NEW DELHI — U.S. President George W. Bush is taking a big gamble with his single-minded mission to get rid of a toothless but unsavory dictator, who, far from being a menace to U.S. security, is not a threat even to his neighbors. Bush, who accuses Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein of being “a homicidal dictator addicted to weapons of mass destruction,” has raised the war rhetoric to such a level that he has left himself with little choice but to effect a regime change in Baghdad through the application of military force.

The looming attack on Iraq, coupled with Washington’s unveiling of a new doctrine of pre-emption against future threats, raises troubling questions relating to international law and international relations. While retaliation is recognized by international law as part of the sovereign right of self-defense, pre-emption seeks to turn international law on its head.

The attraction of a “winnable” war against Hussein vs. an interminable, unwinnable war against terrorism is such that the more difficult that Osama bin Laden, Mullah Mohammad Omar and other al-Qaeda-Taliban leaders have become to trace, the more dangerous and larger than life Hussein has emerged in Bush’s portrayal. America’s current policies, however, threaten to deepen the Muslim sense of humiliation and carry ominous implications for the future.

It was known from the beginning that the war on terror would succeed only if it was sustained on the basis of international consensus and long-term operations. It was also understood that if attempts were made to draw political mileage and distinctions between good and bad terrorists, the war would not yield enduring results. Furthermore, there was recognition that democratic values are the best antidote to terrorism and that their inculcation in societies steeped in religious and political bigotry would be a necessary but slow process.

Yet just a year later, after forging an unprecedented international consensus against transnational terrorism, the Bush administration is getting carried away by political expediency and narrow military and energy objectives. It was the focus on such short-term objectives in past U.S. policy that helped create the monsters that Washington now confronts, be it Hussein or bin Laden.

In the past year, the Bush administration has befriended a number of dictatorial regimes, such as those in Pakistan and Uzbekistan, and even improved ties with China. But it has allowed its relations with democratic allies and friends, including the European Union, Japan and India, to wane.

The war on terror now is going off its original course, on to a new target whose links with international terrorism are tenuous. It is for that reason that the Bush team, while continuing to search for Hussein’s links with al-Qaeda and other terrorist elements, is now publicly arraigning him on charges related to weapons of mass destruction because it knows that such weapons evoke popular revulsion across the world. Yet Bush, in his Oct. 7 address to the American people, had to admit that the nuclear threat from Iraq was a futuristic one — “it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year.”

If allowed to stay in power, Hussein, as a wounded tiger that can occasionally roar but not kill or maul, would serve U.S. interests, as he has done for the past decade and more. The United States needs “rogue” emblems to rationalize its military presence in regions of concern, its nonproliferation and export-control policies, and its sanctions approach. And Hussein is the best-known symbol of a “rogues’ gallery” whose other figures have either been defanged by U.S. policy (including Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi) or been rendered tame (like Cuban President Fidel Castro). So much so that Washington has officially dropped the term “rogue state.”

With such success, Bush ought to have kept his attention on the real rogues — al-Qaeda members still holed up in the Pakistan-Afghanistan countryside, and stepped up pressure on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for having contributed the most to the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism.

But Bush’s past seems to be guiding his present thinking. Bush and some key members of his team have old ties with the energy industry, and they are eyeing the 10 percent of the world’s oil on which Iraq sits. Their apparent goal is to install a Hamid Karzai in Baghdad.

Bush’s bellicose stance on Iraq, in fact, is driven by his successful blending of the war on terror with U.S. energy-security strategy. That has already led the U.S. to build military presence in the oil-exporting Caspian Sea basin and Central Asia and strengthen safeguards on its access to Persian Gulf oil.

In the name of fighting terror, the U.S. has set up a network of forward bases stretching from the Red Sea to the Pacific, making its forces active in the largest array of countries since World War II.

With the U.S. expected to increase its oil imports from the current rate of 10.4 million barrels a day to 16.7 million barrels per day by 2020, according to the “Cheney report” released in May last year, Bush has quietly fused the war on terror with U.S. needs to boost and diversify its access to foreign oil. This is evident from the location of new American military bases.

Bush also realizes he cannot win his war on terror before seeking re-election as president because terrorism, like poverty, is as old as humankind and will remain prevalent. But he can win a war against Iraq by deposing Hussein.

Bush no longer feels the need to “rally the world” because America’s strategic expansion gives it unparalleled reach. He is not unduly bothered by either the international criticism of his increasingly unilateralist, uncompromising approach to global issues or by the double standards he flaunts on the key issues of democracy, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

The international sympathy and open-ended license to respond that the U.S. won after 9/11 have largely been squandered. Bush has shown that the war on terror, the new offensive to oust Hussein and any other campaign would remain primarily an instrument to advance narrowly defined U.S. interests.

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