Watching Iraq

Posted: Oct 17, 2001 12:00 AM
George W. Bush demonstrated in his Oct. 11 press conference why he has the potential to be a great American president. He proved that he thinks independently, even when it puts him at odds with conventional wisdom within his own administration and on Capitol Hill, especially on the subject of how the administration intends to deal with nations that have in the past sponsored terrorism or had dealings with terrorists. A reporter asked, "Is it your view that every sinner should get a chance to redeem himself - that there is, in effect, an amnesty for nations that once sponsored terrorism if they will now stop and cooperate with us?" Without hesitation, the president answered, "Of course." To illustrate, the president used Syria, one of the most notorious state sponsors of terrorism, as an example. "The Syrians have talked to us about how they can help in the war against terrorism," he said. "We take that seriously and we'll give them an opportunity to do so. I'm a performance-oriented person. I believe in results. And if you want to join the coalition against terror, we'll welcome you in. All I ask is for results. I appreciate diplomatic talk, but I'm more interested in action and results." Bush clearly understands realpolitik and has what it takes to win a war and reorient the dynamics that have been propelling the world toward an explosion. Another measure of Bush's leadership is illustrated by his answer to a reporter who asked him to comment on the pressure within the administration to "go after" Iraq, Syria and others. The president said he harbors no illusions about the current leader of Iraq, but then he offered Iraq a way to join in the fight against terrorism: "I think it's to his (Saddam Hussein's) advantage to allow inspectors back in his country to make sure that he's conforming to the agreement he made after he was soundly trounced in the Gulf War," Bush said. "And so we're watching him very carefully." As Winston Churchill said in defense of an alliance with Soviet Russia against Hitler, "If Hitler invaded hell, I'd find a good word to say about the devil." Bush said we're "watching Iraq very carefully," I believe, not only to make sure Hussein does not exploit the current upheaval to make mischief or assist Osama bin Laden but also for any signal that Iraq may be interested in opening a new chapter in its relationship with the United States and the rest of Western civilization. The president's statements put in context an event that happened as the bombing of Afghanistan was getting under way. For the first time since the Gulf War, U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte made direct contact with his Iraqi counterpart at the United Nations, Ambassador Mohammed al-Douri, to deliver the message from the United States warning Iraq not to use the current situation to take any action either against its own minorities or its neighbors. The contact did not come through circuitous diplomatic efforts but rather by the ambassador's getting into a car on a Sunday, driving over to the Iraqi U.N. Mission, knocking on the door and delivering a message to the Iraqi ambassador in person. This extraordinary action was interpreted by many as a subtle message to the world that the United States might be on the verge of widening military action into Iraq. I believe it's now clear the message intended just what it said: We are watching Iraq -- not only for signs of mischief but also for signs that Iraq might be ready to do what it takes to get on the right side of the war against terrorism and on the right side of history. This may be Iraq's last chance to demonstrate if it desires to close the book on its past behavior. We don't have to like each other to work in tandem to remove from the Earth a scourge that threatens Iraq as well as the United States. Bin Laden uses the U.S.-Iraq conflict to incite the Muslim masses and to foster American guilt. He hates Iraq because before the Gulf War it was everything he detests in a secular, modernizing Islamic nation with a history of religious pluralism. Hussein may see bin Laden, whose mujahedin fought against Iraq in the later stages of the war with Iran, and his unholy warriors as the biggest single threat to his regime. There is a healthy debate inside the Bush administration over what to do about Iraq. But on one point there is little disagreement: A rehabilitated and revitalized Iraq, if possible, would provide a secular anchor of modernity in the Islamic world, a base from which to fight off the rising tide of religious fanaticism. This might just be possible without having to conquer Iraq by sending our troops and NATO military forces into Baghdad. If Hussein is wise, he will invite inspectors back into Iraq and send some positive signals to Bush immediately. We are all watching very carefully. The choice is his.