THE BUSH administration's plan for preemptive war against Iraq so flagrantly violates both international law and common morality that we need a real national debate.
The discussion should begin with the recognition that an attack on Iraq would constitute an attack on the Charter of the United Nations, since the United States would then be in violation of several provisions, beginning with Article 1, Section 4, which states: ''All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state... ''
But let us suppose that international law should not stand in the way when extraordinary circumstances demand immediate violent action. Such circumstances would exist if there were, in the language of our own Supreme Court, a ''clear and present danger'' represented by the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.
There are facts and there are conjectures about Iraq. The facts: This regime is unquestionably tyrannical; it invaded a neighboring country 12 years ago; it used chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels 15 years ago. The conjectures: Iraq may have biological and chemical weapons today. It may possibly be on the way to developing one nuclear weapon.
But none of these facts or conjectures, even if true, make Iraq a clear and present danger. The fact that Iraq is a tyranny would not, in itself, constitute grounds for preemptive war. There are many tyrannies in the world, some kept in power by the United States. Saudi Arabia is only one example. That Iraq has cruelly attacked its Kurdish minority can hardly be a justification for war. After all, the United States remained silent, and indeed was a supporter of the Iraqi regime, when it committed that act. Turkey killed thousands of its Kurds, using US weapons.
Furthermore, other nations which killed hundreds of thousands of their own people (Indonesia, Guatemala) not only were not threatened with war, but received weapons from the United States.
Iraq's history of invading Kuwait is matched by other countries, among them the United States, which has invaded Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, and Panama. True, Iraq may possess, may be developing ''weapons of mass destruction.'' But surely the possession of such weapons, if not used, does not constitute a clear and present danger justifying war.
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Other nations have such weapons. Israel has nuclear weapons. Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons and have come close to using them. And what country has by far the largest store of weapons of mass destruction in the world? And has used them with deadly consequences to millions of people: in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Southeast Asia?
There is the issue of weapons inspection. Iraq insists on certain conditions before it will allow inspections to resume. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year that ''inspectors have to go back in under our terms, under no one else's terms.'' One might ask if the United States would ever allow its biological, chemical, and nuclear facilities to be inspected, under any terms. Is there one moral standard for Iraq and another for the United States?
Before Sept. 11 there was not the present excited talk about a strike on Iraq. Why would that event change the situation? There is no evidence of any connection between Iraq and that act of terrorism. Is it possible that the Bush administration is using the fear created by Sept. 11 to build support for a war on Iraq that otherwise has no legitimate justification?
The talk of war has raised the question of American casualties, and rightly so. Are the lives of our young people to be expended in the dubious expectation that the demise of Saddam will bring democracy to Iraq? And what of the inevitable death of thousands of Iraqis, - all of them made doubly victims - first of Saddam, then of Bush? Shall we add a new death toll to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (the figures are from the UN) who have died since the application of sanctions?
A war against Iraq has no logical connection to the tragic events of Sept. 11. Rather than diminishing terrorism, such an attack would further inflame anger against the United States and may well lead to more terrorist attacks. We have a right to wonder if the motive for war is not stopping terrorism but expanding US power and controlling Mideast oil.
A preemptive war against Iraq, legally impermissible, morally unpardonable, would be a cause for shame to future generations. Let the debate begin, not just in Congress, but throughout the nation.