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Published: 1/25/2003

Bush must act soon in Iraq

OIL prices soared when Secretary of State Colin Powell said it would be clear by the end of January that Iraq was flouting the U.N. resolution calling upon it to disarm.

Two mechanized infantry divisions and three more aircraft carrier battle groups have been ordered to the Persian Gulf. Thousands of reservists are being ordered to active duty. War is near.

War will not be deterred by foot-dragging at the United Nations, or by jitters at home. Only Saddam's abdication can prevent it. War will commence when sufficient force has been assembled and acclimatized - sometime in late February or early March - or sooner, should Saddam choose to launch a pre-emptive attack.

For reasons both economic and military, President Bush knows that now that he has put the war machine in motion, he must act soon. The deployment will cost about a billion dollars a month, and this time the Saudis and the Japanese won't be picking up most of the tab. The stock market is stuttering because of uncertainty about war. It won't begin to climb steadily until the business in Iraq has been concluded.

The military would like to finish in Iraq before summer begins, but the impediment desert heat poses to military operations has been exaggerated. Americans fight chiefly at night, when it is cool. And because we have more and better equipment than the Iraqis, and train more, we are better prepared to fight in the summer heat.

The military argument for urgency is concern about having too many of our military resources tied up in one region, doing nothing. The massive deployment disrupts normal rotations, and lowers our guard in other areas of the world. Prolonged idleness by the expeditionary force would harm morale and lower readiness. And it's no accident that North Korea picked now to start a quarrel with the United States.

Doves at home and abroad say: Why not give U.N. weapons inspectors more time to work? The better question is: Why give them more time? It is clear both that Iraq is in material breach, and that many in the United Nations do not wish to come to grips with the implications of this fact.

Doves have a “heads I win, tails you lose” argument. If inspectors find more evidence Iraq has violated the resolution the United Nations passed calling upon it to disarm, they'll say this is “proof” the inspections are working. If the inspectors find no more illegal weapons, the doves will say there isn't enough evidence to justify an attack.

Polls indicate popular support for the military action against Iraq is fading, and that most Americans do not favor an attack without U.N. approval.

But the President knows this is meaningless. It is normal and natural for there to be jitters when war is near.

The President knows that if the war goes badly, he'll be in political trouble even if the U.N. Security Council unanimously blessed the attack. And Mr. Bush knows that if the war goes well, those who are criticizing him now will be trying to convince people they were always really on his side.

Whether the Security Council approves military action against Iraq will have a much greater impact on the future of the United Nations than on whether a U.S.-led coalition will be successful. The United States will have the support of all the countries whose support will be of material benefit. All the United Nations can lend is moral support. Granting that support does not contribute to military success, and withholding it will carry no stigma for the United States if military operations succeed.

But withholding support could have grave consequences for the United Nations. If, in postwar Iraq, people joyously celebrate their liberation, and there is clear and convincing evidence of weapons of mass destruction, then the United Nations will have proven to be not merely impotent, as the League of Nations was against fascist aggression in the 1930s, but on the wrong side. If the United Nations isn't careful, it could follow Saddam Hussein into the ash heap of history.



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