A coup won't do

Posted: Jan 21, 2003 12:00 AM
The current buzz is that the Saudis, Egyptians, Turks and others are plotting to have Saddam Hussein removed from power -- either voluntarily with a “golden parachute” exile package for him and his family, or involuntarily via possibly violent action. Either way, the promoters of this initiative reportedly contemplate offering amnesty for Iraqi generals who help effect “regime change” in Baghdad so as to preclude having the U.S. military accomplish it. Over the weekend, top Bush Administration officials expressed enthusiasm for this idea. As Secretary of State Colin Powell put it on CBS New’s Sunday morning program “Face the Nation”: “[If it worked,] we would have an entirely new situation presented to the international community and we might be able to avoid war.” Presumably, the Bush team is encouraging what might be called a coup in Baghdad in keeping with the President’s oft-stated position that war is the last option. A coup also happens to be the outcome that the CIA and State Department have been haplessly trying to engineer in Iraq for over a decade. Before addressing the demerits of this proposal, the cynicism of several of the foreign governments now said to be working to topple Saddam cannot go unremarked. In particular, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been among the most adamant members of the United Nations in declaring their respect for the sovereignty of Iraq and their conviction that interference in its internal affairs by any outside power is impermissible. At least the Bush Administration has made no bones about its belief that regime change is required. Still, the question occurs: Will a coup do? Would either Saddam Hussein’s voluntary or unwilling displacement from the seat of power in Baghdad accomplish the needed regime change and its necessary consequences -- namely, the liberation of the Iraqi people and an end to Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction programs? Unfortunately, the answer is almost certainly no. For starters, there is a grave danger that the only change that will occur would be to replace Saddam Hussein with some other ruthless thug. Even if the latter did not come from the Butcher of Baghdad’s immediate family (given what is known about Saddam’s sons, this is a singularly horrifying prospect), an amnesty for his subordinates would probably ensure that the next Iraqi leader is one of his henchmen, Takriti clansmen or senior officers. Such an outcome is particularly likely in view of the Saudi and Egyptian governments’ ill-concealed preference for despots. An amnesty would also amount to a free-pass for people who must, like Saddam Hussein, be held accountable for war crimes and unimaginable human rights abuses. Without such accountability and a more general program of “lustration” aimed at purging the political system of the ancien regime’s adherents, a post-Saddam Iraq will be denied the chance for real freedom. This chance was fully realized by Germany and Japan, at U.S. insistence, where lustration occurred. It remains, at best, a fragile opportunity for countries of the former Soviet empire where lustration has largely not transpired. If anything, a “regime change” that amounts to a change of face, but not of character, may give rise to an even greater danger down the road. Those who were willing to do business with Saddam will surely demand that UN-imposed sanctions on his successor’s regime be removed at once. With unchecked use of Iraq’s immense petro-wealth, the next Saddam could rapidly finish whatever build-up of weapons of mass destructions his predecessor failed to complete. And it strains credulity that such a regime will afford international inspectors, let alone U.S. military personnel, with the sort of unencumbered access to Iraq’s secret files needed if we are to learn, at last, the true status of these activities. Worst of all, if the United States is seen by the people of Iraq as once again favoring their continued enslavement, albeit by someone whose record of brutality may be less well-known than Saddam’s, we risk their permanent alienation. In the process, we would lose not only the opportunity to free one of the most industrious and capable populations in the Middle East, perhaps transforming Iraq into a prosperous and peace-loving nation. We would also squander the chance to create a model for bringing real democracy and economic opportunity to a region desperately in need of both. While such an arrangement may suit the Saudi royal family, the dictators of Syria and Egypt, the murderous mullahs in Iran, etc., it should not be seen by Americans as an acceptable substitute for the true liberation of Iraq -- the only hope for genuinely disarming that country. There are worse things than an American-led war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in the next few weeks. Chief among them would be a war that will have to be waged later, against either Saddam or a no-less-dangerous successor whom the world has foolishly allowed to pursue his tyrannical domestic policies, weapons programs and ambitions for regional domination.