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Setting the Auto-pilot to War

Never before has an American president prescribed so resolutely the idea of a preventive war.. What remains are his dilemmas: in dealing with the military, the general public and the allies.. The threshold to preventive war must be very high, says John Ikenberry, professor at Georgetown University. However that doesn't reflect the presentation and arguments of the government.. This article is translated from the German in: DIE ZEIT 06/2003.
Setting the Auto-pilot for War

George Bush canvasses for a crusade against Saddam in his State of the Union address. Skepticism grows in America

By Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff

[This article originally published in: DIE ZEIT 06/2003 is translated abridged from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://zeus.zeit.de/text/2003/06/Kriegszweifel.]


Three little scenes could show how endless confusions precede the exchange of fire. This could be part of the writing of the history of the Iraq war one day. The first incident took place on the morning of September 11, 2001 in the air-raid shelter under the White House. There for security reasons, the American vice president sat and spoke by telephone with his disheveled chief. In passing, he looked far away. When he saw how the World Trade Center collapsed, Richard Cheney said: "Everything may be incomprehensible but it would have been much worse if the culprits had weapons of mass destruction." The nucleus of the doctrine of preemptive strike or preventive war is embedded in this depressing fantasy. The sentence is a harbinger or sign of that global conflict over the question on whom war will be declared: on those responsible for the attack or also on those who could plan future terror, including nuclear terror.

The second scene played four days later in Camp David, the country house of the president. George Bush had detailed discussions with his ministers. Paul Wolfowitz from the Department of Defense appeared although he was not invited. Against his chief, he argued against the pursuit of the terrorist network Al Qaida in Afghanistan. As an alternative, he promoted an attack on Iraq. Perhaps Saddam had something to do with the attack, Wolfowitz said. No anti-terror war can succeed without an attack on Saddam. The obsessive side of the Iraq campaign bursts through here. For years, Wolfowitz was part of a small circle of those revisionists who beat the drum for a "regime change" in Iraq. Now he used a new occasion for justifying an old idea. Colin Powell immediately contradicted him. The intervention of the Secretary of State showed America's worldwide communication problem circling around the question why Saddam should be attacked: on account of his possible fraternization with Al Qaida? To wrest those weapons of mass destruction from him that he probably possesses? To overthrow him? Because he ignores UN resolutions?

Belief in mission

The third scene occurred in Congress last Thursday night. George Bush entering from a side door in the House of Representatives was cheered and celebrated by the representatives. Tradition prevails when the president presents his State of the Unjion address. Nevertheless nothing was the same as last year when enthusiasm carried him to the podium. This time the applause was proper but not thunderous. A year after he invented the "axis of evil" and committed himself to the project of a preventive war against Iraq, he has fallen into the first serious crisis of confidence since the attacks of September 11. He muddled his words in the reasons for this damned war and lost control over the debate. In the meantime, the Congress is divided, the country is divided, the West is divided and the world is divided. Everyone is only united in the belief that the autopilot is set on war in Washington - for whatever the reason.

In this precarious situation, George Bush makes Congress into a forum. He sought to answer the question that seems unanswered to many: "Why war?" On the podium a man appeared who radiated nothing but iron determination. He described the threat and identified the consequence. He did not declare war but announced it. He did not issue an ultimatum but left no doubt that the time-span up to the battle can only be very short. His speech included all the familiar motives of his policy: belief in America's mission in the world, the freedom rhetoric, the existence of evil and lastly the threat scenario. His fear was a "day of terror that we have never known", namely when terrorists or criminal dictators strike with weapons of mass destruction. "Imagine the 19 airplane hijackers with different plans and different weapons, this time armed by Saddam Hussein." Then followed the sentence that became a policy: "We will guarantee that this day never comes." This is a program for decades. Saddam would only be the beginning. Some, Bush said, would recommend delay until the danger is "acute". To this argument, he countered: "When have terrorists and tyrants ever announced when they would strike? Trusting in the spiritual health and reserve of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy or option." Never before did an American president prescribe so resolutely the idea of a preventive war. After this speech, there can hardly be any uncertainty about his intentions.

Whether with this powerful appearance he convinced those whom he could not win all last year is hard to say. What remains are his dilemmas: in dealing with the military, the general public and the allies. Since last week, a picture has circulated that reflects the opposition to George Bush's course. This picture was reported daily in news broadcasts. Two politicians were shown before their national flags, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder. To the first, there is "now" no reason to draw into war and to the second no reason no reason at all. The two call this "agreement of positions". A similar picture of two politicians before national flags was shown against this picture of the "axis of resistance". An Englishman and an American, the foreign minister Jack Straw and Colin Powell, stress that "time is running short for Iraq." The division of the West could not be more obvious.

