Small World / Global Affairs
February 22, 1998 / 26 Shevat, 5758

Some thoughts on the eve of war

By Josh Pollack

WHAT MORE IS THERE TO SAYSaddam Hussein about the impending airstrikes on Iraq, which the UN Secretary General's last-ditch diplomacy may or may not forestall? The President has said his piece, and the Secretaries of State and Defense have borne the message far and wide. With notable exceptions, most world leaders' responses have ranged from unenthusiastic to resigned. The pundits have spoken, and the polls have spoken. Last week in Columbus, protesters spoke, as did more thoughtful questioners. The Pentagon delivered its message on the front page of yesterday's New York Times, threatening an intense four-day barrage.

But in the end, only one man has much say in the matter. That man is not President Bill Clinton. Nor is he UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. That man is, of course, Saddam Hussein of Iraq. The realization that Saddam, his warmaking capabilities hobbled, his nation in ruins after years of sanctions, nonetheless occupies the driver's seat should send shivers down the world's collective spine.

Saddam trouble, of course, raises the question of whether the world in fact has any spine. But fractiousness and divergence of interests are the norm in international affairs, and all the more so in these anchorless post-Cold War days. France and Russia, seeking the repayment of multibillion-dollar debts -- and, like China, anticipating opportunities for resumption of commerce with Iraq -- eagerly await the lifting of sanctions. They are undoubtedly aware of Saddam's threat to Persian Gulf security, yet content to let the United States do the heavy lifting.

In Paris, Moscow and Beijing, whether America will stare down an Iraq armed again with extraconventional weapons is of as little concern as the ability of the UN Security Council to uphold the Gulf War armistice, enshrined in Resolution 687. Their parochial objectives outweigh long-range issues such as arms nonproliferation and the stability of oil production and pricing, not to mention the value of international law.

Faced with disunity on the Security Council, Saddam has seized the initiative. Whatever the outcome, our arrival at these circumstances ranks as a failure nearly as painful as the strategic miscalculations and diplomatic bumbling that led to the invasion of Kuwait and the Persian Gulf War. Saddam has effectively leashed UNSCOM's arms inspectors, leaving the United States, unable to muster a united front, with an unappealing menu of options: to bomb or not to bomb.

Failing to exact some punishment simply leaves the door open to Saddam to make further revisions to the armistice at his pleasure. But Russia, France and China are apt to take bombing as an excuse to resume trade, including the arms trade, if at all possible. America's preferred outcome is now a matter of chance: Can unlikely intelligence work and untried precision munitions combine to kill off Saddam? Or can just four days of attacks on the Republican Guard put sufficient indirect pressure on Saddam to convince him to capitulate? This approach seems to be a one-shot gamble. Worst of all, Saddam decides whether the attack proceeds. Should he choose to weather "Desert Thunder"'s storm rather than cooperate, our hopes of success will reside exclusively in his tendency to miscalculate. That's something, but we deserve better.

THE ROOTS OF THE CRISIS lie in Bill Clinton's habit of temporizing, improvising in the face of all foreign-affairs problems. Constitutionally unable to concentrate on a major segment of his job description, the president has a long record of deferring trouble as often and as long as possible. His robust campaign rhetoric on Bosnia in 1992 gave way to years of dithering and pinpricks, until 1995, when, for various reasons, the administration summoned the gumption to bomb Bosnian Serb infrastructure just as the Croatian army spilled over the border. With the Dayton Accords in place, Clinton reverted to form, substituting extension after extension of the American (and therefore NATO) presence for any implementation of the more difficult and important aspects of the Accords.

The President's compulsively tactical thinking has turned Saddam Hussein into America's leading policymaker. Unwilling or unable to formulate any Persian Gulf policy more constructive than indefinite containment, the United States has failed to maintain the coalition against Iraq. Rather than focus on this and other ultimately inescapable problems, the administration has created new ones with NATO expansion -- a politically motivated process seemingly designed to alienate Russia, a key player in Persian Gulf diplomacy and the central nation in the overall nonproliferation effort.

Since the Iraq crisis arose this past fall, sparked by a divided Security Council vote on sanctions, the administration's familiar habits of avoidance have left us in a deepening pit. In four days of bombing, finally, they have formulated an answer -- the functional equivalent of What's Behind Door Number Two, with Saddam as contestant.

WE SHOULD TAKE ISSUE with those who consider the deepest flaw of bombing plans not their uncertain outcome, but the likely civilian deaths. This supposed humanitarianism simply dodges serious wrestling with the tangled moral issues of war. It also dehumanizes soldiers, whose lives should be valued at no less than anyone else's. The Talmud tells us never to rejoice in the death of enemies, for they too are the work of G-d's hand.

Making such arbitrary and easy judgments in a more consistent fashion, we arrive either at radical pacificism or radical nihilism á la Saddam, neither of which provides any satisfaction. All that remains are the exceedingly convoluted, burdensome and risky moral and strategic judgments involved in discerning the lesser evil and the greater good.

It may be argued that the Clinton Administration has arrived at such a judgment, one as good as could be expected under the circumstances. The only question is why Bill Clinton cannot exercise his judgment any sooner than the last moment. Soon, we may all pay in blood.

1/21/98: The dance of symbols: Bibi and Yasser in Washington
1/7/98: Iran's new opening to America
12/28/97: Arabic lessons are no substitute for Poli Sci: the dangers of the territorial fixation

Josh Pollack is a contributing editor at JWR.


© 1998, Jewish World Review