Flimsy rhetoric does not justify expanding war

Administration comments since the president’s “axis of evil” speech have prompted some foreign policy observers to suspect the president is setting the stage for an invasion of Iraq. But neither alluding to the “axis” nor indicting foreign states as “evil” justifies invading Iraq.

In World War II, as now, the United States and its allies faced a powerful enemy that, perceiving threats to its culture from the Western democracies, began an all-out global war. But the advancing soldiers of that war carried the flags of their national governments, were clearly identified with them and were subject to their orders. Convenient as it might be to ascribe to Iraq and other “rogue states” that much control over the terrorists groups they fund and support, the clandestine nature of these organizations and the diversity of their fluctuating funding sources ensure any given government can at best hope to influence only particular decisions. No credible evidence even suggests the world’s terrorist cells dance for a puppetmaster in Baghdad.

If the president hoped invoking the “axis” metaphor would give the war on terrorism the moral legitimacy and sense of high purpose associated with World War II, he chose his historical parallel poorly. U.S. entry into World War II was restrained, disguised in the elaborate pretext of lend-lease and subjected to much criticism. Only after the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, did the American people support entering the war. A nation’s right to go to war under those circumstances can hardly be extended to justify attacking a nation only nominally and distantly related to the events of Sept. 11.

Nor does slapping the vague label “evil” on foreign states help the case for attacking Iraq. Three and a half centuries of international law since the Peace of Westphalia have been based on the principle that nations may not attack each other simply for being “evil.” National boundaries, though often arbitrary and produced by complex chains of events, are nonetheless a thin layer of order preventing the world from devolving into perpetual and unending battles for territory.

No justification presently exists for U.S. violation of this delicate ribbon holding the pieces of civilization together. The United States judged an invasion of Iraq unjustified during the Persian Gulf War, refused to mount a large-scale attack when Iraq refused to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors, and declined to launch all but the most symbolic of possible counterstrikes after Iraq fired on American planes enforcing the U.N. no-fly zones. Without some deal-breaking development, a U.S. decision that Iraq’s flimsy and distant links to the Sept. 11 attacks suddenly warrant large-scale military action can scarcely be anything but taking advantage of a charged situation.

As foreign leaders balk at echoing the “axis” rhetoric and the international press excoriates the president’s inflammatory statements, evidence builds that the “evil” roaming the world is not as self-evident as the president’s simplistic comments depict it. Americans and their leaders would do well to realize this before they commit the nation’s armed services against an enemy more powerful and resolved than the one they have just defeated.