Desparate measures: How will Saddam react?

Posted: Oct 11, 2002 12:00 AM
"The dictator of Iraq is a student of Stalin," President Bush said in his prime-time speech the other day. He described how Saddam Hussein uses "murder as a tool of terror and control within his own cabinet, within his own army, and even within his own family." Under Saddam's orders, "opponents have been decapitated, wives and mothers of political opponents have been systematically raped as a method of intimidation, and political prisoners have been forced to watch their own children being tortured." All this is appalling, but it has nothing to do with the case for war against Iraq, the ostensible topic of the president's speech. Nor does "the oppression of Kurds, Assyrians, Turkomans, Shi'a, Sunnis, and others." Likewise, it's irrelevant that "the lives of Iraqi citizens would improve dramatically if Saddam Hussein were no longer in power." Unless the U.S. has embarked on a military campaign to replace all of the world's brutal dictators with democratically elected, constitutionally constrained tribunes of the people, Saddam's cruelty is not the issue. The fact that the Bush administration keeps bringing it up suggests the weakness of its argument that attacking Iraq would enhance U.S. security. The president's comparison between Saddam and Stalin raises the question of why the United States never launched a pre-emptive strike on the Soviet Union. The U.S. chose containment and deterrence over direct confrontation because the risks of war were considered unacceptable. Iraq's military might, of course, is minuscule compared to that of a nuclear superpower. But if the administration is as worried about Saddam's chemical and biological weapons as it claims to be, why does it seem intent on giving him a motive to use them? "An Iraqi regime faced with its own demise may attempt cruel and desperate measures," Bush conceded. In other words, a U.S. attack is apt to trigger the very threat it is supposed to neutralize, encouraging Saddam to unleash the "horrible poisons and diseases and gases" the president wants to destroy. "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or (chemical and biological weapons) against the United States," a recently declassified CIA assessment advises. "Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions." If so, the CIA says, "Saddam might decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a (weapon of mass destruction) attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him." That prospect suggests that a desperate, cornered Saddam is a greater danger to the United States than a Saddam confident of remaining in power. Explaining the urgency of acting against Iraq now, after 11 years of "defiance, deception, and bad faith" by a regime determined to keep weapons it promised to give up, Bush emphasized the danger brought home by the September 11 attacks. "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists," he said. Yet the administration has no evidence that Iraq is cooperating with al Qaeda or is likely to do so. The most plausible scenario in which Saddam would take such a risk is the one outlined by the CIA: as a response to military action that threatens to topple him. Nor is this the only way in which war with Iraq would promote terrorism. Osama bin Laden's chief grievance against the United States was the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, which he saw as an occupation of holy territory by infidels. The thought of how his murderous followers will react to the occupation of another Arab country by American forces should give pause to the Bush administration's hawks. The U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, a continuing source of outrage to Muslim fanatics, lingers on more than a decade after our last war with Iraq, in which America came to the defense of despots only somewhat less odious than Saddam. American troops may have to stay even longer this time, since the president promises to ensure that Iraq is not only disarmed but transformed into a liberal democracy. "The first and greatest benefit" of deposing Saddam, the president said, "will come to Iraqi men, women, and children." Maybe, but at what cost to American men, women, and children?