of a first-strike war—absent any credible sign that Saddam Hussein is preparing to wage war against our nation or other nations—will leave this nation less secure than before."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.: "The coldly premeditated nature of preventive attacks and preventive wars makes them anathema to well-established principles against aggression."America is not," he says, "that kind of country."

The immorality of unprovoked aggression—of armed attack except in clear self-defense—is a keystone among civilized norms. The Bush administration indirectly acknowledges as much in its new "National Security Strategy of the United States": "The United States will not use force in all cases to pre-empt emerging threats, nor should nations use pre-emption as a pretext for aggression" (italics added). The trouble, of course, is that every aggressor can claim to be pre-empting something, and President Bush has not proved that Saddam either intends to or can attack the United States.

So is it not Bush himself who seeks to "use pre-emption as a pretext for aggression"? Indeed, isn't the United States effectively seeking to legitimize aggression as a general matter, provided that only the United States is the aggressor?

Bush replies, plausibly, that Iraq is a clear and growing danger. But he neglects another reply that is equally strong and important: To go to war against Iraq would in fact not be aggression at all. Aggression is a breaking of the peace, and in the case of Iraq, there is no peace to break.

"On March 3, 1991," write lawyers Paul Schott Stevens, Andru E. Wall, and Ata Dinlenc in a recent monograph for the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, "Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, USA, the commander of coalition forces, and Lt. Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Jabburi, the deputy chief of staff of the Iraqi ministry of defense, negotiated a cease-fire agreement." Note: This was not a peace treaty. A cease-fire suspends hostilities but does not end them. It lasts only so long as both parties adhere to its terms.

Almost immediately, Iraq set about breaking those terms, methodically and comprehensively. By August, Iraq was already hiding its weapons programs from U.N. inspectors, thus mocking the cease-fire's requirement for "unconditional" relinquishment of all nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The cease-fire required Iraq to renounce terrorism of all kinds and to prohibit terrorists from operating from its soil. Instead, Iraq harbored notorious terrorists, paid off the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, and attempted to assassinate former President Bush. The cease-fire also required the repatriation of all non-Iraqis being held prisoner, but hundreds, including an American pilot, remain unaccounted for.

If, instead of dashing off home, the United States and coalition forces had stayed in Iraq in 1991, they would have had ample and incontestable grounds to declare the cease-fire broken and resume offensive operations in 1992. But, of course, they did leave (mostly). So, in practice, after 11 long years, isn't the distinction between suspension and termination of hostilities a mere legalism? After all, the Korean War ended in 1953 with a cease-fire rather than a treaty, and no one would claim that America is therefore still at war with North Korea.

True, but in the Korean case the cease-fire held. In the case of Iraq the shooting never stopped. Only days after the cease-fire was signed, the coalition, attempting to stop Saddam Hussein's attacks on Kurdish and Shiite Muslim dissidents, established "no-fly zones" in the north and south of Iraq, which they then began patrolling. In other words, they occupied Iraqi airspace—which is to say, they partially occupied Iraq. Since then, the coalition (mainly the United States and Britain) has flown more than 250,000 sorties over Iraq. "Iraqi forces have fired on these aircraft thousands of times, and U.S. and coalition pilots have returned fire thousands of times," note Stevens, Wall, and Dinlenc. Just a few days ago, American and British warplanes fired on an anti-missile site in northern Iraq; the Iraqis claimed the strike hit civilian targets, killing four people and wounding 10 others. It was the 47th strike this year.

Whatever you may choose to call this situation, peace it is not. A cease-fire that was immediately violated, followed by a partial military occupation and by constant shooting at American planes that are busy bombing strategic targets—to me, that sounds kind of like war. Granted, it has been a low-level war with few U.S. casualties (because American planes are hard to hit). But, as former Sen. Bob Kerry, now president of New School University in New York, wrote recently, "The war against Iraq did not end in 1991.... The real choice is between sustaining a military effort designed to contain Saddam Hussein and a military effort designed to replace him." Another way to frame the choice is between escalating now when Saddam does not have nuclear weapons or possibly having to escalate later when he does.

The choice is not easy, but in no way is it a choice between aggression and non-aggression. Someday it may be necessary for the United States to break the peace in order to pre-empt a threat, but in the case of Iraq there is, again, no peace to break. The only question is what kind of war, and how long.

President Bush, possibly not wanting to sound legalistic, has chosen not to emphasize that America signed only a cease-fire with Iraq and that the cease-fire conditions have all been broken. That is a pity, because the distinction matters if anyone hopes that future cease-fire agreements will be honored. It is the breaking of a cease-fire, not the enforcement of one, that is an act of aggression.

Still, the protesters and objectors who portray America as the aggressor presumably have not been living on Mars for the past 11 years. Denouncing any American attack on Iraq as the initiation of hostilities requires either a certain mendacity or a certain shutting of the eyes. Many of the protesters, one suspects, regard America as the aggressor merely because America is powerful. Power, to them, is aggression-end of story. They are free to think so, but neither law nor morality is on their side.

It is worth mentioning that even if an American-led campaign were a breaking of the peace, it would still not be clear that this would set any harmful precedent. In fighting Iraq, the United States would be confronting a regime that has tortured and killed thousands of its subjects, made war on two of its neighbors, attacked Israel, sought indefatigably to acquire nuclear weapons, used chemical warfare against civilians, defied the United Nations, taken foreigners hostage, tried to assassinate a former American president, choked its economy to build bombs and palaces, and committed possibly the worst environmental atrocity of the past century.

How many other regimes can match that record? How many even come close? To deplore aggression against such a regime is not morally scrupulous. It is merely neurotic.