Iraq: no endgame

Robert Novak

2/26/2001 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- One week after the escalated U.S.-British bombing of Iraq, silence pervades the normally garrulous capital. There has been little approbation and hardly any criticism from Congress. Most significantly, the new administration has not explained why it is violating Secretary of State Colin Powell's stricture that every U.S. military venture needs an endgame. The silence on the Potomac can be traced partly to a basic reticence by President Bush and his associates to share plans. But in this case, there appears to be no plan and no endgame. Diplomatic and intelligence sources indicate Bush was reacting to Saddam Hussein's heightened military activity, which in turn anticipated the change of government in Washington Jan. 20. Bush immediately called the Feb. 16 bombing a "routine mission." Indeed, the stepped-up bombardment signals no clear change from the Clinton administration's containment policy. The anti-Iraq coalition is no more, and Saddam has restored himself in the Arab world with stronger backing from Russia and China. The Bush administration has no plan to implement its desired removal of the Iraqi dictator, and no willingness to change direction toward a negotiated settlement. Private sources knowledgeable about Iraq believe George W. Bush's victory over Al Gore shocked Saddam. In mid-December, Iraqi troops were on the move in both the south and the north. By mid-January, Saddam was repositioning surface-to-air missile sites. The missiles were being fired at Anglo-American air patrols, then quickly moved away. Was the new American chief-of-state, son of Saddam's arch-enemy, being tested? The Bush team certainly thought so. New bombing by the U.S.-U.K. remnant of the former Gulf War coalition actually began immediately after Bush's Jan. 20 inauguration, nearly a month before the Feb. 16 assault. The Bush administration has offered no broader justification than protection of American and British pilots (which was not assured by the admittedly less than successful raid). It refused to permit any of its officials to appear on Sunday television two days after the bombing. The president's own explanation at his first press conference last Thursday was uncommunicative, asserting only the goal of strengthening anti-Iraqi sanctions at a time when former coalition partners are abandoning them. Actually, there is no doubt that Bush's overriding desire is to get rid of Saddam, a goal his father hoped Operation Desert Storm would achieve. National security expert Richard Perle, an unofficial Bush adviser, flatly predicts that the Iraqi president will be gone within a year. That surely won't be accomplished by military action that would require a minimum of 250,000 U.S. troops and guarantee the world's disapproval. Nor is there any chance of repeating the prolonged bombing by the Western alliance that ultimately drove Slobodan Milosevic from power in Serbia. But Perle believes, along with key Bush administration figures, that a U.S.-financed opposition in Iraq can drive Saddam from power. No specialist familiar with Iraq agrees with that. Rather, Saddam is breaking free from isolation. The Bush team publicly condemns Iraq's help from Russia and China, but maintains discreet silence about Iraq's signing free trade agreements late in January with coalition members Egypt and Syria, as well as Jordan. Saudi Arabia broke precedent by publicly criticizing the latest bombing. Statfor.com, the authoritative private intelligence source, reported on Feb. 16: "Saddam Hussein has succeeded in seizing momentum and redefining his country's ties to the outside world." On Jan. 17, senior Iraqi diplomat Nizar Hamdoon welcomed "any meaningful approach that goes beyond the bombing and the use of force." A Clinton Cabinet member, who declined use of his name, told me last week: "I think the time has come to end sanctions. The Arab world is about to link oil prices with our policy in Iraq." Bush shows little inclination to travel that road, particularly in view of the silence on Capitol Hill. The only member of Congress on record criticizing the Feb. 16 bombing was Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who said: "I think it is wrong ... to take this extraordinary action without the direct support and consultation with the United States Congress as well as the United Nations." Without sniping from more Rangels, George W. Bush may follow Bill Clinton down Iraq's blind alley, but with greater gains for Saddam Hussein.