A Perilous Precedent

By Kimball, Daryl G. | Arms Control Today, April 2003 | Go to article overview

A Perilous Precedent


Kimball, Daryl G., Arms Control Today


Abandoning a robust inspection regime that was effectively containing Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities, the Bush administration has by passed the instruments of collective security and used massive military might to attack a state that it considers a potential threat. Was a bloody and costly pre-emptive war against Iraq the only option left? Does it provide a model for denying other states access to weapons of mass destruction? No. The war with Iraq sets a perilous precedent and a flawed formula for dealing with other global proliferation challenges.

According to President George W. Bush, the U.S. decision to invade Iraq outside of the UN framework was due to a "lack of will" on the part of the UN Security Council to enforce its resolutions. The reality is more complex. The impasse between Washington and London and the other council members stemmed from a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the Iraqi threat and how to deal with it.

Never enthusiastic about the weapons inspection process, the Bush administration tired of the mixed results of the process only weeks after it began. The chief inspectors found little evidence to prove the presence of or the verifiable destruction of suspected chemical or biological weapons. In addition, inspectors discovered no evidence of ongoing nuclear weapons work. Until the very onset of the war, the White House could only offer circumstantial evidence of continuing Iraqi weapons work-some of which was disproved by experts-and dubious claims of connections with al Qaeda. The White House nevertheless charged that Iraq represented a grave and growing threat, and it dismissed reports of Iraqi cooperation with inspectors as a further sign of delay and deception.

Most other Security Council members perceived no imminent or undeterrable threat emanating from Iraq. As CIA director George Tenet reportedly said in a letter to Bush in October 2002, Saddam Hussein was unlikely to initiate a WMD attack against any U.S. target unless provoked. With unfettered inspections, some missile destruction underway, and the inspectors saying they needed several more months to complete key disarmament tasks, most states considered immediate military action unwarranted.

Sadly, U.S. diplomats, as well as other council members, failed to pursue the option that could have effectively and peacefully denied Iraq weapons of mass destruction: a strengthened inspections regime reinforced by a clear set of disarmament benchmarks to compel full Iraqi compliance according to a practical timetable. …

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