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Richard Holbrooke is the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and to Germany. He was also chief negotiator of the Dayton Accords on Bosnia. He spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on Sept. 23.

NATHAN GARDELS: The Bush administration has now formalized its post 9/11 policy into a new security doctrine calling for ''preemption'' and ''strike first'' against terrorists or sympathizing hostile states. What do you make of this?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The concept of attacking first in self-defense when a country is in imminent danger is not unusual. Israel did it in the Six Day War in 1967 and, certainly, a preemptive strike against Hitler in 1936 would have been justified and averted a much greater tragedy.

However, for the United States -- already the most powerful nation in the world that has greater means for self-defense than any other country -- to simply assert the right to attack preemptively as a blanket right is unwise. It galvanizes world opinion against us. It shifts the whole debate from the specific issue of the threat of Saddam Hussein-- which is real -- to a general right that can be twisted and easily abused. Though any president must act to defend the nation, this strike-first policy should not be put forward as a core national security concept for the United States.

GARDELS: If you don't believe in a blanket policy of preemption, what about specifically with respect to Iraq?

HOLBROOKE: Collective action against a flagrant violator of the international will as expressed by U.N. Security Council resolutions is a legitimate action that does not constitute preemption. It is enforcing U.N. Security Council resolutions that Saddam has violated. And the United States will not act alone, but with the British, the Turks and others.

Unfortunately, the president's political strategy on Iraq is damaged by his focus on this new preemptive policy.

GARDELS: You have great experience at the United Nations and know the players. Presently, the Security Council permanent five are split over a new Iraqi resolution. How will that pan out as you see it?

HOLBROOKE: In the United Nations, Britain will be with the United States. China will stand aside. The Russians don't care about Saddam or Iraq, except insofar as they want a stable regime after any war to protect their economic interests. They will ultimately go along with the United States, I believe, if that interest can be assured. Once Russia falls in line, so will France. I can't imagine them using a veto to stop something.

If, however, the Security Council fails to come up with a resolution, there is sufficient authority in violation of the existing resolutions to justify action by a ''coalition of the willing'' -- Britain, Turkey and one or two Gulf states.

As far as inspections go, they've had their day. The Iraqis cheated on them and then forced inspectors to withdraw. Even Hans Blix, the new chief inspector, argues they can't now come in again and have foolproof, airtight, no-notice, anywhere-anytime inspections.

Nevertheless, that must be the U.S. demand if for no other reason than to make clear Saddam has no intention of complying. His standard operating procedure is, at the very last minute, to offer half a loaf. But you never know. For that reason, I'd be willing to go through another round of inspections.

I do not believe, however, that the Bush administration will follow that course. It is not likely to show that kind of patience.

It is my fervent hope that the Iraqi military will recognize that their strength is one-third of what it was 12 years ago while American firepower is much more accurate than it was then. I hope they realize that they don't have a chance in this situation and the best thing for Iraq is to terminate their own dictator now, themselves, before it is too late.

GARDELS: Should it be any surprise that the German electorate is so broadly pacifistic, as demonstrated in this election, when the United States spent the last 50 years trying to make them so?

HOLBROOKE: In 1994 the German high court allowed Germans to deploy troops outside their country for the first time since 1945. Those deployments have been extremely important in Bosnia, Kosovo and now in Afghanistan. In a few months, Germany will be taking over the command of the international security forces there.

All these were important cases of Germany rejoining the international community in a responsible, not a naively pacifistic way.

The Iraq issue, unfortunately, rose to priority during the German election campaign in which the nuances of policy are never able to be discussed. So, we have now come to the point where the reelected German chancellor and the American president have a personal animosity.

This can now only be overcome by both nations re-emphasizing the enormous ties that bind.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, I note, was always more positive toward the United States than Schroeder in the campaign. And he has excellent relations with (U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell.

GARDELS: Is the relationship ''poisoned'' as both U.S. National Security Advisor) Condoleezza Rice and (U.S. Secretary of Defense) Donald Rumsfeld have said?

HOLBROOKE: The bilateral U.S.-German relationship is hardly poisoned. The two countries are extraordinarily close. They are large trading partners, and their industries are closely linked, as in the case of DaimlerChrysler and Bertelsman. Some 600,000 American work for German-owned countries and vice versa at the same level. These fundamental commercial and cultural ties are unimpaired. And we are cooperating in Afghanistan and the Balkans.

GARDELS: So, this is a political blip in the road, not part of the widening breach between Europe and the United States not only over Iraq but over Kyoto and the International Criminal Court?

This is not a fundamental crisis. But it is a serious problem because it is so personal. The personalization of policy, as in the case of Yeltsin-Clinton or Bush-Putin, can be very positive. Sometimes it can lead in negative directions. Germany today is the case in point.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 9/23/02)