Saddam Hussein, man or mouse?

Posted: Aug 05, 2002 12:00 AM
Democracy is having spring practice on the matter of whether we ought to go to war against Saddam Hussein. It is very much as it should be. Sen. Joe Biden, presiding over the Foreign Relations Committee, made it a point not to subpoena a member of the administration. He does not want someone to come in unless he does so to enunciate a policy. At this point the senator was caught by the cameras in mid-thought, but only briefly. What he started to say, and led certainly this listener to conclude, was that the administration does not have a policy on the subject, and it would be embarrassing to call in Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell or Don Rumsfeld if they didn't have in hand a policy to report on.

The emphasis in the current line of exploration has been on what such an operation could cost, how likely would it be to make the world better and safer, and what would be a reasonable guess as to the cost to the United States, in men and materiel. One commentator said that the price tag on the Gulf War was $61 billion, $75 billion in current values, and that "four-fifths" of it had been paid by others.

The difference between then and now is sharply illustrated by the stated position of Kuwait. Kuwait was the ostensible target of the Gulf War, the Danzig of 1990. We drove the Iraqis from Kuwait and quenched the fires in their oil wells. That was Operation Good Neighbor if ever we saw one. Well, Kuwait has now told us that it will not back us in any military enterprise against Iraq.

Now such declarations must not be taken as absolutely revealing of what goes on the mind of the emirs. Recall that during the Gulf War, Jordan's King Hussein backed Iraq. He did so because of the politics of that straitened part of Islam. As soon as the war was over, King Hussein recaptured his seat as King of Moderation.

What becomes clearer is the absence of strategic clarity. We don't know who will be with us, who against us, and that part of the diplomatic question will affect another, namely: How many Americans would back an Iraq war? Many are bound to say that if the people most directly threatened by Saddam Hussein are not willing to join in a military venture to unseat him, the case for sending Ameircan soldiers who live in places like Iowa and Oklahoma and Connecticut becomes harder to make.

The vision of 9/12 was that we had to avenge the events of 9/11 and take action against any possibility that attacks on America, on that scale, could recur. The immediate targets were Afghanistan and Osama. We conquered Afghanistan. Osama is probably dead, but his spirit is very much there, and the talk today is not of liberating Afghanistan, but of stabilizing it. Thus also the talk: What would we need to do in Iraq after Saddam handed over his sword? Will the three great factions in Iraq put together a viable state? How much more money will be needed to effect a recomposed Iraq than is available from the sale of its oil?

These questions begin to leech the resolution of the Great Avenger called up after 9/11. Back then we were ready to fight in the Mideast, and although the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, drawing us there in search of Osama, Iraq was the central enemy. We had fought a war against Iraq and won it, and were looking at 10 years of elusiveness by Saddam in the matter of the biological, chemical and nuclear weapons he fosters. Iraq came back as a central concern when it achieved standing as one element in the axis of evil. Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

What happened was that weeks and months went by, bringing an etiolation of Iraq as the unruly monster that needs a democratic lance in its eye. It really looks as though war or peace depends on whether Mohamed Atta talked in Prague with a princeling of Saddam Hussein. The War of Jenkins' Ear comes to mind, and reasons day by day amass against proceeding with war on the government of Iraq.

It would be very different if Britain, France, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey addressed the American people, pleading that our technology be mobilized against a common threat. This is not now happening, and two years from now we will need to blame either our allies for their failure to make their case, or our president for the failure of his administration to galvanize such a petition.