DON'T BE FOOLED by Colin Powell. With testimony before the UN Security Council last week, the secretary of state brought many formerly ambivalent politicians and pundits into the war party. But that is a measure of how callow the entire American debate over war against Iraq has been. The question is not whether Saddam Hussein is up to no good. Powell's indictment confirmed the Iraqi's malfeasance, although with no surprises and no demonstration of immediate threat. The question, rather, is what to do about Saddam's malevolence.
Don't be fooled by Donald Rumsfeld, either. The secretary of defense said in Munich on Saturday, ''The risks of war need to be balanced against the risks of doing nothing while Iraq pursues weapons of mass destruction.'' Just as Powell fudged on what the question is, Rumsfeld fudged on there being no alternative to war. Ongoing and ever more robust inspections, like those proposed by France and Germany, are an alternative to war. Containment is an alternative to war. And an aggressive application of the principles of international law is an alternative to war.
Powell's prosecutorial summary of the case against Saddam should have been prelude not to further warmongering but to a legal indictment of the Iraqi leader for crimes against humanity. In what court, you ask, and under what jurisdiction? America's imminent war takes on an absurd -- and also tragic -- character in the light of what else is happening right now. Last week the International Criminal Court was initiated with the formal election of judges. Next month the court will be official. Its purpose is exactly to deal with offenses like those of which Saddam stands accused. A forceful indictment in such a forum, followed by a trial, verdict, and world-enforced sentence, has an unprecedented potential for a laser-like release of transforming moral energy.
The court intends on the world scene what has already happened within nations -- the replacement of violent force with the force of law. A true alternative to war.
But the 139 nations that signed the agreement no longer include the United States, since George W. Bush ''unsigned'' that treaty early in his term. The US refusal to participate in the new world court makes it irrelevant to the present crisis, but that refusal also lays bare the world's gravest problem -- an American contempt for the creation of alternatives to war.
The most important reason to be skeptical of the Bush administration's claim of necessity has nothing to do with Saddam. It has to do with Bush's own palpable predisposition in favor of war, and when the casus belli is in dispute, predisposition counts for everything.
Powell's performance at the UN was compared to Adlai Stevenson's in 1962, but war was averted in the Cuban crisis, as it had been in the Berlin crisis the year before, precisely because John F. Kennedy's predisposition inclined him away from war, not toward it.
Kennedy's inaugural address, which is often misremembered as a Cold War call to arms, was a straightforward challenge to create new structures of peace. He proposed a litany of political change -- an extension of the ''writ'' of the UN, ending the arms race, replacing the ''balance of power (with) a new world of law,'' a new trust in negotiation (''never fear to negotiate''), an affirmation that ''civility is not a sign of weakness.'' On each of those points -- the UN, the arms race, international law, negotiations, even civility -- the Bush administration has reversed the momentum that began with Kennedy.
And as for war, in the most misremembered passage of all, Kennedy made his repudiation explicit: ''Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need, not as a call to battle, though embattled we are, but the call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out . . . a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.''
War itself the enemy. Not the sentiment of ''idealists,'' but the supremely pragmatic conclusion of men and women who saw the horrors of war played out in the 20th century. In rejecting Bush's war, France and Germany honor that memory today, as do the creators of the International Criminal Court. ''War never again!'' Pope Paul VI declared -- also at the United Nations -- in 1965. When he cried, ''No more war!'' a generation of world leaders cheered him -- all but one. Then, too, in that autumn of Rolling Thunder, an American president defied the universal longing for another way. But the pope did not hesitate to cite ''a great man now departed, John Kennedy'' against the warmonger in Washington, and neither do I.
''Mankind must put an end to war,'' the pope recalled Kennedy saying, ''or war will put an end to mankind.''
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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