The verbal fight about the search for weapons in Iraq is a waste of words.
This fractious debate, like the search for the weapons themselves, is a red herring -- a diversion from the real reasons for war. Oddly, those who oppose the war are trapped by the inspection regime's logic every bit as much as President Bush is.
We know that Saddam Hussein produced chemical and biological weapons in the past. It is quite likely that he still has some of each. Whether or not they can be located in the next few weeks is unimportant, since Mr. Bush seems determined to go to war regardless.
The Bush administration has become beholden to the weapons issue as the pretext for war, however, so the rationales for invading a sovereign country are spinning on that pivot. They have gone so far as to fabricate "evidence," as with the now-discredited charge that aluminum tubes found in Iraq can be used in a nuclear weapons program.
Similar, wafer-thin exhibits will regularly be displayed, as they were by Secretary Powell at the United Nations on Feb. 5. This is the trap for Bush: Needing international support, he went through the United Nations process that was constructed around the matter of weapons of mass destruction. He must play by those rules or appear to be flouting allies, law and domestic opinion.
But he also is flouting long-standing U.S. foreign policy habits -- namely, the notion that we cannot undertake something as grave as war without proving that the action is to protect our national security.
Few believe that Hussein can threaten the United States directly, particularly when U.N. inspectors are swarming over his country. This is why, apart from pure emotional manipulation, the president is now trotting out the also-weak link to al Qaeda terrorists.
For their part, anti-war arguments have in part stressed the need to "give inspections a chance." This sentiment grants too much to the ostensible rationale and not enough to the real value -- containment -- of the inspection effort. But it also diverts from the real reasons for war and the ways in which the United States is getting to its brink. So the first question is, why war?
"Regime change" is the correct answer. Regime change not because Saddam is such a nasty fellow, but because the United States wants a platform in the Arab world to discipline its monarchies, petty despots and religious cranks. It wants a wealthy country in the middle of the region that will be a model for American-led globalization.
That is one of the key differences between the North Korea case and the Iraq case. North Korea does not have to be a model for such economic development: It is surrounded by them. Iraq provides a very attractive option for the Bush warriors for a number of reasons: Iraq has oil, an illegitimate and bloodthirsty ruler, and a history of conflict with the United States.
Of course, it is easier to wage war against a state than against a network of terrorists, so Iraq has become the diversion par excellence from the sputtering war against terrorism.
In getting to this point, however, the Bush administration has burned many bridges, and appears intent on igniting more.
It has flouted international law and presented false testimony. It has bullied or bribed countries to participate in the war, including fragile democracies like Turkey. It has created a deep rift with many key allies in Europe and elsewhere. It is recklessly admonishing the U.N. Security Council by insisting that it embrace American belligerency or self-destruct via irrelevance.
It appears a hypocrite on a number of counts: War on Iraq and not North Korea sends an unmistakable signal to Muslims; the United States itself violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by not honoring the Article 6 demand to disarm; and the United States has often supported terrorist groups when it served a purpose, to name three. It says this is not about oil, when everything of political significance in the Persian Gulf has to do with oil.
This is what the anti-war activists should decry: We are going to war for American economic and political interests, not national security, and we are doing so by cutting a swath of political damage that might never be repaired.
Hypocrisy, falsehoods, venality, lawlessness, bullying and violence? Is this what we've come to? That is the best case against the war, and irrefutable by the warriors.
John Tirman is program director at the Social Science Research Council at Mississippi State University and the author of Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade.