President Bush's public shift of objectives on Iraq, from regime change to disarmament, may have been necessary to win over the French and Russians and end his administration's internal quarreling. But it risks isolating a broad constituency, both in the United States and Europe, for whom the campaign against Saddam Hussein makes sense not as a narrow exercise in American self-defense but as a mission of morality and human rights.
The weekend's footage of inspectors poking through Iraqi industrial installations may be viewed triumphantly by Kofi Annan and the U.N. Security Council, but it offers little to the Democratic and Republican internationalists, and their allies in Europe and the Middle East, for whom Iraqi disarmament means little on its own. The Bush administration's insistence that there are meaningful connections between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda strike many in this broad group as dubious; some even wonder if Iraq's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons will turn out to be as large and threatening as the White House suggests -- assuming, that is, that Hans Blix's inspectors manage to find it.
What is undeniable is that Saddam Hussein today commands one of the world's most brutal apparatuses of repression, one that is demonstrably guilty of some of the most significant war crimes since World War II. A campaign aimed at ending those crimes, and offering Iraqis the liberation that multinational coalitions brought to Kosovo and Afghanistan, is fundamentally appealing in a way that a narrow hunt for weapons is not. So is a political transformation of Iraq that, unlike the possible dismantlement of a few rusting Scud missiles, has the potential to catalyze a long-overdue liberalization of the Middle East.
There are, of course, a few senior policymakers in the Bush team for whom such a transformation has been a fundamental aim all along. But they are countered in the internal debate by those who insist on viewing the globe through the narrow prism of WMD "threats" -- and neutralized by a State Department lobby, which, like the West Europeans, sees containment-through-inspections as the best answer to Saddam Hussein. That makes disarmament the lowest-common-denominator Bush goal -- at least for now -- and rules out tactics that could win a far larger following for the Iraq campaign.
Rather than indicting Saddam Hussein for war crimes or offering a detailed plan for democratization, Bush spokesmen have been reduced to saying that if the dictator cooperates with the United Nations, he will effectively have "changed his regime" -- a spin-doctor's formulation that neatly disregards the 23 million people he rules.
Such reasoning may be welcomed by America's old Cold War partners, whether in NATO or beyond, who would cling at any price to "stability" in the Middle East. Yet it alienates our newer, and in many cases more passionate allies -- including the newly democratized nations of the post-Cold War world. For countries that struggled against Soviet domination, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is not a figment of Yankee imperialism but a moral cause to be embraced.
The recent NATO summit in Prague, which resulted in the alliance's inclusion of seven more members from formerly Communist Europe, made manifest the disparity in the ways the two former halves of Europe now regard the United States. Old allies grudgingly go along with containment of Iraq but dismiss American ambitions to transform the region; the new allies, many of whom have recently shaken off decades of despotism to become democracies, tend to see the extension of liberty to the Middle East as a natural sequel.
Their most eloquent spokesman is Vaclav Havel, the outgoing Czech president, who for decades led the seemingly quixotic cause of liberation in his own country. Unlike his French or German counterparts, Havel has no qualms about using the word "evil" to describe threats such as Saddam Hussein -- and in a bold address during the summit, he grappled with the question of whether the answer to them is preemptive action.
"I have usually leaned toward the opinion that evil should be combated in its germinal stages rather than in its developed form, and also toward the belief that human life, human freedom and human dignity represent higher values than state sovereignty," Havel began. That, he pointed out, is the first great lesson of Czech history, because the country was a victim of Western Europe's decision to appease rather than confront Adolf Hitler. Yet the other lesson comes from the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia: Launched in the name of preserving the socialist status quo in Eastern Europe, its effect was to crush human rights.
Intervention, Havel concluded, is justified -- provided "an envisioned action would really be an act helping people against a criminal regime and protecting humankind against its weapons" and not the preservation of a bad international order.
By that standard, there should be little doubt where the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would fall -- and some question about an inspections system that aims to perpetuate the status quo. If only the Bush administration would fully embrace such Havelian logic.