Making the right choice

Posted: Sep 16, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who aspires to be the 44th president, accuses the 43rd of ``hasty war talk.'' The adjective ``hasty'' suggests impetuousness. But although the president's policy acquired special urgency with the terrorist attacks, the thrust of the policy was a campaign theme of candidate Bush before the first primary of 2000. In New Hampshire on Dec. 2, 1999, he said: ``If I found in any way, shape or form that (Saddam Hussein) was developing weapons of mass destruction, I'd take 'em out.'' Although he spoke of disarming Iraq, not ``regime change,'' surely after more than a decade of United Nations impotence regarding disarmament of Iraq, the burden of proof is on those who say disarmament can be achieved without regime change. Iraq is flagrantly violating agreements it made with the U.N. in 1998, when the U.N. responded to Iraq's flagrant violations of agreements made after the 1991 Gulf War. Surely the burden of proof is on those who say the United States should stay its disarming hand until the U.N. has reached yet another set of undertakings with an Iraq that is contemptuous of such things. On Dec. 2, 1999, Bush said the trigger for pre-emptive action against Iraq should be not just Iraq's acquisition of such weapons, but Iraqi progress in ``developing'' them. Hence the importance of evidence that Iraq, which has endured sanctions costing it upward of $200 billion rather than permit weapons inspections, has been buying hardware necessary for developing nuclear weapons. Those who are most skeptical about the justification for military action to depose Saddam pass over his possession of chemical and biological weapons, and ask: Is his acquisition of nuclear weapons ``imminent''? But skeptics must answer this question: Suppose U.S. forces topple Saddam and discover that instead of having been one year away from acquiring such weapons, he had been, say, four years away. For what, exactly, would America have to apologize? For the ``premature'' defanging of one of the few tyrants of the ballistic missile age--Hitler was the first--to launch such missiles in war. America, says Kerry, must not go to war unless the president can say ``we had no choice.'' But nations always have choices. France and Britain chose not to enforce Germany's obligations on March 7, 1936, when Hitler held his breath and remilitarized the Rhineland, in violation of the treaties of Versailles and Locarno. Calling the 48 hours after his three battalions entered the Rhineland ``the most nerve-wracking'' of his life, Hitler said: ``If the French had marched into the Rhineland we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs.'' France and Britain shrank from supporting Czechoslovakia militarily during the 1938 crisis over the Sudetenland. Hitler finally met military resistance in September 1939. The following five years confirmed Douglas MacArthur's axiom that all military disasters are explained by two words: ``Too late.'' Too late in discerning threats, too late in countering them. Britain's current leader understands this. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Trades Union Congress: ``Suppose I had come last year on the same day as this year--Sept. 10. Suppose I had said to you: there is a terrorist network called al Qaeda. It operates out of Afghanistan. It has carried out several attacks and we believe it is planning more. It has been condemned by the U.N. in the strongest terms. Unless it is stopped, the threat will grow. And so I want to take action to prevent that. Your response and probably that of most people would have been very similar to the response of some of you yesterday on Iraq. There would have been few takers for dealing with it and probably none for taking military action of any description.'' It took the terrorist attacks to galvanize the Bush administration. But even without the attacks it would have been justified in preparing, as Tuesday's Los Angeles Times reported, to implement the policy Bush foreshadowed as a candidate. The Times says the military buildup around Iraq includes weaponry and supplies for the 30,000 troops already in the region, and that 150,000 fully equipped troops ``could be routed to the region well before Christmas.'' In addition to signing ``big contracts for commercial air and sea cargo space,'' the military has ``bought and built more, faster and better ships and aircraft--enough to cut by more than two-thirds the time it should take to deploy a large military force to Iraq.'' Such measures are a prudent response to MacArthur's axiom.