In the effort to stop George Bush at the last minute, the resisters attack their most important partner from behind. The weak spot of the Bush administration consists in factional disputes between hardliners and moderates. Europeans see in Secretary of State Powell the champion of caution. Now the French acquittal for Saddam has alienated the Secretary of State. His colleagues now think Germany and France will only constantly seek new reasons why the inspectors must continue. Powell says he doesn't know anymore whether Germans and French "want to draw conclusions from the inspections. Both countries cannot be convinced any more by facts or by those reproaches against Iraq lodged on Monday by the chief inspector Hans Blix.

Therefore Powell has done an about-face and tries to act harder than the hardliners. He now says inspections "aren't working" although he praised them two weeks before. Jessica Matthews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sees a dramatic turn there. Powell obviously no longer expects winning the Nato allies for the Iraq coalition with the help of the inspections. Thus the curious result of the new German-French diplomacy strengthens the American government in its weakest moment and - according to Powell's colleague - produces "a rather solid consensus" for an immediate war.

"A coalition of the reluctant" is sought, hardly a "coalition of the willing". America asked 53 states for support. Up to now, only a few neighboring countries of Iraq have made available their bases. The Czechs will send a chemical weapon search squad. Only Great Britain and Australia have promised combat troops.

For Thomas Friedman, the Middle East commentator of the New York Times, this triad is a model, not an accident. These three sea-powers speak English, have a tradition of foreign campaigns and famous-notorious special commandos. All the countries love rugby or football, rough games where hurting the opponent is crucial. Friedman calls this future-alliance Nations Allied to Stop Tyrants, in short NASTY. America will have to enlarge its standing army (presently 1.4 million men) for this bad-tempered NASTY to prevail, says Michael O'Hanlon, the Brookings military expert. Without European assistance, America cannot accomplish the years of reconstruction work in conquered Iraq.

The military has heard all the war- and post-war scenarios. For months, a group of pensioned generals has vigorously criticized the plans. There is Wesley Clark, the Nato chief of staff in the Kosovo war. He knows Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander in the Gulf war, on his side as well as his former subordinate Anthony Zinni, a Middle East negotiator of another skeptical general, Colin Powell. Even active generals, the head of the army and the commander of the infantry marines have spoken out publically. Donald Rumsfeld assigned a watchdog to the head of the central command in Tampa, Tommy Franks, who will direct the war.

The generals call their civilian bosses chickenhawks. In the barracks slang, chickenhawks are civilians in the Pentagon delirious with war who send soldiers into battle though they never served themselves. The military seriously attempt to avoid war. If war must be waged, they only want to wage it with a great military force and in a great alliance. In the past, they had the upper hand.

The skepticism of the military and allies has reached the population. Last week, one of George Bush's assistants rattled off all those survey results that promise a solid majority for the war. The data can also be read differently. The approval rate has fallen drastically, 10 to 18 percent within a year. Seventy percent of Americans don't understand the rush. They want to give the UN inspectors "several months".

CNN published the most amazing Blitz survey. Only a third said America should march into war without French and German consent; two thirds said No. This shows the tremendous trust of Americans in the judgment of European populations and the enormous transatlantic solidarity at least below the governmental plane.

The data about the mood in the country reveals a public that understands the uniqueness of a preventive war. They will not simply trust their president. To them, that Iraq breaks a resolution is not enough. They want to see proof. They want to understand why America is threatened and must shoot first, "The threshold to preventive war must be very high", says John Ikenberry, professor of international relations at Georgetown. "However that doesn't reflect the presentation and arguments of the government."

Everyone waits for the evidence

The pressure for staging an "Adlai Stevenson moment" has increased for weeks. In 1962, America's UN ambassador set on the table the photographs of Soviet missile deliveries to the island in the Cuban crisis. At that time, America had the world easily behind itself. This time the Pentagon refused for weeks to make public espionage findings about Saddam's weapon program. There is actually a conflict of goals. If the government published findings about the deposits of weapons of mass destruction, the Iraqis would immediately transfer the weapons.. The soldiers would be exposed to great danger. Preventing this is the first task of all military leadership. The CIA argues similarly and will not endanger its agents.

On the other hand, for George Bush the battle around the opinion of the world public cannot be won without better evidence about Saddam's present misdeeds. Therefore he announced on Thursday evening in his speech that "new secret service discoveries and information" about Saddam's "current weapons program" would be revealed. On February 5, Secretary of State Powell will hand over to the UN Security Council the material showing how weapons are concealed from the inspectors. American agents and spy planes are not infallible. UN inspectors recently refuted the American assertion that Iraq has aluminum tubes to enrich uranium. Nevertheless President Bush repeated this claim Thursday evening.

Soon it will be clear whose orientation is more compatible with the new facts about Saddam: George Bush with his open insistence on war or Gerhard Schroder with his unreserved insistence on a No to war.

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