In a feat worthy of Houdini, the Bush team has transformed the Iraq debate into a question of the World vs. Us rather than the World vs. Him.
This is indeed mind-bending magic. Saddam Hussein is a menace, a global outlaw whose regime is busy brewing weapons of mass destruction. How to handle him is a serious dilemma, not some ploy to cadge votes at midterm elections.
Yet the way the White House has handled the Saddam question might make one think otherwise. Much of the world not to mention a growing number of Americans already does.
It is too glib to dismiss doubters among the allies as wimpy, war-averse Europeans or myopic Muslim despots. How then to explain the similar concerns expressed by former aides to the first President Bush or by key Republicans in Congress? All are uneasy about what this administration is really up to with its anti-Saddam crusading. They are right to be queasy because they sense that the Iraq debate revolves around something bigger than a risky war to remove an evil man.
There is widespread agreement that Saddam Hussein is a danger to the Mideast region. What we need to know, from the administration, is whether he presents such an imminent threat that it justifies attacking him "preventively" a whole new approach to American security strategy.
Think about it. Ordinarily, a country goes to war after it is attacked. Occasionally, a country attacks preemptively, as Israel did in 1967 when Arab states massed troops, closed off a key Israeli waterway and sent home U.N. observers. But the president appears about to propose that we attack Iraq without a direct provocation or even an imminent threat of attack.
This is big stuff, even after Sept. 11. If we knew another terrorist attack was being planned, no doubt we would have to preempt by whatever means necessary. But if we choose to attack Iraq it will be on the hypothetical premise that Saddam may someday threaten our Mideast allies. This sets a global precedent that may boomerang.
If preventive war is OK for the United States, why shouldn't India attack Pakistan to wipe out its nuclear weapons? Why shouldn't Russia invade neighboring Georgia, which has become a refuge for Chechen terrorists who cross into Georgian mountain valleys? (The Bush administration has been scolding Moscow for carrying out bombing raids inside Georgia, when, to be consistent, it should be cheering the Russians on.)
You get the picture. Launching a preventive war is a very big step, with global repercussions. It would be tantamount to telling the world that the United States assumes the right to attack anywhere, anytime, without any casus belli. Today Iraq, tomorrow Iran, next day North Korea? That is exactly the new doctrine President Bush spelled out in a West Point speech in April. That doctrine was hinted at in his "axis of evil" oration. Some neoconservatives with ties to the Bush team are even promoting the idea of invading Saudi Arabia.
No wonder allies are nervous at the idea that the United States might take on the overthrow of any leader who looks dicey.
This may sound far-fetched, but how are allied leaders to divine the real White House intent when President Bush and his team treat them like vassals?
And no wonder Congress including much of the GOP leadership is nervous. Legislators on both sides of the aisle have been begging for hard facts about the extent and urgency of the Iraqi threat.
The president has offered up nothing but moral homilies and unsatisfying sound bites. His aides haven't done much better. Legislators say they got little info from a closed-door meeting this week with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
The case for war has largely been left to neoconservative pundits who downplay the risks ("a cakewalk") and hype the benefits (an era of Mideast democracy and total Palestinian surrender).
Iraq has no nukes now nor any means to deliver weapons of mass destruction to our shores, so one key question is whether Saddam might enlist terrorist groups to carry dirty bombs here. Most Iraq experts echo the assessment of Bush pere's national security adviser Brent Scowcroft: He doubted Saddam would hand off such weapons to terrorists "who would use them for their own purposes and leave Baghdad as the return address."
Ironically, the Bush team could probably muster support for Saddam's ouster if it focused on his behavior, and didn't try to make him the wedge for their new doctrine of preventive war.
The Bush team could probably rally European allies even Russia to its side if the goal were to impose more aggressive U.N. weapons inspections. No doubt Saddam would cheat, providing a casus belli to attack under terms of a U.N. resolution.
Such an approach would take longer and require massaging our allies. It would preclude making Saddam the poster boy for a broad new doctrine giving the United States free rein to intervene around the world. But it would enable the Bush team to oust Saddam under international cover.
So which does the administration want Saddam out, or an unrestrained mandate to reshape the world?
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.