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Jewish World Review Dec. 5, 2001 / 20 Kislev 5762

Philip Terzian

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The Iraqi briar patch -- AS the noose draws slowly around Osama bin Laden, and we indulge ourselves arguing over whether he ought to be tried or killed, one question pops up with alarming regularity: Who's next?

As President Bush and other senior members of the administration keep reminding us, the war against terrorism will be long and difficult, and in some undefined way, unlike other wars we have fought. Well, either the White House was preparing us for a more dangerous conflict than we have thus far seen -- and have been pleasantly surprised by the comparative ease with which the Taliban and al Qaeda have disintegrated -- or they plan to do more than avenge the terrorist attacks on the United States. This has led an influential claque in Washington to demand that the next phase include Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

It's a tempting proposition. Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who is widely reviled by his suffering people and fellow Arabs. He possesses an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, and has brushed aside inspectors on the prowl for nuclear warheads. In the past two decades he has invaded Iran and Kuwait, and makes no secret of his yearning to control the Saudi oil fields. We're there, he's in Baghdad, why not finish the work begun in 1991?

As I say, it's a tempting proposition. But like most quick and easy strategic solutions, the briar patch is thornier than it first appears.

To begin with, while there is no argument about the demerits of Saddam Hussein, it is worth asking where the process stops. The Middle East harbors more than a few (shall we say) nondemocratic regimes; are we prepared to coerce universal reform? The neighboring continent of Africa boasts some of the world's most relentlessly cruel, even genocidal and terrorist, governments -- credited with more deaths than Saddam Hussein himself. Shall we offer deliverance to the people of Sudan and Somalia, or punish the Central and West African warlords who export conflict to neighboring states?

While we're on the subject of regional threats, we cannot expect to leave the paranoid, delusional and bellicose North Korean regime intact. Our Japanese friends are painfully cognizant of North Korea's growing nuclear capacity. So, for that matter, do our democratic allies in Asia look nervously at the People's Republic of China -- a government that has, in its time, killed tens of millions of its subjects, practiced terror, and now yearns to exercise great power status. It has been less than a year since China held the crew of a crippled American reconnaissance plan hostage for two weeks.

There is no question that Saddam Hussein is a bad guy, and in due course, must be confronted. But now would be a singularly maladroit time to do so. And despite the best persuasive efforts of armchair strategists such as think-tanker Laurie Mylroie, columnist William Safire and Defense Review Board chairman Richard Perle, there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the events of Sept. 11. There is no doubt that he has had contact with elements of al Qaeda in the past, but so have innumerable people, regimes and intelligence services who now stand with the United States against transnational terror.

To invade Iraq as a postscript to our Afghan war would overnight dissolve the consensus we have achieved. The Arab League would fall away instantly, of course; but so would our European allies, including Great Britain. India and Pakistan have united to argue strenuously against such action, and we risk discarding the support of nearby states -- Turkey, Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Oman, Tajikistan -- whose cooperation has made the fight against Osama bin Laden possible. For that matter, we would risk a wider, uncontrollable conflict. Saddam Hussein could be expected to launch a few Scud missiles -- with chemical or biological weapons in the nose cones -- toward Tel Aviv, and bomb the Saudi oil terminals, cutting off Western supplies.

The only thing more certain than such a conflagration is the fact that it could easily be averted by diplomacy.

During the Clinton administration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that the crippling economic sanctions against Iraq would never be lifted so long as Saddam remained in power. Now would be a good time for George W. Bush to switch tactics. The sanctions have not only failed to affect Saddam Hussein, but as they enter their second decade, have succeeded only in deepening the misery of Iraqis, and aggravating Arab resentment against the United States. If President Bush were to trade lifting the sanctions for the readmission of nuclear arms inspectors -- an exchange Saddam Hussein seems prepared to make -- he would enjoy the best of both worlds: Reliable intelligence about Iraqi arsenals, and the support of the Arab world in exerting mounting pressure on a weakened Saddam Hussein.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal