The elusive case for a US-Iraq war

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For any US President, the initiation of war against another country is momentous. If the aim of such a campaign is, as President Bush states on Iraq, the revolutionary goal of bringing about "regime change," then the stakes are even higher. Before he launches this campaign, Mr. Bush must seek the formal backing of Congress. And he must spell out clearly not just his goals in Iraq, but also his precise casus belli, or his reasons for voluntarily taking the country – and the world – into this war.

President Saddam Hussein's record as a repressive, totalitarian ruler is unquestioned. But it does not provide a valid reason to wage war against him and Iraq.

Is Bush's casus belli that President Hussein poses a direct threat to American national security? Nothing has been proved. And nothing in Mr. Hussein's weapons store is anywhere near capable of reaching US soil.

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Is the casus belli that Hussein's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) makes him a threat to world order? Here, the suppositions have a stronger basis. Iraq, like scores of other governments, has acquired chemical-weapons capability in the past. But its achievements in acquiring "off the books" WMD capabilities pale in comparison with those of India, Pakistan, or for that matter, Israel. Yes, it is very worrying that, unlike those others, Hussein has actually used chemical weapons, which he did in the 1980s against domestic and neighboring-country foes. But it is hard to see why the US, which winked at those episodes when they happened, should now use them as a reason to make war on Iraq. It's even harder to see that a war aimed explicitly at regime change is the best response.

There's a third possible casus belli: that Hussein poses an imminent threat to his neighbors. One of these, Turkey, is strategically linked to the US through membership in NATO. Others like Israel, Kuwait, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are close US friends. Not one of these countries is asking Washington to wage war against Iraq. Indeed, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other key Middle East nations have urged Washington to find alternatives to war in its dealings with Hussein.

What about Israel? Do Israeli leaders and analysts judge that Saddam poses a major threat to their country – and that the best way of dealing with this threat is for the US to go to war?

I spent more than a week in Israel recently, hearing a broad range of Israeli views. Amazingly, no one mentioned a "threat from Iraq" unless asked directly. Attention was focused much more on the continuing Palestinian attacks in the occupied territories. In an hour-long briefing, Deputy Foreign Minister Gadi Golan never mentioned Iraq.

When Israelis do think about Iraq, their views – including those of people in and near the country's ruling coalition – diverge as widely as they do on most other topics. Some influential Israelis seem less worried than most Americans about the threat from Iraqi WMD. Shai Feldman, the well-connected head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, wrote recently: "Despite the deterioration of the monitoring and verification regime applied against Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein failed to rebuild the facilities for the production of chemical and nuclear weapons."

Israelis know, too, that their own WMD capabilities allow them to deter Hussein from sending his WMDs against them. Hussein's people must have read Israeli news accounts that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently told Bush that if Israel is attacked by Iraq, it will respond. (Of course, such deterrence collapses the moment Hussein feels his own life is in imminent danger, and he has nothing more to lose. This might explain why many Israelis are uneasy with a declared US war aim of "regime change.")

Some Israelis use a different argument, claiming that weakening Iraq through war will weaken the motivation of the Palestinians to clash with Israel. One Israeli general, making this case, claimed that the payments Iraq makes to families of Palestinians who die in anti-Israel clashes contribute significantly to keeping Palestinian militancy high. But when I was in the occupied territories in June, it was clear from the harsh conditions faced by the Palestinians, and from my extensive discussions with Palestinians, that no such "external" motivator for militancy is needed. Payments from Iraq (if they get through, which is unclear) were never mentioned.

We could note, too, that Iraq signed on to the regional peace plan adopted by the Arab League last March.

What Palestinians and Israeli peace activists do mention urgently is the fear that, in the regionwide turmoil surrounding any US attack on Iraq, the Israeli authorities might take even harsher measures against Palestinians in the hope that these would pass little noticed. The greatest fear in this regard is of mass deportations of Palestinians from the West Bank.

For all the people of the Middle East, the stakes in a possible US-Iraq war are very high. And they are high for all Americans. If the president wants to launch this war, the world first needs to know what his exact casus belli would be.

• Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.

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