One of the more memorable scenes in The Godfather is the summit meeting of the heads of the organized crime "Families" that control different "territories" across North America. When the veracity of Don Corleone's account of events is disputed by his rival Don Tattaglia, the chair of the meeting intervenes to say, "We don't need to give each other assurances, as if we were lawyers."
The Bush Administration is no doubt regretting that the American penchant for legal exactness is complicating its attempts to rally other states behind the banner of a campaign against Iraq. For the last two weeks, within the pages of this weekly, the calls from Beijing, London, Moscow, and Paris have all consistently reiterated one theme: show us incontrovertible proof. Present to us and to the world the unimpeachable facts that Saddam Hussein is pursuing weapons of mass destruction and that he plans to use them in the near future, either against his neighbors or the United States.
To its credit, the administration appears to have abandoned efforts to try and portray Hussein as the ultimate mastermind behind the September 11th attacks. It also has resisted the temptation to which the previous administration so often succumbed, of playing fast and loose with the truth, especially in the run-up to the Kosovo air campaign--anyone remember the claims of "100,000 Kosovar Albanians" supposedly exterminated by Milosevic, necessitating NATO intervention? Hundreds of thousands were expelled from their homes, of course, but after, not before, the bombs began falling.
By presenting a report to an emergency session of the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has provided an invaluable service to President Bush, by laying the foundation of the case that must be made. (The document, "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government", is available at http://cnn.org/2002/WORLD/europe/09/24/uk.iraq/iraqdossier.pdf). Nevertheless, even this comprehensive report cannot provide exact numbers and figures (e.g. number of SCUD missiles, tons of agents at hand, precise delivery mechanisms, and so on), and so it too lacks the "smoking gun" that the Bush team needs to cement its case.
The irony is that the administration is in this position largely because the United States has, in the past, demanded "incontrovertible" proof from other states claiming to face terrorist threats. Even after September 11th, the United States still declined to enter into a "gentlemen's agreement" with the other leading powers to accept at face value their claims about terrorist activities. The Russian evidence of the "trail" of money, weapons, and recruits from Al-Qaeda and the Gulf, or of the presence of terrorist elements in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia; or the Chinese contention about the links of Uighur separatist groups to Al-Qaeda, were subjected to careful and prolonged scrutiny and challenge. Just as the previous administration declined to capture Osama Bin Laden in 1996 because of the judgment a credible case could not be mounted in federal court against him (as documented by Ruth Wedgwood in the winter 2001/02 issue of The National Interest), so it seems that this administration fell into the trap of assuming that domestic legal standards of proof had to be applied to the claims advanced by our international partners.
There is a cost, however, to this legal purity. Quiet demarches and principled considerations of the interests of other states cannot take place in such an atmosphere. Why should the Russians accommodate American concerns about Iran's possible nuclear-weapons program, for example? Show me the proof, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov declares. If the administration has proof but fears disclosing sensitive intelligence sources, or has no hard facts (only reasonable suspicions), it cannot fulfill this request. As a result, differences over Iran will continue to act as a stumbling block to the further evolution of the Russo-American partnership.
Demand for "proof" can also backfire, if the proof is actually presented. Yasir Arafat's defenders long maintained that he was the only effective bulwark to hold back the influence of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad among the Palestinian populace--until Arafat's own complicity in the suicide bombing campaigns was revealed. The Palestinians now face a crisis of leadership, as their chief public interlocutor is increasingly unacceptable to the United States and Israel as a genuine partner in the peace process.
It remains to be seen what the impact will be of the package prepared by Russian intelligence services and delivered to the White House, reportedly demonstrating the links between Chechen separatists and the government of Georgia. Perhaps some of the items are questionable in their authenticity, or subject to interpretation. Nevertheless, if what was delivered includes things such as authenticated transcripts of telephone intercepts, Washington will be placed in a difficult position. By failing to act, the administration risks its credibility in the ongoing war against terrorism, not to mention the efforts to persuade the UN Security Council to authorize a new resolution vis-à-vis Iraq.
No one is suggesting we abandon the time-honored principle of the Reagan Administration ("trust, but verify") or hand out blank checks in the war on terror and allow other states to fill in any and all domestic opponents. However, forging effective relationships with other states that are designed to increase the security of the United States requires that Washington, in turn, accommodate the security concerns of its partners. Those who reject this self-evident truth because few other nations would pass their purity test endanger American interests and American lives. Now is not the time for diplomats to be acting like lawyers.
Nikolas Gvosdev is the editor of In the National Interest.