As Congress prepared to vote on whether to authorize war with Iraq, President Bush made the case one more time. Speaking in Cincinnati, Bush noted that the Iraqi regime has chemical and biological weapons and seeks nuclear ones; that it has not hesitated to use what weapons it has been able to use; and that the regime sponsors terrorism and aggression. He explained that attempts to deal with Iraq by methods short of war — including sanctions, inspections, and limited military strikes — have all failed. The regime continues to move ever closer toward having the weapons it wants. And the longer we wait before acting, the closer it will get.
The president made a strong case. So strong, in fact, as to raise the question of why the administration is going through the inspections charade once more. The answer, of course, is that it considers it necessary to propose thorough inspections in order to build support at the United Nations and at home. Bush hopes to make these inspections tougher than in the past. This time, he says, "inspectors must have access to any site, at any time, without pre-clearance, without delay, without exceptions." It is unlikely that Saddam Hussein would agree to this demand, and making it is a way of asserting that his regime is dangerous. The risk inherent in this gambit is that it may tie down the administration in procedural battles with nominal allies and make the administration's policy a hostage to the U.N. Bush will simply have to force the U.N. to live up to its responsibilities — by continuing to insist that we are prepared to act without its support if necessary. If the U.N. balks, so much the worse for the U.N. It would merely prove itself irrelevant.
The only clear mistake the Bush administration has made in recent days was to send out White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to say that the Iraqi problem could be solved at the price of "a single bullet." Fleischer later took back the remark. But it nonetheless suggests an inclination within the administration to promote a coup in Iraq. A coup would not be in America's interest, however, unless it fundamentally weakened or altered the Iraqi regime. It is a totalitarian state that needs to be dismantled, not merely given a new leader. If we want to affect the course of events in Iraq after Saddam, as we should, there is no alternative to our direct involvement.
Fleischer's remark was troubling, but also an isolated gaffe. The conduct of the Democrats has been dismaying. Some of them, to be sure, have been clear-eyed about the need for regime change in Iraq: One thinks of Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, and especially Dick Gephardt. And most congressional Democrats will probably end up voting to allow the president to make war. But in general, the Democrats' contributions to the debate have been more carping than constructive. They first demanded that a war be debated, then protested when it was. They still speak as though war were an issue less important than a "patient's bill of rights." They said that there were important questions to be addressed — and then failed to address them. They said they wanted the U.N. to make the decision for them. They wrung their hands; they stroked their chins.
Some of them did worse. Al Gore gave a slippery speech in which he insinuated that the president was promoting war for self-serving political reasons. Most notoriously, congressmen Jim McDermott and David Bonior went to Baghdad to pronounce themselves distrustful of Bush, willing to accept Saddam's promises "at face value," and convinced that America had committed war crimes in the first Gulf War (this last an Iraqi propaganda claim with no credibility). Other Democrats said that they disagreed with McDermott, Bonior, and even Gore. Few said that they were appalled at their disgraceful behavior.
The Democrats and the U.N. have much in common. The Democrats claimed to want a debate that they really feared; the U.N. claims to want a responsibility it has no intention of actually exercising. Now President Bush is forcing both to make a decision they would prefer to put off. It's up to them to demonstrate that they are up to the challenges of our time.