War and Uncertainty Symposium: On Democratic Ground: New Perspectives on John Hart Ely: War and Responsibility

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Center on Global Governance


When the current phase of our conflict with Iraq began in March 2003, much was unknown. Our political leaders based the case for war on the conviction that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that had not been eliminated despite twelve years of grinding sanctions. Congress voted in October 2002 to authorize renewed use of military force against Iraq,' acting on the basis of representations by the Bush Administration that Iraq had been actively concealing WMD stockpiles and programs from the United Nations inspectors who had a mandate to verify the complete destruction of Iraq's WMD capability. Facts were alleged; evidence was proffered; inferences were drawn from the record, or from Iraq's failure to rebut what the record seemed to show. The factual premises for this war turned out to be, in a word, mistaken. Whether the case was overstated, misstated, knowingly misrepresented, or deliberately falsified was a point of debate in the campaign season of 2004. The tale is dismaying but all too familiar. We can recognize a pattern established by the Mexican-American, Spanish-American, and Indochina Wars: The President of the United States goes to Congress with an assertion of an outrage that cannot be ignored and that requires a prompt and decisive forcible response. Congress accepts the Executive's claim without much inquiry into whether the factual premises are well founded and approves the initiation of combat. War ensues; the world is transformed; the facts, however, turn out to be different from how they were portrayed when Congress acted.

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