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COLUMN LEFT : A Quick Way to Nuke World Consensus : If Iraq's atomic capability is held out as a pretext for war, what about Israel's?

November 25, 1990|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

In any prospective plunge towards war in the gulf, President Bush has been inhibited by two factors: the lack of any U.N. mandate for the use of force beyond the sanctions imposed by the Security Council and the firm stance of domestic opinion in the United States, which is strongly opposed to any escalation.

In their recent international tours, Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker have been striving to rally support for a new U.N. Security Council resolution permitting military action to evict Iraq from Kuwait.

Bush and Baker can claim some success in their efforts. For some of the desperately poor African nations serving their tours in the 15-member council, straightforward bribery seems to have sufficed. This, too, may have been a factor in the minds of the Soviet leaders looking for aid in the grim winter ahead. Both Mikhail Gorbachev and his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, offered language suggesting that they might go along with a new Security Council resolution. In Cairo last Friday, President Hosni Mubarak seemed to soften his previously clear insistence that Egyptian troops could not be used for any purpose beyond defense of Saudi Arabia.

There is less to boast about when it comes to major capitalist powers. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl insists that his government is opposed to the use of force. Japan, terrified of another bout of Japan-bashing, is saying as little as possible, but remains clearly opposed to force. (The French are, as usual, talking out of both sides of their mouth.)

A new Security Council resolution on the use of force against Iraq could come to a vote this week. Its language, clotted with cautionary subordinate clauses, hedged with sibylline provisos, could still allow Bush to boast that he has the mandate he desires. Such claims should be regarded with caution, since in the resolutions already passed by the Security Council in this crisis there has been a considerable gap between the texts and the construction placed on them by the U.S. government.

But simultaneously there has been the hunt for domestic consensus, and here Bush has faced an entirely different problem. Unlike his predecessors in the White House since the end of World War II, he has not been able to invoke the Red Menace as pretext for military action. Since it is impossible to cite the real reasons for armed intervention--control of oil, supervision of "world order" by force or the threat of force--Bush has fallen dismally short in offering the nation a persuasive rationale for going to war.

There are signs that the White House may now be seizing a path of opportunity out of its difficulties. It is one fraught with peril.

In polls displaying Americans' opposition to war, the only point on which they seem as strong as Bush against Iraq is that a nuclear arsenal under the control of Saddam Hussein is a matter of legitimate concern, even to the point of intervention. Bush may be seeking to make this his pivot for the consensus that every politician and editorialist is urging him to find.

But if Iraq's presumptive nuclear arsenal is the animating factor in any march to war, then Kuwait becomes irrelevant. Saddam Hussein could order his troops out tomorrow and the situation would not change, except that any international consensus would immediately dissolve.

Not merely the Arab nations would remind Bush of the following: As recently as April, Saddam Hussein called for the removal from the Middle East of all weapons of mass destruction--chemical, biological and nuclear--only to have his call dismissed by Washington and Tel Aviv. Iraq was one of the earliest signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and under that treaty's provisions has accepted inspections of nuclear facilities that might be of military significance. It recently invited another such inspection.

These inspections are not conclusive, and suspicions were aroused by the interception at London's Heathrow Airport of equipment bound for Iraq that may have been destined for use as nuclear "triggers." But the answer is plainly more rigorous inspection under the terms of the non-proliferation treaty.

Similarly shattering to any international consensus, particularly in the Arab world, would be the fact that an unquestioned nuclear power in the region is Israel, which has always refused to sign the treaty.

Weighing against both of these White House strategies--the Security Council route and the manipulation of domestic opinion--there remains the sensible present policy of sanctions, on which there is genuine consensus and which over the months will take their proper toll.

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