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Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2002 / 21 Teves, 5763

Michael Kelly

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Exit Hussein | Soon -- almost certainly by the end of January -- it will be clear where we are going in Iraq. To assess what lies immediately ahead, it helps to think clearly about where we have come from, and where we are now.

We have come from a position of nearly absolute failure. Over the course of a deleterious decade, the structure of containment erected by the United States and the United Nations at the end of the war against Iraq in 1991 had collapsed, utterly.

The postwar revolution in Iraq that the first Bush administration had fomented died at birth in a terrible betrayal by its Bush I architects. This was the first of a series of acts of American presidential mal-leadership that cumulatively came to produce a perfect perversity of policy: the accidental, sequential rebuilding of Saddam Hussein, and the accidental, sequential "loss" (in the eyes of America's watchful, hopeful Islamic enemies) of a war that had been most brilliantly won.

Next, the economic sanctions. The apparent theory here was that if you starved the grass roots long enough they would become strong enough to overthrow the gardener. The roots starved fine, but the gardener and his battalions of heavily armed assistant gardeners were able to stay perfectly fat -- and with enough cash left over to support palace-building and weapons-building, and still afford name-brand Scotch. Meanwhile, the suffering of the people worked brilliantly to undermine support for civilization's case and to resurrect Hussein as an Islamic martyr and hero.

The third and most consequential act was the collapse of the United Nations weapons inspections regime. Bush I, in his tired and feckless last days, did nothing to stop this. Bill Clinton, from his hyper but feckless first days, did the same, but with the added, typical loud claims that much had been done.

In 1998, the whole wretched mess ended in a gross defeat for the United States and the United Nations -- a defeat made only more gross, and more telling, in the calculations of those such as Osama bin Laden -- with the passage of a resolution of Congress committing the United States to a "regime change" in Iraq even as the United States essentially capitulated to the existing regime in Iraq.

And where are we now? We are in a position of triumph, and potentially much greater triumph. A few months ago, all was still in tatters. Hussein still defied with impunity, still ruled unchallenged over his torture state, still schemed to advance his dreams of himself as the atomic Saladin. The United Nations still went to work every day, conspicuously (not to mention purposely) failing at its charter mission. Everything was still a disaster and still in train for greater disaster. The will of one man, George W. Bush, changed all this.

Now, for the first time since 1998, the inspectors are back in Iraq -- and they are back in with a determination and a power they never had before. Now, Hussein backs down, and down, and plays for whatever time he can get. Now, he is so desperate that he is forced to empty his prisons and to begin to free his captive people. Now, the United States is backed in its actions by a United Nations that is beginning to see, as in a sort of miracle, that it actually can be a force for peace and law in the world.

And the United Nations is beginning to like this. When the Bush administration declared that Iraq's most recent great tissue of lies was just that, the institutional voices of the United Nations backed up the president. Hans Blix, the formally appeasement-minded chief of the U.N. inspection program, and his colleague Mohamed El Baradei were polite but clear: Bush is right, Iraq is still lying -- and this will not stand. Here is the key statement, from El Baradei in an interview several days ago, noting what the Egyptian nuclear weapons expert cited as Iraq's failure, so far, to come up "with evidence to exonerate themselves": "The less clarification they provide, the less certainty with which we can report to the Security Council. Without a credible or high degree of certainty, I do not see the Security Council exonerating Iraq."

The Security Council will not, this time, exonerate Iraq. There will be regime change in Iraq. The United States will be the forcing agency for this, and the United States will generally be backed in this by most of the world.

The only real question for Saddam Hussein -- the question that will be answered soon -- is: with or without war? Or to put it another way: with defeat by arms, conviction in a war crimes trial and execution, or with capitulation, a quick deal and a night flight somewhere with neck and numbered bank account intact?

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