A French proposal

Posted: Mar 03, 2003 12:00 AM
In a memorandum, the French laid out their opposition (along with the Germans and Russians) to war with Iraq: "Full and effective disarmament" remains the "imperative objective," but so far "the conditions for using force against Iraq are not fulfilled."

Why not? "No evidence has been given that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction or capabilities in this field"; "Inspections have just reached their full pace"; and "Iraqi cooperation is improving."

The French and their allies thus continue to place arms inspectors in the role of detectives, not verifiers, a role chief inspector Hans Blix has explicitly and publicly rejected. If a regime wants to disarm, U.N. inspectors can verify that it has done so. If a regime wants to hide its arms, it can do so, and even thousands of inspectors -- operating in a foreign country without basic tools of law enforcement -- will not, and never have, uncovered hidden arms programs. (It took defectors, not inspectors, to reveal to us the full extent of Iraqi violation of the peace terms imposed on it by the United Nations in the last decade.)

But the deepest problem with the French proposal is the presumption that the gun to Saddam Hussein's head that is inspiring all this newfound, if limited, Iraqi cooperation can be kept there indefinitely. If America were the monomaniacal superpower it is now sometimes portrayed as being in Europe, the world might pursue a leisurely and indefinite exploration of the possibilities of negotiations, confident America will fight its battles whenever the U.N. finally decides to pull the trigger. But the reality of American power is quite different.

Sure, America is a military giant capable of projecting force halfway across the globe. But America is also a democracy with an extremely limited taste (particularly given its military might) for acting as the world's policeman. Americans do not hunger for empire. We want mostly to be left alone in peace, to be as inward-looking and self-regarding as our worst European critics accuse us of being.

In order to fight a major war, an American president must persuade the American people that war is not only just, but necessary to protect American interests, in this case to fight terrorism. Having persuaded us of this unpleasant fact, aided by our shared memory of watching two skyscrapers explode on national TV, an American president cannot then fail to act indefinitely. Once the case has been made persuasively, every day of delay is a denial and a contradiction: If war is necessary, what are we waiting for?

The French goal (if it is not to protect itself from terrorism by cannily aiding Iraq against the West) appears to be merely to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring the means to conduct conventional wars of aggression against its neighbors. The American goal is to prevent Hussein (and warn similar dictators) from allying with international terrorists to develop and deliver weapons of mass destruction that might hit our shores and those of our allies.

As for the Iraqi people, every day of delay is another day of terror, tyranny and abject subjection, which France and its allies call taking the moral high ground. There are worse things than war, as Jose Ramos-Horta, minister of affairs in East Timor (freed by a global peacekeeping force in 1999) reminds us: "It would certainly be a better world if war were not necessary. Yet I also remember the desperation and anger I felt when the rest of the world chose to ignore the tragedy that was drowning my people. We begged a foreign power to free us from oppression, by force if necessary." Or, as a Kosovar intellectual put it, "I am a pacifist. But I was happy, I felt liberated, when I saw NATO bombs falling."