The Washington Times

Three weeks from the onset of hostilities until the fall of Baghdad has to come as a relief. The reason to pursue “regime change” in Iraq was never that it would be an easy target for regime change, even though some people thought the military action would proceed swiftly to a certain conclusion, namely victory. But, even forecasts of victory made room for any number of nasty sideshow scenarios, from hundreds of burning oil wells, to chemical attacks by Scud on Israel, to a shooting war between Turkey and the Kurds in Northern Iraq to terror attacks in the region and beyond [i.e., in Europe or the United States] by Saddam’s covert operatives. Very rational but unmaterialized fears, all of them. If it wouldn’t upset the Europeans so, one might even be tempted to say “thank God.”

No, the reason the Saddam regime had to go was that its perpetuation in power would have posed too many dangers. In Iraq, we had a brutal police state whose ruler had a rich history of aggressive action and was bent on the acquisition of chemical, biological and ultimately nuclear weapons. The chance of the covert use of such weapons, including by transfer to terrorist groups, was unacceptably high over time. A properly executed change of regime would end the threat indefinitely and serve as a warning to others about the seriousness with which the United States now takes the combination of characteristics that Saddam’s Iraq exhibited.

When people want to know what “preemption” means as an element of the “National Security Strategy,” they now have an example, and they should pay careful attention to it. It applies so narrowly but nevertheless so devastatingly to the problems of the world that it only barely rises to the level of a “doctrine.” Yet, it does so rise: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq may have been the most urgent matter facing the United States, but Baghdad is not the only possible intersection of brutality at home, a history of aggression abroad and the hot pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

In the international give-and-take leading to the unanimous passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, French diplomats were especially proud of narrowing the U.S. focus. The United States ceased to speak of “regime change” and instead accepted that what was at stake in this particular case was disarming Saddam, whose possession of weapons of mass destruction the Security Council had long ago pronounced unacceptable. In other words, we ceased to have a conversation about when “regime change” might be justifiable and necessary, instead focusing on the narrower question of the particular case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

We could not, in the end, agree with the French about this. Though the French insist their stance remained consistent throughout, it seems clear to most of official Washington that the French position either veered sharply off course in January [the relatively benevolent and in my view correct interpretation] or was duplicitous from the start. Viewed dispassionately, however, the 1441 diplomacy was useful for its tight focus on the particular case of Saddam’s Iraq and how a regime in “material breach” of its obligations had a “final opportunity” to avoid “serious consequences.” Regime change and preemption are not actions the United States has ever had any intention of pursuing willy-nilly around the globe on the slightest pretext. I won’t say that the particular circumstances of Iraq yielded specific criteria that will have to be met identically in all future cases. But, Iraq does well illustrate what the United States considers to be a problem so grave as to justify war.

Now, however, might be a good time to revisit regime change as a more general question. The United States, in conjunction with the United Kingdom, has just placed an enormous new fact on the table, namely, the swift removal of a literally toxic regime by military means. Other nations are now going to have to decide what they think about future action in similar cases, should they arise [and the likelihood is that they will].

Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of the American Society of International Law, proposed in an op-ed in the Washington Post Sunday that the Security Council pass a resolution saying force would be justified if three criteria are met: “1] possession of weapons of mass destruction or clear and convincing evidence of attempts to gain such weapons; 2] grave and systematic human rights abuses sufficient to demonstrate the absence of any internal constraints on government behavior; and 3] evidence of aggressive intent with regard to other nations.”

This would be a good point at which to begin the discussion. Who agrees and who disagrees with Professor Slaughter? I find it highly improbable that the United States will be marching off to war so soon in the absence of the fulfillment of those three criteria. The question is whether others are willing to help set a standard that, properly promulgated, might actually help deter unacceptably dangerous behavior similar to that of Saddam’s Iraq.