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[Published in Slate, Feb. 7, 2002]

Legalizing War Against Iraq
By Robert Wright

Last week I vowed to keep up my Slate dialogue with Robert Kaplan even after it drew to its official close. I wanted to 1) elaborate on my claim that the United States can deal with Iraq aggressively yet through the United Nations; 2) elaborate on my long-term plan for fighting terrorism; and 3) engage in miscellaneous sniping at Kaplan, secure in the knowledge that he probably won't get around to replying (though he can do so in this space if he wants). Here goes.

One fact you probably won't hear President Bush mention is that Iraq is in violation of international law. After all, that would require him to utter the phrase "international law." But it's true: In 1998 Iraq kicked out duly authorized U.N. inspectors who were seeking—and finding—evidence of a biological and nuclear weapons program. According to international-law expert Barry Kellman of DePaul Law School, this gives the U.N. Security Council a plausible premise for handing Iraq an ultimatum. Here's one possible ultimatum:

You must allow U.N. inspectors into your country and give them immediate access to any facility and any data they specify. If you refuse, or if you subsequently impede the work of any inspector at any time, then Iraq will automatically—without further Security Council action—be deemed to constitute a threat to "international peace and security."

I put this phrase in quotes because under the U.N. Charter (Chapter VII), it justifies military intervention. Though President Bush probably wouldn't be able to get all five Security Council members who have veto power to OK an explicit threat of military action, he might well get them to sign on to this more abstract but still pointed language—especially if they saw such an ultimatum as the only thing that could stop America from launching a unilateral war.

Since the United States is known for broadly interpreting U.N. mandates, the message to Iraq would be clear: Either welcome the international police and give them the run of the place, or the American bombs start falling and the troops come in next. And this time we don't stop short of Baghdad.

Would Iraq comply? Even if it didn't there would be virtue in going through these motions, as subsequent military action would then have more legal and moral authority, having been at least arguably authorized by the United Nations. I don't claim enough geopolitical foresight to know whether invading Iraq would prove wise, given opposition to it in much of the Arab world, but it seems safe to say that the less unilateral any such invasion looks, the better.

Anyway, Iraq might well cave in to the United Nations' demands, for two reasons. First, Iraq would face something it didn't face when it kicked out the inspectors in the first place—the credible threat of invasion. Second, letting the inspectors back in would mean getting sanctions against Iraq lifted. Technically, they should be lifted only after 120 days of cooperation, but personally I'd be willing to offer Saddam a special one-time, if-you-act-now offer: the immediate lifting of sanctions. This would be a face-saver for him, a way to claim he'd gotten a concession from the United Nations.

This sort of language annoys the Iraq hawks. "We don't want to save his face! We want to riddle it with bullets!" Yes, there would be a certain visceral satisfaction in that. But how long would the thrill last? Even assuming you succeed in installing a new, "legitimate" regime to your liking, it's hard to justify maintaining an inspection program, since the regime hasn't done anything wrong. Yet what guarantee is there that a bioweapons or nuclear program won't be revived, sooner or later? A straitjacketed Saddam Hussein might be tamer than a sovereign successor.

The new round of Iraq inspections should be more robust and intrusive than the original round, even though the original round was effective enough for Saddam to find it intolerable. It's important, post-9/11, to push the envelope on this front and show the world—including President Bush—that an international inspection regime can be effective.

It's also important not to repeat the mistake America made last time around and secretly use the U.N. inspectorate for American intelligence gathering. The discovery of this corruption of the United Nations not only made an honest man out of Saddam Hussein, who had been claiming such corruption all along; it also eroded the legitimacy of the very policing mechanisms whose legitimacy America needs to nourish, unless Americans want to spend the rest of the millennium invading suspicious countries.

Early on in my dialogue with Kaplan I challenged him to provide a long-term plan for dealing with terrorism and vowed to retaliate with my own plan. He never entirely complied, so I'm off the hook, but I'll nonetheless graciously unveil part of my plan: We have to carry the international policing of weapons of mass destruction well beyond Iraq and make it routine. For example: Put teeth in the toothless biological weapons convention, which theoretically bans the possession of bioweapons.

As I've argued elsewhere, policing bioweapons is so hard that doing it right would set a new record for infringing on national sovereignty. America—like all nations—would have to accept short-notice inspections, of unprecedented intrusiveness, by an international agency. That is presumably one reason Bush has punted on this issue and refused to think seriously about designing a tough bioweapons policing regime, even though Europe is begging for one.

What the Bush administration seems not to appreciate is that retaining our national sovereignty is not an option anyway. Technological evolution—in this case biotechnological evolution—ensures that, in the absence of some such global policing regime, small groups of people will increasingly have the power to wreak slaughter on a scale that would make 9/11 look minor. That threat is itself a violation of America's sovereignty. So the question isn't whether to sacrifice sovereignty, but how. I prefer the form of sacrificed sovereignty that doesn't involve the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

OK, that about wraps this column up, except for the aforementioned sniping at Kaplan.

1) Kaplan writes, "Terrorism now tends to be nihilistic rather than oriented toward specific, achievable goals." I guess we can argue about how achievable Osama Bin Laden's goals are, but if there's one label you can't apply to people who willingly die in the name of a God that represents supreme moral truth, it's "nihilistic."

2) Kaplan seems to say that there's no point in trying to reduce the number of people who hate America. "As with all great powers in the past, we will be resented for the very fact of our power, no matter how we use it." I've argued against this sort of logic in the past, and I won't repeat the entire exercise here. The obvious point is just that being hated by a bunch of people isn't a binary phenomenon. There are degrees. There's a difference between, say, a million people hating you intensely and 10 million people hating you intensely. It's the difference—roughly speaking—between creating x new terrorists and creating 10x new terrorists. Kaplan writes, "The terrorists of Sept. 11 would not have called off their plan had we ... forced Israel to concede an extra few miles of the West Bank." Obviously. But if you think that the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't stoking hatred of America in the Islamic world, you must be in some kind of media blackout. That a lasting solution to the Palestinian problem would make at least a small contribution to future American security seems to me beyond serious dispute.

3) Finally, Kaplan seems to paint me as a Wilsonian idealist. I don't take that as an insult, but the fact is that I'm not the kind of one worlder who makes a fundamentally idealistic argument for world governance. My argument stresses American self-interest almost to the point of cynicism. I'll flesh out that point in a column very soon.

Robert Wright, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Moral Animal and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.