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The deficiencies of an old superpower

During the past year the target has moved from regime change to disarmament. We are led to believe at press time that a new target is emerging, Iraq’s association with and aid of al Qaeda.

The president’s State of the Union message and the flurry of activity following it -- Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to the United Nations to lay out evidence against Saddam Hussein and the growing support in Europe for the use of force to upend the Baghdad regime -- all seemed to point to the inevitability of war.

The run-up to war, if indeed that is what is occurring, still has the overwhelming feel of a unilateralist venture. If one accepts the most benign interpretation of the impending war -- that the United States is not interested in oil but in the liberation of an oppressed people and the removal of an unstable dictator -- disturbing questions quickly arise. Not the least of those questions is: Where do you stop? There is, of course, no shortage of unstable regimes with fully developed weapons of mass destruction and countless more with the materials inside their borders to develop the same.

We have entered the new millennium with no major enemy against which to push and to define ourselves; and we have brought along with us into this new millennium no new ways of viewing ourselves and our role in the world.

We seem to be bashing our way around the global landscape looking for a posture that will work. The danger in using force in Iraq in a preemptive strike is that we will give the new millennium a distressing precedent. It will contribute to lawlessness and a disregard for international rules of behavior and law, however tenuous they may be. The United States could end up in the unfortunate position of diminishing its own authority and moral stature by unleashing its awesome power unilaterally.

The case for war, as outlined in Bush’s speech, was thin. And one trusts he called up the list of torture techniques used by the regime knowing full well that one could turn to countless pages in the reports of the United Nations and human rights groups where similar and worse details describe the techniques used in recent decades by vicious regimes from Brazil to Argentina to El Salvador to Guatemala. The groping about for moral authority is not as easy as declaring our superiority in a State of the Union speech. It is sobering to note that some U.S. officials knew intimately of the ugly torture of those Latin American regimes that we supported and armed and whose soldiers we trained. And some of those officials, thanks to current Bush administration appointments, are back in important positions in government.

While many heard in Bush’s speech a certain march toward war, some hold out hope for a different scenario. The possibility exists, they say, that the current show of force in the Gulf region and our agreement to continue extending the deadline are designed to allow the other Arab countries of the region the opportunity and the motivation to devise a solution on their own. Such a solution would involve removing Saddam and his coterie from power under an arrangement for exile.

Such an optimistic view is not as incredible as it might first appear. Certainly other countries in the region would do almost anything to avoid war, particularly an all-out invasion of a neighbor. So the hunch in that view is that diplomacy is going on around the clock and that the only way it will work is to simultaneously maintain a certain march toward war.

In either scenario, whether Saddam is forced out peacefully or by invasion, only a small portion of the problem in the Middle East will be dealt with. The real work -- of persuasion, of coalition building, of seeing ourselves in relation to the rest of the world in ways other than a collection of consumers with an unlimited right to all the earth’s resources -- will remain. We will still need to become a superpower of a different nature.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003