In a campaign visit to Memphis on Monday, Republican senatorial candidate Lamar Alexander expressed concern to a group of Shelby County officials lest the country soon find itself engaged in military action against Iraq without advance assurances of full support from the nation. Alexander's Democratic opponent, Bob Clement, has expressed similar misgivings.
In late 1990, when George Bush the First proposed to get tough with Iraq to the point of going to war if need be, there was debate in Congress as befitted a proposition that was, after all, debatable, but ultimately everyone -- Capitol Hill, the media, the population -- fell in line behind Bush. Why? Because not only did the then-president make the case for action consistently and convincingly, but Iraq's invasion and forcible occupation of oil-rich Kuwait was too evident to be missed.
Moreover, there were parties in the Middle East itself -- Saudi Arabia, to name the most conspicuous one -- that were as affected as the United States was, and perhaps more so, by the threat that Saddam Hussein's incursion posed to peace, stability, and the petroleum-based economies of the developed world. Under all those circumstances, the country agreed with its president that it wouldn't be prudent to let things fester.
More than a decade later, ranking officials in the administration of George Bush the Second are agitating for another war with Iraq -- this time a preventive one. And the reasons for it have never been made, shall we say, perfectly clear. Hussein's forces have staged no military adventure beyond Iraq's borders, nor, so far as we know, has the dictator threatened one.
To launch a military attack against Iraq without an overt provocation would put us on the wrong side of international justice. For the first time ever, the United States would be acting as the acknowledged aggressor under international law. Various cases have been made by Vice President Cheney and other Bush advisers for such a preemptive strike: What they boil down to is that Iraq is said to be developing "weapons of mass destruction." Though this term is broad enough to include the various means of biological warfare, it's basically a euphemism for atomic weaponry. While it is true that if Iraq is striving to arm itself with nuclear devices, which would be an unpleasant -- and perhaps even unacceptable -- development, it would hardly be a fact unique to Hussein's regime.
There are already a number of nuclear-capable nations with which the United States has ideological or policy differences. China, a far more awesome threat in the long run, is the most obvious example. Surely the president does not propose that we also threaten war against the Asian monolith.
The problem is more than forensic or legalistic or even moral, however. To move in the present environment would find us acting without the allies we had in 1990-1991. Moreover, in the present post-9/11 climate, action against Iraq would more than likely inflame sentiment in the other Islamic nations of the Middle East. We have been explicitly warned on the point by Saudi Arabia, which was both active ally and staging area for Desert Storm but is more notable these days as the homeland of al Qaeda's chief leaders and the source of most of its identifiable cadres.
The caution of candidates Clement and Alexander is to be commended -- and recommended to the current administration in Washington.