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America’s top hawk answers the critics

By Richard Perle

Richard Perle is chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a key advisory board on international security to the Bush administration.

-- As the United States contemplates the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein from power, it is a critical moment to address the doubts of America’s allies, particularly in Europe, about the legitimacy of such a move.

It is an article of faith in Europe that the use of force can only be a last resort and must be legitimized by the United Nations. While such alternatives to the use of force as diplomacy and economic pressure are often preferable, this obvious point easily slides into the cliche that force must always be a last resort. In the case of Europe, resort to force is often not even the last resort because the Europeans have so little capacity to use force that it is practically excluded as a means of influencing events or effecting change.

Given the inadequate military capabilities of the Europeans, the inability to use force morphs easily into an abhorrence of the use of force.

With greater military capability, we Americans are rather more likely to consider action when our security is threatened.

The idea of force as only a last resort deserves some examination. What exactly do we mean by a ‘‘last resort’’? Do we mean that force can only be used after we have applied political and economic measures, like the sanctions we once applied to the combatants in the former Yugoslavia? Presumably, the reluctance to use force is somehow connected to a desire to save lives. Did we save lives (or improve the security of those whose lives were threatened) by imposing sanctions in the case of Bosnia? Those sanctions, applied to aggressor and victim alike, prevented Muslim victims from defending themselves. Those sanctions had the effect of concentrating lethal weaponry in the hands of the aggressors -- and tens of thousands of defenseless Muslims died as a result.

Have we improved the world’s security or dealt effectively with Saddam Hussein by imposing sanctions that have in many ways strengthened Saddam within his own country? The question of the appropriate time and circumstances to use force has to be approached with greater sophistication.

Easy disparagement of the use of force should tempered by the real world in which we’re living. There are sometimes situations that can only be dealt with effectively by the use of force. And if that can be reasonably anticipated at the outset, it is foolish, dangerous and costly to indulge in a prolonged period of ineffective political and economic measures, only to turn to military power after the situation has deteriorated and the military and human costs are so much greater.

Today, we also hear the mantra ‘‘We must work through the United Nations.’’ But is the United Nations the sole legitimizing institution when it comes to the use of force? Why the United Nations? Is the United Nations better able to confer legitimacy than, say, a coalition of liberal democracies? Does the addition of members of the United Nations -- like China, for example, or Syria -- add legitimacy to what otherwise might be the collective policy of countries that share our values? After all, when you go beyond the democracies at the United Nations, you are adding only dictatorships and totalitarian states -- lots of them.

It is a dangerous trend to consider that the United Nations, a weak institution at best, an institution that includes a large number of nasty regimes, is somehow better able to confer legitimacy than institutions like the European Union or NATO.

America’s allies and the past American administration have argued for containment and deterrence as the heart of a sound security policy. To be sure, there are situations in which containment is an entirely appropriate policy. And we all wish there was a rule book that was adhered to by everyone. But there are those who break the rules, and containment is not always effective.

Had we settled for containment of the Soviet Union, it might still be in business today. Are we -- and millions of former Soviet citizens -- not better off because the United States went beyond mere containment and challenged the legitimacy of a totalitarian Soviet Union? The ideological and moral challenge to the Soviet Union that was mounted by the Reagan administration took us well beyond containment. If containment means that a country such as Iraq, that is capable of doing great damage, is left unhindered to prepare to do that damage, then we run unnecessary, foolish and imprudent risks.


Clearly the most difficult issue straining the relationship between the United States and much of the world has to do with the American attitude toward Iraq. And the charge is that if we were to act militarily, we would be acting in a unilateral manner. But everyone recognizes the right of self-defense. The question then is: Is the danger from Saddam Hussein to the United States of such imminence that we are justified in invoking the concept of self-defense with respect to any military action that we might take?

When does a threat become imminent? When is it timely to act in self-defense? When is it appropriate to take action? Do you have to wait until the threat announces itself with an actual attack, possibly on a massive scale?

In this respect, I don’t think Europe really understands the impact of 9/11 on the United States. One of the lessons of Sept. 11 was that it is possible to wait too long. We waited too long to deal with Osama Bin Laden. We knew what was going on in Afghanistan. We observed the training camps with overhead photography; we listened to conversations among the terrorists;through various other means we were well aware that Osama bin Laden was planning attacks on the United States. He had already carried out a number of them on our embassies, garrisons and warships, to which, by the way, the feeble American response was almost certainly an incitement to further attacks, culminating in 9/11.

We don’t want to make the mistake of waiting too long again. That is what the world observes in American thinking about Iraq.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 12/16/02)