WASHINGTON--An antidote for grand imperial ambitions is a taste of imperial success. Swift victory in Iraq may have whetted the appetite of some Americans for further military exercises in regime change, but more than seven weeks after the president said, ``Major combat operations in Iraq have ended,'' combat operations, minor but lethal, continue.
And overshadowing the military achievement is the failure--so far--to find, or explain the absence of, weapons of mass destruction that were the necessary and sufficient justification for pre-emptive war. The doctrine of pre-emption--the core of the president's foreign policy--is in jeopardy.
To govern is to choose, almost always on the basis of very imperfect information. But pre-emption presupposes the ability to know things--to know about threats with a degree of certainty not requisite for decisions less momentous than those for waging war.
Some say the war was justified even if WMDs are not found nor their destruction explained, because the world is ``better off'' without Saddam. Of course it is better off. But unless one is prepared to postulate a U.S. right, perhaps even a duty, to militarily dismantle any tyranny--on to Burma?--it is unacceptable to argue that Saddam's mass graves and torture chambers suffice as retrospective justifications for pre-emptive war. Americans seem sanguine about the failure--so far--to validate the war's premise about the threat posed by Saddam's WMDs, but a long-term failure would unravel much of this president's policy and rhetoric.
Saddam, forced by the defection of his son-in-law, acknowledged in the mid-1990s his possession of chemical and biological WMDs. President Clinton, British, French and German intelligence agencies and even Hans Blix (who tells the British newspaper The Guardian, ``We know for sure that they did exist'') have expressed certainty about Iraq having WMDs at some point.
A vast multinational conspiracy of bad faith, using fictitious WMDs as a pretext for war, is a wildly implausible explanation of the failure to find WMDs. What is plausible? James Woolsey, President Clinton's first CIA director, suggests the following:
As war approached, Saddam, a killer but not a fighter, was a parochial figure who had not left Iraq since 1979. He was surrounded by terrified sycophants and several Russian advisers who assured him that if Russia could not subdue Grozny in Chechnya, casualty-averse Americans would not conquer Baghdad.