Rush to War, Revisited
New York Times Editorial
Friday 07 November 2003
To appreciate the significance of James Risen's article in yesterday's Times about an 11th-hour Iraqi peace offer last March, it helps to think back to that period. For months the Bush administration had been arguing that the only hope of disarming Baghdad was to steadily ratchet up the threat of an imminent American invasion. Only at that point, Washington asserted, might Saddam Hussein yield to the demands of repeated United Nations Security Council disarmament resolutions.
Yesterday's article shows that such reasoning may well have been sound. With American forces massed and ready to invade, the Iraqis suddenly expressed interest in meeting their obligations. Yet the article also shows that the administration seems not to have been serious about the idea of a coerced but peaceful solution at the very moment it may have been a realistic possibility.
The offer described in the article was conveyed to the Pentagon by a Lebanese-American businessman who said he had been sent by the chief of Iraq's Intelligence Service. The Iraqi message was that Baghdad no longer had any unconventional weapons and that it was willing to let American troops and experts conduct a search to prove this. The envoy also conveyed an offer to turn over a suspect in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and relayed an Iraqi pledge to hold elections.
By March, Washington's military and political preparations for war were complete. The Bush administration was then showing little patience for diplomacy or anything else that might delay what it envisioned as a swift and easy military triumph, with jubilant Iraqis cheering American troops, a model Middle Eastern democracy rising in Baghdad, reconstruction paid for by Iraqi oil revenue and no lengthy military occupation.
Iraq has not worked out as planned in the last seven months. As President Bush frankly acknowledged yesterday, a democratic outcome is still far from assured. Yet even without resorting to hindsight, the Bush administration can be faulted for not making more of an effort to determine whether a satisfactory resolution of the weapons issue might have been achieved without war. Put differently, Washington should have put to the test its own words about using the threat of force to coerce concessions.
With crucial details unexplored, there is no way of knowing whether war could or should have been avoided, or indeed whether the offer was genuine or what kind of inspections would have been allowed. Any last-minute offer might have been unacceptable, particularly if it meant leaving Saddam Hussein's Baathist torturers in power. Yet surely Washington should have made the effort to learn more.
Administration supporters were fond of saying at the time that there were things Bush officials knew but could not share with the public. Little did we imagine that among those things was an offer that might have provided a way to avoid the war.
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