Bill Clinton's administration was caricatured, and the last vestiges
of his reputation shredded, with his famous dodge "It depends on what the
definition of 'is' is." Now, as the clock runs down to next Sunday's
deadline for Saddam Hussein to make a full disclosure of his arsenal of
weapons of mass destruction, President Bush risks doing similar damage to
his legacy -- and, more importantly to the national security -- by
redefining the clear meaning of "regime change" in Iraq.
That meaning was originally established by Public Law 105-338 known
as the "Iraq Liberation Act." When this bipartisan legislation was adopted
by veto-proof margins in both houses of Congress, President Clinton chose to
sign it into law. Unfortunately, as was his wont, he decided not to
implement the act's direction that: "It should be the policy of the United
States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from
power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to
replace that regime."
To President Bush's credit, he has repeatedly declared regime change
in Iraq to be the policy of his administration. His subordinates have
echoed this principled position on myriad occasions, often in response to
urging from other quarters to the effect that "containing Saddam"or
disarming him would be sufficient.
The reasons Mr. Bush and his senior advisors have publicly distanced
themselves from such alternatives to the toppling of Saddam can be reduced
to three words: They won't work.
For confirmation, one need look no further than the situation in
Iraq today after nearly a week of resumed UN weapons inspections. Hans
Blix, the hapless Swedish diplomat chosen by Saddam's friends on the
Security Council to run the search for chemical and biological weapons and
their delivery systems is demonstrating why he was tapped for the job.
According to press accounts, he is selecting inspectors, not on the basis of
their expertise, but in light of their inoffensiveness to Saddam. Even UN
officials have confided to reporters off the record that "a lot of
inspectors are inexperienced" and are being hired without background checks
to establish their fitness, let alone their objectivity and integrity.
The conduct of the inspections to date inspires no more confidence.
True to form, Blix has thus far sent his inspectors to previously known
weapon and related industrial sites certain to have ceased activities of
interest long ago.
Meanwhile, Western intelligence is reporting that Saddam is ordering
his scientists to hide components of weapons of mass destruction in their
homes and on farms. If true, this arrangement would infinitely compound the
inspectors' difficulties in discovering the whereabouts of Iraq's weapons of
mass destruction. Should enough time be allowed to elapse, the danger will
grow that at least some of these weapons will wind up in the hands of
terrorists or other bidders. Yet, Blix's counterpart for the nuclear
weapons inspections, Mohamed al-Baradei, told the BBC on Sunday that "it
would take us probably around a year before we can come to a reasonable
conclusion that Iraq does not possess the capability to have nuclear
It is against this worrisome backdrop that the Bush administration
has been suggesting that what the President means by "regime change" is not
necessarily the removal from power of Saddam Hussein and his ruling clique.
Now, we are told, if Saddam cooperates with the inspectors and disarms, his
regime will have "changed." Ergo, no problem -- and certainly no need for
U.S.-led military action to liberate Iraq.
This formula may suit the United Nations, whose membership remains
dominated by totalitarians and other despots and recoils from the idea that
any of their peoples might be freed by dint of outside intervention. As in
1991, when the first Bush administration averred that it had no UN mandate
to remove Saddam from power, the absence of one today could ensure the Iraqi
tyrant's survival for years to come.
It may even suit the likes of Senator John Kerry, who announced
Sunday that he hopes to run against President Bush in 2004. According to
Sen. Kerry, the United States would lack "legitimacy" if it acted without
the support of the United Nations. Even though he voted for the Iraq
Liberation Act in 1998, Mr. Kerry told NBC's Tim Russert: "I'd not be
willing to support the president [in unilateral action against Iraq] if it's
just for regime change."
President Bush now faces a choice that will, ironically, define his
presidency and perhaps his political future. He can reaffirm his commitment
to change the regime in Iraq via the only means that has any hope of
genuinely, let alone permanently, disarming that country -- namely, by
liberating its people from Saddam's misrule. If he does so, in the process
assuming all the risks such an action entails, he offers hope not only to
Iraqis repeatedly abandoned by the UN but to many millions elsewhere in the
region and beyond who yearn no less than they for freedom.
If, on the other hand, Mr. Bush goes along with a redefinition of
the meaning of "regime change," he will not avoid war between Iraq and the
United States. If he allows the UN once again to trump sovereign American
decisions about our security, he will simply be condemning this nation to a
conflict with Saddam at some other time and under circumstances of the
latter's choosing, a conflict which will, as a result, surely be more
destructive and costly to both Americans and innocent Iraqis. Perhaps
betweentimes, Mr. Bush could face defeat not from a John Kerry who will
applaud his inaction, but -- like his father in 1992 -- from a more
formidable rival who condemns him for leaving Saddam in power.