The Bush administration's hard-line hawks, led by Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and their top aides, exude an imperial bellicosity and a hubristic disdain for international law and opinion that could end up undermining our national security. The risk is that they will commit us to a succession of go-it-alone wars—not only in Iraq but also in Iran, North Korea, perhaps Libya, possibly Pakistan (if militant Islamists take power) and elsewhere—that would destroy our relations with Europe, isolate us even from Britain, inflame the Islamic world, and spawn legions of new terrorists.
But the doves—at least those who rule out any invasion of Iraq without U.N. Security Council authorization—would put us in even greater danger. That is because they are blind to three bedrock realities that underlie President Bush's pre-emption doctrine: 1) American cities will sooner or later be erased by anonymously delivered nuclear truck bombs or boat bombs unless we can deter the world's rogue regimes and terrorist groups from developing such weapons. 2) We can deter them only by making the credible threat of pre-emptive military attack. 3) That threat will not be credible unless we can show now that we will attack if necessary to disarm or dethrone Saddam Hussein, even if we cannot get Security Council approval.
Since his well-crafted September 12 speech at the United Nations, Bush seems to be striking the right balance on Iraq internationally. The president has made a good-faith effort to persuade world opinion and the Security Council of the imperative to put an end to the Iraqi threat. At the same time, he has made it clear that he will go it alone (with the support of Congress) if that proves to be the only way to get the job done.
Subtle? No. Necessary? Yes. In this sense, the Bush pre-emption doctrine is not an abandonment of our traditional strategy of deterrence. It is a necessary updating of that strategy to meet the new kind of nuclear threat posed by terrorists and rogue regimes. The threat of massive retaliation after any attack by such enemies is becoming less and less effective as a deterrent. The main reason is that it would be difficult even today to identify those responsible for launching an attack using a nuclear truck bomb or boat bomb; it will become ever more difficult if we let two or three or more madman dictators or terrorist groups get their hands on nukes.
Have I just become the sort of hawk I criticized above, and contradicted my more ambivalent column of September 14? (It went to press before Bush's U.N. speech.) I don't think so, because in my view the president—thanks to the restraining influence of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell—has now displayed a degree of patience in exhausting diplomatic options on Iraq and of respect for international opinion and law that seems a welcome departure from the ostentatious machismo of the hard-line hawks and his own past lurches into unilateralism.
It is worth working hard to muster as much international support as we can—even if we think that the Europeans are wimps, even if it is clear to serious analysts that inspections will not work, even if we end up having to bend international law, and even if it gives Saddam more time to prepare. But Bush is right to avoid getting bogged down in a look-here-but-not-there inspection charade of the kind advocated by useful idiots such as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, with moral support from temporizing political opportunists such as Al Gore. (How low can he go?) The doves would help Saddam stall any attack until the approach of summer makes it too hot for our soldiers to wear the heavy suits that protect against chemical weapons.
The doves ask, Why now? Because now we know that we should have taken Saddam out long ago. Because it is essential to take him out or at least disarm him before he has one or two or five more years in which to buy or build nuclear weapons. (We can only hope that he does not have them already; the essential ingredients—one grapefruit-sized lump of enriched uranium or one orange-sized lump of plutonium per bomb—would not be hard to conceal.) And because this may be our only chance to end this threat: The longer we wait, the bloodier any war will be and the more the political will to act will dissipate.
The heart of the dovish position is, "It would be unacceptable for the United States (except if it had to repel sudden attacks) to enforce the authority of the United Nations by actions that dispense with U.N. approval," as a group of prominent liberals asserted in a full-page ad in The New York Times. This is folly. Ruling out the unilateral-attack option would invite the Security Council to dawdle and our enemies—Iran and North Korea as well as Iraq—to go nuclear.
It's true, as doves stress, that the drafters of the U.N. Charter intended to outlaw the kind of pre-emptive attack that Bush now threatens unless authorized by the Security Council. Article 2 bans "the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state" without Security Council approval. Article 51 recognizes only a single, very limited exception: "the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs [italics added]."
We should make every reasonable effort, short of giving in to stalling, to win Security Council approval. But our only chance of getting it is to make it clear to France and Russia that unless they go along, we will go alone, ending up with exclusive control over the Iraqi oil wealth that they covet. (Practical folks, those French and Russians.) In any event, no international treaty can override the constitutional duty of the president and Congress to protect the American people from nuclear threats, whether imminent or not-so-imminent.
The doves are also highly selective in their devotion to a literal interpretation of the U.N. Charter. Most have applauded President Kennedy's military blockade of Cuba in 1962 to force the Soviet Union to remove its missiles, which stretched Article 51 to the breaking point. The Soviet missiles were not remotely close to being an "armed attack." Nor were they an imminent threat. In this sense, Kennedy no less than Bush was going beyond pre-emption to what scholars call "preventive" war. Kennedy was wise to use a blockade rather than bombers, and to get a vote of approval from the Organization of American States. But it is both false and frivolous to suggest—as doves including Edward Kennedy and Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman have suggested—that the blockade was anything less than an act of war under international law or that the OAS vote somehow satisfied the U.N. Charter requirement of Security Council approval.
Most of today's doves also applauded when President Clinton justifiably bombed Serbia in 1999 without Security Council authorization to stop the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo. He did so under the auspices of NATO, which included the same European nations that are now so sure that Security Council approval is essential. And in that case, there was no anticipatory self-defense rationale at all.
The international-law bottom line is that widely accepted state practice has superseded literal interpretation of the U.N. Charter. Who today doubts the justification for the 1981 Israeli bombing raid that destroyed Iraq's nuclear program? And in 1983, even Sweden—Sweden!—threatened to launch a unilateral, pre-emptive military attack on any foreign submarine detected uncomfortably close to its shores.
The Kosovo experience holds lessons for today's hawks and doves alike. As former Clinton U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke pointed out in a September 7 Washington Post op-ed, a good-faith effort to court the Security Council can gain international support and legitimacy even if it falls short of winning explicit authorization: "The fact that we had made a serious effort to obtain Security Council approval [for military action against Serbia] but faced a certain Russian veto was vital; it allowed our European allies, led by Tony Blair, to support NATO action without prior Security Council approval." Similarly, in the current confrontation, "Even an unsuccessful effort to obtain an airtight resolution will strengthen international support for Washington, which could then be based on earlier U.N. resolutions that Saddam Hussein has repeatedly violated."
It must be conceded that even if we can win Security Council support, the risk will remain that an invasion of Iraq could stir up, in the Islamic world, furies even more likely than Saddam to bring nuclear catastrophe upon us. But I fear that the doves, by tacitly allowing rogue regimes to seek nuclear weapons, would make catastrophe all but inevitable.