President Bush's speech yesterday challenging the United Nations to take action against Iraq or risk irrelevance marked the first direct application of the administration's emerging policy of combating threats even before they fully materialize, bringing the nation one step closer to war.
The president's catalogue of charges against Iraqi President
Saddam Hussein contained no new revelations, and in fact included
complaintssuch as Hussein's gassing of Iraniansthat
are more than a decade old. But Bush demanded immediate action because
of a potential threat, one he called
fearthat Hussein would supply terrorists with weapons of
exactly the kind of aggressive threat the United Nations
was born to confront, Bush asserted, in effect paying homage to
the idea of working in consort with other nations while bluntly
telling the rest of the world to follow his lead.
Bush arrived at the United Nations one day after solemn ceremonies in New York, Washington and around the nation to mark the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacksand after months of criticism from other governments that the United States must work more closely with its allies before challenging Hussein through military force.
Yet the president left little doubt that the United States reserves the right to strike first against a potentially hostile government. Absent definitive steps by the U.N., he said, the United State will go it alone.
In doing so, he built on a theme he first articulated in the State of the Union address seven months ago and then expanded on at West Point in June: that the United States is willing to respond to even the hint of a threat, decisively and unilaterally.
The State of the Union speech is best remembered for Bush's
identification of an
axis of evilIraq, Iran and North
Korea -- but Bush also signaled the approach he outlined so clearly
Some governments will be timid in the face of terror, Bush said
on Jan. 29.
Make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America
Bush expanded on the idea in his commencement address at West Point. There, he introduced the concept of preemption, a new doctrine under which the United States reserves the right to strike out against threats before they are completely apparentand before the United States itself is attacked.
The twin doctrines of containment and deterrence that guided
U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, he said, are not adequate in
the aftermath of Sept. 11,
when unbalanced dictators with weapons
of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly
provide them to terrorist allies.
Yesterday, at the United Nations, Bush identified Hussein as just that sort of tyrant. He offered no proof that Hussein has supplied terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, or even considered taking such a step. But, he contended, the possibility is enough to warrant an immediate response.
Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave and gathering danger,
To suggest otherwise is to hope against the evidence. To
assume this regime's good faith is to bet the lives of millions
and the peace of the world in a reckless gamble.
In recent interviews, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has contended that preemption is not a new notion, that it has always been among the options available to a president. But some experts said that Bush yesterday appeared to set a much lower threshold.
The big question on preemption is how clear and present is the
danger, said Joseph S. Nye Jr., dean of the John F. Kennedy School
of Government at Harvard University.
A 'grave and gathering
danger' is not the language classically used for preemption.
In many ways, Bush tried to use his speech to turn the tables on
critics at home and abroad who say the administration too often has
acted unilaterally on issues that affect many nations.
It is Saddam
Hussein who is unilaterally challenging the authority of the United
Nations, a senior administration official said.
Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace, which has pushed the concept of
inspections of Iraq's weapons development program backed by
military forces, said Bush
left the door ajar to accepting
something less than military action. She said this was due in part to
the negative reaction around the globe to an invasion of Iraq.
president clearly walked back into the fold of the United Nations with
this speech, she said.
But Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New
American Century, a think tank that has long pushed for action against
Iraq, said Bush's demand that Hussein comply with a long list of
U.N. resolutionsnot just ones dealing with weapons inspections
-- leaves little room for ambiguity.
When you look at the totality
of U.N. resolutions, Saddam has to go, Schmitt said.
himself and the U.N. a box that it will be hard to get out of.
It goes well beyond simply inspections, said Richard N. Perle,
chairman of a Pentagon advisory committee and an advocate of
I think it is significant that the bar has
been set at what seems to be an appropriately high point.
The Bush administration is stocked with skeptics of international treaties and multilateral organizations, and yesterday's speech was striking for how little Bush paid tribute to the central role of the United Nations.
The president spoke after U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan made a strong pitch for working within the multilateral system. Bush announced that the United States would rejoin UNESCO, the U.N. cultural organization, and mentioned his commitment to finding peace in the Middle East, a key issue for many U.N. members. But while Bush took note of the high hopes in which the United Nations was founded, he did not say the U.N. had achieved its goals.
By contrast, 12 years earlier, when President George H.W. Bush
appeared before the General Assembly to press the case against Iraq
after its invasion of Kuwait, he heaped praise on the U.N. He offered
vision of a new partnership of nations . . . a partnership based
on consultation, cooperation and collective action, especially through
international and regional organizations, a partnership united by
principle and the rule of law and supported by an equitable sharing of
both cost and commitment.
Yesterday, his son promised, almost as an afterthought:
work with the U.N. Security Council for the necessary resolutions.
But he pointedly noted:
The purposes of the United States should
not be doubted. The Security Council resolutions will be enforced
. . . or action will be unavoidable.