“Tell the Truth”

New York Times

Sorry, I can’t applaud the French foreign minister, because I don’t believe that France, which sold Saddam his first nuclear reactor, the one Israel blew up, comes to this story with the lofty principles it claims.

The French foreign minister, after basking in the applause at the U.N., might ask himself who was clapping for his speech back in Baghdad and who was crying. Saddam was clapping, and all his political prisoners — i.e., most Iraqis — were crying.

But I don’t have much applause in me for China, Russia — or the Bush team either. I feel lately as if there are no adults in this room (except Tony Blair).

No, this is not a plague-on-all-your-houses column. I side with those who believe we need to confront Saddam — but we have to do it right, with allies and staying power, and the Bush team has bungled that.

The Bush folks are big on attitude, weak on strategy and terrible at diplomacy. I covered the first gulf war, in 1990-91. What I remember most are the seven trips I took with Secretary of State James A. Baker III around the world to watch him build — face-to-face — the coalition and public support for that war, before a shot was fired. Going to someone else’s country is a sign you respect his opinion. This Bush team has done no such hands-on spade work. Its members think diplomacy is a phone call.

They don’t like to travel. Seeing senior Bush officials abroad for any length of time has become like rare-bird sightings. It’s probably because they spend so much time infighting in Washington over policy, they’re each afraid that if they leave town their opponents will change the locks on their office doors.

Also, you would think that if Iraq were the focus of your whole foreign policy, maybe you would have handled North Korea with a little less attitude, so as not to trigger two wars at once. Maybe you would have come up with that alternative — which President Bush promised — to the Kyoto treaty, a treaty he trashed to the great anger of Europe.

You’re not going to get much support in Europe telling people, “You are either with us or against us in a war on terrorism, but in the war you care about — for a greener planet — America will do whatever it wants.”

I am also very troubled by the way Bush officials have tried to justify this war on the grounds that Saddam is allied with Osama bin Laden or will be soon. There is simply no proof of that, and every time I hear them repeat it I think of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. You don’t take the country to war on the wings of a lie.

Tell people the truth. Saddam does not threaten us today. He can be deterred. Taking him out is a war of choice — but it’s a legitimate choice. It’s because he is undermining the U.N., it’s because if left alone he will seek weapons that will threaten all his neighbors, it’s because you believe the people of Iraq deserve to be liberated from his tyranny, and it’s because you intend to help Iraqis create a progressive state that could stimulate reform in the Arab/Muslim world, so that this region won’t keep churning out angry young people who are attracted to radical Islam and are the real weapons of mass destruction.

That’s the case for war — and it will require years of occupying Iraq and a simultaneous effort to defuse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to create a regional context for success. If done right, such a war could shrink Al Qaeda’s influence — but Al Qaeda is a separate enemy that will have to be fought separately, and will remain a threat even if Saddam is ousted.

It is legitimate for Europeans to oppose such a war, but not simply by sticking a thumb in our eye and their heads in the sand. It’s also legitimate for the Bush folks to focus the world on Saddam, but two years of their gratuitous bullying has made many people deaf to America’s arguments. Too many people today no longer accept America’s strength as a good thing. That is a bad thing.

Some of this we can’t control. But some we can, which is why it’s time for the Bush team to shape up — dial down the attitude, start selling this war on the truth, give us a budget that prepares the nation for a war abroad, not a party at home, and start doing everything possible to create a global context where we can confront Saddam without the world applauding for him.

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