VEHEMENTLY, PRESIDENT BUSH'S CRITICS accuse him of a reckless "rush to war" in Iraq, and lament that his go-it-alone "unilateralism" has undercut US leadership and alienated our allies.
These arguments often come packaged together. For example, in an editorial titled "The Race to War," The New York Times last Sunday urged the president to "brake the momentum toward war" because "to go it alone, or nearly alone, is to court disaster." Better to let inspections proceed, it counseled, "leaving more time . . . for Washington to mobilize the international support it now lacks."
Three days earlier, Senator John Kerry had made the same points in a speech at Georgetown.
"Show the world some appropriate patience in building a genuine coalition," he admonished. "Mr. President, do not rush to war." Kerry condemned Bush's "belligerent and myopic unilateralism," his "blustering unilateralism," and his "erratic unilateralism." And just in case the point wasn't clear, he warned that "unilateralism is a formula for isolation and shrinking influence."
As slogans, "rush to war" and "unilateralism" are catchy. But they are also false.
If anything, Bush has been inching his way to war. It was as a candidate for president that he first laid down his marker: "If I found in any way, shape, or form that [Saddam Hussein] was developing weapons of mass destruction, I'd take him out. I'm surprised he's still there." That was in December 1999 -- more than three years ago.
It has been more than a year since Bush inducted Iraq into the "axis of evil" and vowed that the United States "will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." Last summer he agreed to seek congressional authority to use force against Iraq, then waited patiently as the House and Senate debated the matter.
A strong case can be made that existing Security Council resolutions already authorize an attack on Iraq for its failure to disarm and respect human rights, but Bush nevertheless decided to appeal to the United Nations for support. He addressed the General Assembly in September, laying out in detail Saddam's egregious violations.
After that came the lengthy haggling over the wording of a new Security Council mandate. Then the unanimous vote to adopt Resolution 1441. Then the delay while Saddam "decided" whether to accept the resolution's terms. Then another delay as Iraq prepared a (mendacious) 12,000-page declaration of its chemical, biological, nuclear, and ballistic weapons programs. And yet another delay -- of more than two months -- as Hans Blix & Co. went through the largely futile process of "inspecting" Iraq's compliance with the UN's disarmament directives.
Still not rushing, Bush stayed his hand to give Blix time to report back to the Security Council. He used his State of the Union address to again make the case that Saddam poses a uniquely virulent threat. Instead of calling for war, he announced that Colin Powell would return to the United Nations to discuss, explain, and negotiate some more.
The English language is a marvel of nuance and flexibility, and there is no shortage of words one might use to describe the administration's pace toward regime change in Iraq: gradual, measured, careful, deliberate, implacable, remorseless. But some linguistic contortions are impossible. It isn't a "rush to war."
Nor is it unilateralism.
Last Thursday, the president of the Czech Republic and the prime ministers of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Great Britain, Hungary, Poland, and Denmark published a statement of support for America's stance against Saddam. "We must remain united in insisting that his regime be disarmed," the eight European leaders wrote, and pointedly called on the Security Council to "face up to its responsibilities." It is hard to imagine a more multilateral vote of confidence -- or a more stinging refutation of the complaint that the Bush administration is going it alone, marching off to war without the backing or sympathy of the civilized world.
The statement of solidarity was dramatic, but it should have come as no surprise. For all the wailing about "unilateralism," many of America's allies are signing on to help. It was reported just last week, for example, that Turkey has agreed to host a 20,000-man mechanized division, enabling US troops to enter Iraq from the north. Jordan, which borders Iraq on the west (and which refused to support the United States in the first Gulf War), will also allow US soldiers to be stationed within its borders.
Spain announced in January that it would permit the use of Spanish bases for an attack on Iraq. Poland's president pledged his country's assistance, offering to contribute troops to a US-led coalition even without UN approval. The Czechs have put their anti-chemical warfare unit at Washington's disposal. Hungary is already letting the United States train thousands of Iraqi exiles at a Hungarian military base.
To be sure, France is not on board -- yet. It will be. The French are already drawing up plans to send 15,000 troops to Iraq, along with two warships, Mirage fighter-bombers, and the Charles de Gaulle, France's only aircraft carrier. The French may pose and bluster, but they will not sit out this fight.
What Kerry and the Times call "unilateralism," our friends and allies recognize as leadership. In this space more than four months ago, I wrote: "When the American war to topple Saddam begins, most of Europe will follow." Count on it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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