If we must fight Iraq, let's get it right

There is a right and a wrong way for America to wage war. Obviously, if it is attacked, America must respond with all its might. The same is true if an ally is attacked. But the issue becomes much more complex if a threat, but not an attack, is involved. America must then consider carefully the consequences of its actions, both for itself as the world's pre-eminent power and for the longer-term evolution of the international system as a whole.

The United States may have to go to war to oust Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq because the potential nexus between conspiratorial terrorism and the weapons of mass destruction that Hussein is said to be producing cannot be blithely ignored. But war is too serious a business and too unpredictable in its dynamic consequences — especially in a highly flammable region — to be undertaken because of a personal peeve, demagogically articulated fears or vague factual assertions.

If it is to be war, it should be conducted in a manner that legitimizes U.S. global hegemony and, at the same time, contributes to a more responsible system of international security. Accordingly, several essential steps should be followed:

• The president himself has to make, in a speech addressed to the nation, a careful, reasoned case, without sloganeering, on the specifics of the threat. Detailed evidence needs to be presented that the threat is both grave and imminent. An explanation is also needed as to why one member of "the axis of evil" is seen as more menacing than the others. The president's case should also serve as the basis for serious and searching consultations with Congress and with key allies as well as other interested states.

• Iraq's defiance of the international community is the central issue the world should be concerned about. Hence the focus of the U.S. concern must be on weapons of mass destruction that Iraq may be surreptitiously seeking to produce in contravention of U.N. resolutions, and not on Saddam Hussein personally. Moreover, insofar as Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are concerned, a persuasive case also needs to be made as to why, in the U.S. view, deterrence no long-er suffices. The frequently cited but essentially demagogic formula that Hussein used weapons of mass destruction (specifically gas) against his own people ignores the fact that he did not use such weapons in 1991 against either U.S. troops or Israel, both of which had the capacity to retaliate and thus to deter.

• The United States should itself take the lead in formulating detailed plans for a genuinely intrusive and comprehensive inspection regime, one that would define the rules of the game for Iraq's compliance with the will of the international community. America's European allies would find it difficult not to go along with that approach, while Iraq's recalcitrance — either by an outright refusal or by subsequent efforts to sabotage the inspection process — would then provide a highly legitimate casus belli for military action.

• As the United States positions itself for war, it must become more active in pacifying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by pressuring both sides. The current standoff between Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat has undone much of the progress achieved after Oslo by both Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat, while inflicting massive suffering on the Israeli and Palestinian people. In the absence of any serious effort by the Bush administration to push the Israelis and Palestinians toward peace, there is a high risk that a U.S. assault on Iraq will be perceived in the region (and probably also in Europe) as part of an American-Israeli effort to impose a new order on the Middle East without regard for either Iraqi or Palestinian civilian casualties.

• The United States should soon begin discussions with its allies as well as other concerned powers, including its Arab friends, regarding possible postwar arrangements for Iraq, including a prolonged collective security presence and plans for international financing of the social rehabilitation of the country. Doing so would also reinforce the credibility of the U.S. determination to use force in the event that a nonviolent resolution of the issue proves to be impossible.

It follows from the above that there is also a wrong way for America to initiate a war. That can be stated very briefly:

• The initiation of a war should not be decided in camera by the president alone with just a few of his own appointees, without regard for either American or global public opinion.

• Public support should not be generated by fear-mongering or demagogy, with some of it encouraged by parties with a strategic interest in fostering American-Arab hostility. Particularly disturbing in that regard has been the news report that some members of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board have been pushing, in addition to war with Iraq, a confrontation in U.S.-Saudi Arabian relations.

• War should not start with a bolt from the blue but be the consequence of demonstrated Iraqi unwillingness to accept international rules. A sudden launching of war could prompt many in the world to justify any subsequent Iraqi retaliation against America or Israel, even with a weapon of mass destruction, while setting a dangerous example for the world of an essentially Darwinian international system characterized by sudden, pre-emptive attacks.

War should be waged with meticulous attention paid to minimizing civilian casualties, especially given the widespread view abroad that U.S.-sponsored sanctions have already badly and unfairly hurt the Iraqi population.

Ultimately what is at stake is something far greater than Iraq: It is the character of the international system and the role in it of what is, by far, the most powerful state. Neither the White House nor the American people should ignore the fact that America's enemies will, whatever happens, do everything possible to present the United States as a global gangster. Yet, without a respected and legitimate law-enforcer, global security could be in serious jeopardy. America must thus walk a fine line in determining when, in what circumstances and how it acts as such in initiating the use of force.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to President Carter.