More madness: notes and thoughts on the Middle East Reflections on war and peace in the Age of Euphemism

Paul Greenberg

September 10, 1990|By Paul Greenberg

OF COURSE Kurt Waldheim would prove successful in getting Austrian hostages out of Iraq. Who could negotiate with Saddam Hussein if not Kurt Waldheim?

Herr Dr. Waldheim is the current president of Austria, former secretary-general of the United Nations, and, at one deliberately obscure time, a lieutenant on the headquarters staff of an atrocity-prone branch of the Wehrmacht. His connection with the Kozara Massacres in the Balkans and the interrogation/torture of British prisoners has attracted considerable attention in recent years, although Waldheim was too modest to mention it in his official resume.

Saddam Hussein's background is also impressive; his treatment of the Kurdish minority in his country is not without some parallel to events in the Kozara region decades ago. The Kurds, too, were "resettled" -- after being gassed.

What a pair these two make. They understand one another. And their natural prey are those gulls in the West who think of negotiation as an alternative to power rather than a reflection of it.

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Crisis is also opportunity. Somewhere on the Western agenda there should be room for an independent Kurdistan once this crisis enters the negotiating stage. Betrayed by East and West, the Kurds await attention -- and justice. They've been sold out by the best, including Henry Kissinger when the Nixon administration sought to appease the decidedly late shah of Iran. This country owes the Kurds and Saddam Hussein. The debt to both could be paid by supporting a Kurdish revolt.

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Saddam Hussein's general policy is clear enough to those who will see: Crush the weak and out-negotiate the strong. He invaded Kuwait; now he's ready to bargain with the world. And the world just might let him. The U.N.'s secretary-general is already groveling, which he calls negotiating.

"All extremism inevitably fails," Jose Ortega y Gasset once observed, "because it consists in excluding, in denying all but a single point of the entire vital reality. But the rest of it, not ceasing to be real merely because we deny it, always comes back and back, and imposes itself on us whether we like it or not. The history of all forms of extremism has about it a monotony which is truly sad; it consists in having to go on making pacts with everything which the particular form of extremism under discussion had pretended to eliminate."

Saddam Hussein had to make peace with Iran to confront the world. Now that the world has confronted him, he is in the market for the best peace he can make with the world. The shape of his next pact will depend on the reality the world presents: weak and divided, or strong and determined.

The usual experts urge the rest of us not to compare Saddam Hussein with Adolf Hitler. After all, the experts keep repeating, the Iraqi dictator is not mad. This is unfair to Herr Hitler, who was dangerously sane. He could pat little children on the head when he had to -- and he was always a charming host at Berchtesgaden. As none other than Neville Chamberlain, that keen judge of character, discovered.

As Chamberlain told the British Cabinet on returning from one of his visits with the Reichschancellor: "Clearly, everything rests upon Hitler's word. Can we trust it? For my part, after this personal contact, I think we can: I have the impression that he is one of those men who are to be trusted once they have given their word." After that, Munich was inevitable.

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The latest word from the vice president's office is that Dan Quayle is following events in the Persian Gulf closely. There. Now don't you feel better?

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The oh-so-solemn word from the Palestine Liquidation Organization is that, should war break out between the United States and Iraq, the PLO would renounce its renunciation of terrorism. The PLO's notoriously low reality quotient is showing again: Iraq is already committing acts of war by holding Americans hostage, and the blockade against Iraq is in turn an act of war. Besides, the PLO's pledge to renounce terrorism was effectively revoked two months ago on the beaches of Tel Aviv. That's where one of its raiding parties was intercepted.

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An official declaration of war against Iraq might clear away the legal murk now hanging over this country's Mideast policy. One great advantage of a forthright declaration is that Iraqi emissaries here could be interned and perhaps even exchanged for Americans. Iraq is now holding Americans hostage without declaration of war. As the Kuwaitis discovered, such formalities are not Saddam Hussein's custom.

Naturally the president will want to consult this country's many allies, not to mention Congress, before recognizing that the civilized world is now at war with the regime in Iraq.

A clear, unmistakable declaration of war would discourage legal bickering in the future and put Congress on record in support of the war effort. Or is it a peace effort in this Age of Euphemism? In either case, a formal declaration of war would discourage unhelpful and unpleasant arguments in the future, when the strain of any protracted struggle will begin to show and national unity begin to fray.

What this country doesn't need down the road is another para-legalistic debate like that over the Tonkin Resolution of 1964. That resolution, you recall, authorized American involvement in Southeast Asia (according to its chief proponent, J. William Fulbright) but shouldn't have (according to its chief critic, J. William Fulbright).

They understood these things better in the 18th century, when a declaration of war was a declaration of war. Let us consider returning to the past in this regard; it would be progress.

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