TCS Daily

'The Duty of the Living'

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - September 20, 2002 12:00 AM

The commemoration of the September 11th terrorist attacks was a time for Americans to look back on all they had gone through on that terrible day when terrorism struck the United States, and all we have been through since then. Ordinary citizens and world leaders honored those who were lost, comforted those who mourn, and spoke to the challenges that are still ahead.

It is proper that we continue to recall "the character of the onslaught against us," as Franklin Roosevelt said of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The past is prologue, which means that Americans must always remember it. For those of us who are still relatively young, we will surely explain the details of September 11th to our children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren if we live old enough to see and know them.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that with the passing of the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks we have also passed a particular milestone. While it is right to continue to remember the past, we must now look towards future struggles and challenges in the war against terrorism.

No more symbolic example of America's determination to move forward in the war against terrorism could have existed than President Bush's speech to the United Nations General Assembly precisely one day after the September 11th commemorations-a speech that focused on the threat posed to the civilized world by Saddam Hussein's regime. In his comments before the General Assembly, and in subsequent remarks, the President rightfully (and skillfully) changed the focus of the conflict with Iraq.

Too many people had portrayed that conflict as one between Iraq and the United States exclusively. The President reminded the world body that the true conflict was between Iraq and the United Nations. After all, it is the United Nations that Iraq defies when it refuses to cooperate in inspections of its suspected stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. It is the United Nations that Iraq defies when it fails to live up to the terms of the cease-fire resolutions that marked the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. And it is the United Nations' credibility that is at stake in the current conflict. If the UN cannot enforce its own resolutions, and if it is unwilling to endorse the exercise of American power to put teeth in those resolutions, it will, as the President warned in subsequent comments, become "irrelevant."

And what a difference a speech makes. The President's remarks won plaudits and praise from many quarters, including bipartisan praise at home. Both Senator Joseph Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt joined Republicans in issuing strong words of support for the President's remarks. And it had a salutary effect abroad. Egypt, which previously took a hardline against any military action designed to oust Saddam Hussein, now says that it will support military action if it garners U.N. approval. This is a significant shift. Additionally, the Russians and the Chinese have also come out with statements that demand Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions. The French have softened their stance against military action as well (a softening which is assisted by the fact that President Jacques Chirac no longer has to cohabit with a leftist government).

The President's speech also served to situate the United States as a protector of the U.N.'s integrity and relevance by offering to use American power to back up the binding resolutions that the U.N. passed regarding Iraq. It clearly and starkly laid out the challenge that has been posed to the international community by Iraq's continued obsession with obtaining weapons of mass destruction, as well as Iraq's sponsorship of international terrorist elements. The speech also served to put the world on notice that America would act if the international community dithered.

For as long as the debate over what to do about Iraq has raged, certain pundits have argued incessantly that the United States could not, and should not do anything to Iraq militarily unless it had the support of an international coalition. The address to the General Assembly made clear the stake the international community has in removing the threat that Saddam Hussein poses. It answered the endless call of critics for the Bush Administration to "make its case" regarding Iraq. The case has been made with the September 12th speech. It will likely continue to be made in the coming weeks and months. Now, the only recourse left for critics of the Administration's policy regarding Iraq is to say that they disagree with the case. They can no longer claim that the Bush Administration has not presented solid evidence of why Saddam Hussein's regime should be considered a threat, and why it should be removed as a result. In all likelihood, the evidence of the dangers that Saddam's regime poses will mount in coming weeks and months.

Now, of course, will come the hard work of implementing the substance of the President's speech as policy. In its dealings with other nations, the Administration should try to build a coalition if it can. But a coalition will only be worthwhile if it is built around an existing and clear mission to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. The United States should work to coalesce nations around the substance of the President's speech-around a policy-rather than assembling a coalition and allowing it to dictate the terms of the mission to American policymakers. The Administration appears prepared to allow the mission to determine the coalition, rather than the other way around. This is the proper approach to take.

On the domestic front, the Bush Administration should give its critics and detractors exactly what they have always wanted: a full and frank debate regarding what to do about Saddam Hussein. Such a debate should be part and parcel of the current congressional session leading up to the fall campaign. The prospect of a war with Iraq is an entirely legitimate political issue to be considered by the voters. They deserve to know where their elected Representatives and Senators stand on the issue. Additionally, the sooner the debate is joined, the sooner American policymakers will have a plan in place to determine what to do about Iraq. For these reasons, Congress should entertain a debate on American policy regarding Iraq, and it should hold a straight up or down vote on whether the Administration is authorized to use force, before Representatives and Senators go home to pursue their reelection campaigns.

In a recent editorial, The New Republic castigated congressional Democrats for appearing to run away from a debate on Iraq, and for seeking to turn public attention exclusively to domestic political issues. No one argues that domestic issues should not be a topic on the campaign trail. But domestic issues should not be used as some sort of escape from confronting the prospect of a war with Iraq. Others may argue that the Democrats are not guilty of the sins that The New Republic editorial accuses them of. At the very least, however, Democrats should not allow themselves to appear desperate to avoid a public debate on Iraq. If such a debate is not held, it will deprive the voters of information they will want to know about the stances of their Representatives and Senators. It will also hamper the implementation and execution of a cogent foreign policy regarding Iraq. And if Democrats prevent a debate from being held, it will make them appear unduly partisan and obstructionist.

Having marked a solemn anniversary, it is now the duty and obligation of the United States to look ahead to the challenges we currently face. The President's September 12th speech was a good start to focusing the minds of Americans and people around the world upon the threats of tomorrow. And of course, it must be remembered that responding to the threats of tomorrow is the best way to honor the memory of those who died on September 11th, 2001. As Lori McMaster Bujold put it, "The dead cannot cry out for justice; it is a duty of the living to do it for them."



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