By Brian Lee Crowley
Halifax Chronicle Herald

As war in Iraq grows closer, the most important question the West faces is what our attitude should be toward both the Iraqi dictator and the US-led effort to remove him from power.

Much vitriol has been directed at the United States as it prods the rest of the world to confront Saddam Hussein. Anti-American “progressives” seem now to have adopted Saddam as one of their own, presumably on the principle that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. America is portrayed as a voracious warmonger, eager to dominate Iraqi oil supplies, heedless of the cost in men and treasure.

But while America undoubtedly has material interests at stake, this caricature is surely to be dismissed out of hand. Saddam Hussein has repeatedly shown himself to be a ruthless untrustworthy dictator who poses a real and imminent danger not only to his own people, but to peace in one of the world’s most volatile regions.

How quickly people forget the unprovoked aggression of the invasion of Kuwait, the raining of Scud missiles on Israel, the use of poison gas against both Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq war and against Iraqi opposition forces, as well as the endless campaigns of harassment and environmental degradation aimed at Saddam’s Kurdish and other opponents in the northern and southern parts of his country.

The documented proof of Saddam’s program of development of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) was extensive in the post-Gulf War period, and the Iraqi leader constantly flouted the will of the United Nations by systematically stymieing the efforts of UN weapons inspectors. Ultimately those inspectors were forced to flee Iraq, their mission of finding and destroying WMDs incomplete.

This has given Saddam five untroubled years in which to develop weapons and to find new ways to hide them.

Given the long record of Saddam’s offences against international law and good behaviour, and extensive proof of both his efforts to develop WMDs and his willingness to employ them with criminal intent, the international community has not merely good reason to ensure that his regime is deprived of those weapons and the capacity to build more. It has a positive moral obligation to do so. The Americans should be commended, not pilloried, for reminding us all that such powerful weapons in the hands of someone like Saddam Hussein is a countdown to human tragedy, potentially on a vast scale.

Self-defence does not require that you wait until you are attacked. As a society we are justified in acting to prevent threats to ourselves and the international order that underpins peace and security. At the same time, we are under an obligation not to act rashly, or in a way that a reasonable person would find disproportionate to the threat.

So we have an obligation and a right to protect ourselves. Saddam Hussein represents a clear and present danger to a peaceful world order, and he has repeatedly flouted the formal orders of the world community to get rid of his WMDs in a verifiable way. But there is a problem.

Saddam knows that open and democratic societies find it difficult to rise to the moral and physical challenge of defending themselves against those who do not share their values. This is especially true when the threat is relatively abstract, rather than tanks rolling across the border today. Democratic Britain was unwilling to contemplate the horror of another war, while the Nazis re-armed. On the other hand, the West saw off the Soviet threat through decades of resolute determination to be strong enough to be militarily unassailable. By preparing for war we maintained the peace.

By driving out the weapons inspectors five years ago, Saddam introduced an element of doubt into people’s minds. He now claims that he has no WMDs, and the UN’s rather half-hearted inspectors have not yet been able to find the nuclear bombs or stores of biological or chemical weapons that would remove all doubt.

That is why the British are right to push the Americans to wait a while longer for the weapons inspectors to produce results. But if the inspectors fail to do so quickly, we must take a decision, and soon. Do we entrust our fate to the word of Saddam Hussein? Or do we act on the strong balance of probability that he’s lying and both possesses and will eventually use WMDs?

Put another way, do we want to remove a serious potential threat to international peace through a limited conflict waged by the forces of international order under the leadership of a West committed to legal and moral rules of war? Or do we want to leave open the high probability of a conflict begun by Saddam Hussein at a time and place of his choosing, likely using WMDs without compunction?

I’d rather pay now than later, thanks.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: [email protected].