No if, but when

Posted: Aug 09, 2002 12:00 AM
Georgetown, S.C. -- For five generations, my wife's family has vacationed in the low country along the Carolina coast. Down here, where the weather is important to the livelihood of so many, people look to the skies and the sea for signs of what conditions will be like tomorrow, or next week or even next month. Folks here talk a lot about the weather and often claim they trust the clouds, wind and tide to be better prognosticators than anything they learn from television, radio or the newspapers. But this summer the talk isn't about tropical depressions, fishing or atmospheric conditions -- it's about rumors of war. "Are we going to attack Iraq or not?" I was asked this morning as I walked into the bait shop. "Do you think Saddam helped the 9-11 terrorists last year?" queries a caller to WGTN, the local affiliate that carries my radio show. "I saw your (FOX News) reports from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It looks like the Israelis will be our only allies if we attack Baghdad before Iraq does anything to us," posits a gentleman who describes himself as a vacationing college professor. "If Saddam has nukes, would he use them against us?" asks another. And that's just today's sample of comments and questions from people here on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, as they try to gauge how the storm clouds gathering over the Middle East will affect them. A few miles south of here, at the sprawling Air Force Base in Charleston, S.C., a C-141 crewmember just returned from Afghanistan and told me that he was preparing for a flight "to a country neighboring Iraq." I didn't press him on the destination out of respect for his security awareness, but then he volunteered, "I wonder how many more of these trips we'll be making once they figure out we're serious about Iraq." Whether he was talking about Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey, hardly matters. What does matter is that without the overt availability of bases in these places, a major military campaign against Iraq is all but impossible. It's clear the U.S. airman I spoke with knows where things are headed with Iraq. And it's equally clear from questions I've been getting here in the Low Country and from the confusing cacophony emanating from Europe's capitals, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Washington that the patriotic people of the Carolina coastline are confused about what we aim to do about Saddam. They like and admire President Bush but, like most Americans, they want to know what to expect. It's not too much to ask. Unfortunately, what's lacking is a clear, unambiguous statement from President George W. Bush necessary to building a consensus for preventing Saddam Hussein from using the weapons of mass destruction he already has at his disposal. Failure to do so invites every barroom brigadier and couch-potato commando on the planet to continue flaying the administration. Look what has happened each time a report surfaced over the past several months that -- until this week -- the Joint Chiefs were opposed to a war in Iraq. Ignore the fact that we should want the leaders of our armed forces to be reluctant warriors -- until it's time to fight. What we got instead was a phalanx of sound-bite special forces popping up on cable television telling us that our uniformed military wasn't ready to do the job. That's not the message to send our allies or adversaries. Bush needs to present a Bill of Particulars against the brutal regime in Baghdad. It is not enough to simply state that "a regime change is necessary," as he did earlier this week in Mississippi. He must describe the formidable threat Saddam poses today, the kind of menace he represents for our future and the kind of people we will accept in his stead. That means he must reveal otherwise secret data and classified details of what we know to be indisputable facts about Saddam's nefarious weapons programs, his meddling in Middle Eastern terrorism and those we have been cultivating in the Iraqi opposition. And as unpalatable as it is, George W. Bush must accept the fact that he will go down in history as the first American president to launch a preemptive attack against a lethal adversary. What the administration cannot afford is to continue on the present course of leaks, counter-leaks and "anonymous sourcing" for building consensus. It is, for example, irrelevant that "administration sources" are "convinced Mohammed Atta (the alleged mastermind of the 9-11 suicide-hijackings) met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague" before the attack. Far more important is the irrefutable fact that Saddam Hussein is actively engaged in fomenting terror today. His cash payments of up to $25,000 to the families of Palestinian homicide-suicide bombers and $1,000 to every wounded Palestinian are incontrovertible -- and proof that Saddam is willing to fight to the last Palestinian. Tom Daschle wants the Senate to debate Iraq, but he won't schedule it. The Europeans will continue to dither. The Saudis have buried their heads in the sand. Meanwhile, as Khidhir Hamza, the former head of Iraq's nuclear weapons program, told me, "Saddam believes his weapons of mass destruction will make him the Arab world's undisputed leader." If President Bush wants to prevent that -- and all the attendant consequences -- he must tell the world that when it comes to replacing Saddam, it's not if but when. And when must be soon.