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Column: Waiting for the storm

In the coming weeks, there will be much talk about the future - that of the Middle East, America's role in the world, the United Nations, and of course Iraq itself. But right now, I would like to reflect briefly on the past 12 years.

It is well-known that in the winter of 1990-91, Saddam Hussein began and lost a war of aggression. It was not his first. Unlike the ill-advised campaign against Iran, however, this was a war waged against a multinational coalition formed under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council - the first such coalition since the Korean War.

Also common knowledge is the main condition of the ceasefire that ended the first Gulf War. Saddam's government was ordered to destroy all of its weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, chemical, biological, and long-range missiles. That was a simple mandate, but one with which his regime failed to comply, even after it was granted the privilege of a "final opportunity" to destroy its banned weapons via Resolution 1441. In U.N.-speak, this unequivocally represents "material breach," and it is grounds for the use of force under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.

The legality of the imminent war is not in serious doubt, even if the right to self-defense is disregarded. As has been the pattern lately, the British government - specifically, Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith - was the public voice of the coalition, announcing that the combined effect of numerous past resolutions (which never expired) gives U.N. members the right to take all necessary measures "to restore peace and security in the area." Most of us aren't international lawyers and can't judge his reasoning with any level of expertise, but I have yet to see a more cogent justification for war than his.

A more tricky question is whether the war is, strictly speaking, essential - as President George W. Bush claims - to defend U.S. national security against the threat posed by Saddam's banned weapons. Preemptive action, as enunciated by the White House, certainly presents difficult questions. Traditional just war theory defines self-defense as action in response to aggression that already occurred, not one that could potentially occur in the future. The problem with applying this centuries-old definition to modern asymmetric warfare is that the strategists of Blenheim and Waterloo faced enemies that had neither the ability nor the desire to kill thousands of innocent civilians without warning. Even the authors of the U.N. Charter in 1945 did not envision the proliferation of extralegal groups bent on the destruction of civilization and with access to the most advanced technology.

I've written before that I believe this particular threat may not rise to the level at which a preemptive strike becomes necessary and proper. Containment could still work. Inspections could continue, and perhaps they would yield more results. These options are almost always preferable to the use of force. But I do not deny that there are times when preemption may be the only feasible way to protect against a danger that is all-too-real. We will learn soon enough if now is one of those times.

But none of this matters anymore, at least not for Saddam and his cronies. All that is relevant is that they were offered 48 hours to escape with their lives. For them, the situation is well beyond politics. There will be no more meetings, resolutions, ultimatums, deferrals or exemptions. None of the protagonists who made this sordid drama drag on are able to help them now - not Jacques Chirac, not Hans Blix, nobody.

Their choice should not be difficult. If the members of Saddam's clique stay in Baghdad, they may survive the bombing only to face speedy execution for war crimes of which they are undeniably guilty. They certainly couldn't care less about the destruction that will be wrought upon their country by coalition bombs if they stay, since the bulk of their careers was spent destroying Iraq through slower but equally effective means - prison camps, torture chambers, and even chemical weapons. We also know that they are addicted to absolute power. But perhaps their survival instinct is strong enough to make them accept only rational option under the circumstances.

I do not mention the regime's domestic repression to suggest that it alone justifies war. Even though Saddam is one of the worst oppressors in the world today, there are plenty of governments that engage in many of the same atrocities - just on a smaller scale. One of them - Libya - currently happens to chair the U.N. Human Rights Commission, for instance. The United States, of course, is not about to invade this nation, or any other, based on their internal policies. In Iraq's case, the only real justification for attack is its threat to international peace. One tactical error made by the Bush/Blair camp was their constant invocation of human rights. So let us be clear: The human rights of Iraqis are not the cause of this war. They will, however, be one of its lasting results.

As an American, the hardest part in coming to terms with the administration's position has been overwhelming resistance from virtually every other nation, including many of our oldest and closest allies. We are taught as children that "majority rules," which in this case would imply that the lack of nine votes for a second resolution at the U.N. weakens America's case. It is, indeed, quite difficult to reconcile Bush's absolute certainty in labeling Iraq an urgent threat to the world community with that very community's vocal and persistent disagreement. But we also know that the Security Council, by its inaction, has made terrible mistakes in the past. Rwanda and Bosnia are two of the most glaring.

As I mentioned before, we are now beyond the realm of hypotheticals. This is as real as it gets for everyone directly involved. War can still be averted if Saddam's last decision as head of state will be the right one. But I'm not counting on it.

Pavel Molchanov is a Trinity senior. His column appears every other Tuesday.


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