Joe Conason's Journal

Tony Blair comes to Camp David to discuss George Bush's drive toward war in Iraq. Plus: Presidential candidate John Kerry once again criticizes the administration's war plans.

By Joe Conason

Published September 6, 2002 1:45PM (EDT)

The War Debate Begins
Tomorrow George W. Bush will hear from Tony Blair what is quickly becoming a worldwide consensus on policy toward Iraq: No unilateral military invasion to overthrow Saddam. Leaving behind his own restive parliament -- where the overwhelming consensus of Labor Party members opposes British backing for American unilateralism -- the Prime Minister is coming to Camp David to persuade Bush that the United Nations is an essential part of any move against Baghdad. Blair believes that seeking UN sanction for action against Saddam will mute European opposition, or even transform that opposition into conditional support.

The Arab states, more and more vocal in defense of Iraq, are unlikely to be mollified by any such multilateral gestures. Evidently the leaders of the Arab League take quite seriously the argument by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry that if Saddam is overthrown by American force, any other of the petty monarchs and dictators in the region may someday suffer the same demise. The news that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld began to plan a strike against Iraq on Sept. 11, 2001, before he had any idea which American adversary was responsible for the terror attacks can only make the Arab leaders increasingly nervous about American intentions and conduct. Rummy didn't even consult with the president, let alone the Secretary of State, the Congress, or friendly governments in Europe and the Mideast.

On the domestic front, Bush has clearly decided that the politics of war favor his party. As Karl Rove indicated back in January, the White House regards national security as the most potent Republican issue in the midterm elections. Indeed, it seems to be the only issue they can use to advantage. Now their pre-election strategy will shield the president behind "patriotic unity" while smiting Democrats with partisan propaganda. That's why Bush is insisting that Congress vote a resolution on Iraq before the October recess. He and Rove assume that they the Democrats will face two unpalatable prospects: Either vote for a war resolution, thus wrapping the flag around Bush (and his party), or vote no, and open each dissenting member to an assault on his or her fortitude and loyalty.

The Democrats, preferring to fight the election on prescription drugs and Social Security, have so far equivocated on Iraq. Rove's plan to snag them on the forks of a war resolution may work. But as of this morning there is at least one Democratic Senator with the guts to question administration assumptions and to propose alternatives. Those who have been paying attention won't be surprised to see the byline of Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., over this toughly critical Times op-ed essay.

"For the American people to accept the legitimacy of this conflict and give their consent to it, the Bush administration must first present detailed evidence of the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and then prove that all other avenues of protecting our nation's security interests have been exhausted," Kerry writes. "Exhaustion of remedies is critical to winning the consent of a civilized people in the decision to go to war. And consent, as we have learned before, is essential to carrying out the mission. President Bush's overdue statement this week that he would consult Congress is a beginning, but the administration's strategy remains adrift ..."

He continues: "If we are to put American lives at risk in a foreign war, President Bush must be able to say to this nation that we had no choice, that this was the only way we could eliminate a threat we could not afford to tolerate."

As Kerry certainly knows, there are alternatives. Today, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace outlines a creative proposal to put international armed force behind a worldwide demand for Iraqi compliance with weapons inspections. Before American (and Iraqi) lives are forfeited again, there will be an international debate - whether the armchair warriors and unilateralist hawks like it or not.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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British Election George W. Bush Iraq John F. Kerry D-mass.