Though Ritter, a former Marine who served in the Gulf War, called Saddam Hussein a “psychopath,” he urged the nation not to rush to judgment or to practice “vigilante justice.”
His stop at Harvard was part of a speaking tour that will lead him next to Britain, where Ritter plans to support efforts backing further weapons inspections prior to military action.
“Friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” Ritter said. “And I’m going to tell [the British] that we have a drunk at the wheel of American foreign policy.”
Ritter said that while he agreed the U.S. should hesitate to trust a historically deceitful Iraq, it would be wrong not to allow Iraq to prove its good faith this time.
“[Hussein] has to be held accountable to the law,” Ritter said. “But the law says if he cooperates, he’s off the hook.”
The law, United Nations Security Council Resolution 687, demands that the Iraqis comply with a mandate of 100 percent disarmament and provide weapons inspectors with unfettered access, but it does not provide for regime change—which is the Bush administration’s stated objective.
Consequently, Ritter said, any U.S. military action to that end undertaken without prior Security Council approval would violate international and domestic norms.
“This is a direct assault on international law,” Ritter said. “This is a direct assault on the Constitution.”
Ritter faulted the U.S. for attempting to circumvent international guidelines in order to further its own aspirations of what he called “American imperialism.” The primary means of accomplishing this objective has been the manipulation of weapons inspectors, he argued.
Contrary to the government’s claims that Saddam Hussein threw UN inspectors out of Iraq, Ritter said that Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger was actually responsible for their ejection.
Ritter said Berger got Richard Butler, the UN official in charge of overseeing the inspections, to order inspectors to inspect a non-military site in Baghdad, forcing Iraq into a position of non-compliance with the UN that forced the withdrawal of inspectors in 1998, setting the stage for a U.S. bombing campaign.
Ritter argued that the inspectors were removed in order to pre-empt their imminent report stating that Iraq had been “qualitatively disarmed,” as inspectors had not found any evidence of illegally rebuilt or retained material.
“American policy from 1991 has been regime removal over disarmament,” Ritter said. “Disarmament is only useful to the United States so long as it furthers regime removal.”
He contended that the report, had it been issued, would have brought an end to a decade of economic sanctions against Iraq that he blamed for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
Ritter’s comments were met mostly with favor by the audience.
“I’m concerned morally after 10 years of sanctions that we’ve punished these people enough,” said Bradley C. Duchaine, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology. “And I’m worried this is going to come back to haunt us.”
But some were not swayed by his arguments.
“What was a nuisance was that he was so much about law and procedure,” said audience member Francis Woehrling. “But in international situations that doesn’t apply. So we didn’t have to remove Milosevic or Hitler?”
The speech was the first in a series of biweekly seminars on the Middle East sponsored by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.