Checking the King

January 24, 1991|By ANDREW B. SCHMOOKLER

SILVER SPRING — Silver Spring. THE CHAIRMAN of our Joint Chiefs of Staff says that we are not targeting Saddam Hussein specifically. I hope he's being less than forthright.

One may presume that, in the end, we will prevail in this conflict. But how will the end of this war be achieved? There are two possibilities: either by overcoming a half million Iraqis dug in around Kuwait, or by the removal of Saddam Hussein from the scene.

One way it seems unlikely to end: by Saddam Hussein backing down. He is apparently willing to fight to the last drop of his countrymen's blood.

Mr. Hussein approaches this war like a chess player: All that matters is the king; all the other pieces are expendable. His own removal, in his mind, is as great a disaster as the obliteration of his entire nation.

Our calculus, surely, should be more humane. The deaths of 100,000 young Iraqi men is, proportionately, like 1.5 million American dead, like 30 Vietnams. In addition, if a ground war should prove necessary, many young Americans will die to liberate Kuwait.

If Mr. Hussein is in place to the bitter end, he can wreak destruction in other ways as well. He is evidently poised to kill the biological community in the waters of the Persian Gulf by unleashing a massive oil spill. Oil-field fires Monday reminded us that Mr. Hussein commands the means to ignite conflagrations with a potentially catastrophic impact on climate and crops around the world. And his terrorist network remains a threat.

We should get Mr. Hussein -- capture him if possible, kill him if not -- before he has a chance to issue the fateful orders by which he would seek to bring down with him as much as he could.

Would the removal of Mr. Hussein end the war? It is impossible to know for sure, but this particular regime is the embodiment of the will of one man. Not the consensus of a ruling group, much less the will of his inner circle whom he suspected of having ideas different from his own.

Who knows what anyone else in that country really thinks? Maybe with Mr. Hussein gone, the others would rejoice, like the guard of the Wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz when she melted away. At the least, they would likely be incapacitated by internecine conflict, for Saddam Hussein surely has not provided for an orderly succession.

Is it possible for us to find Mr. Hussein? Some American spokesmen have implied that we would not, reminding us how hard it was to find Manuel Noriega in a much smaller country. But Noriega had made hiding a full-time job, while Saddam Hussein is trying to run a war. He can't do that from a closet.

Is it not likely that we, or some other country allied with us, have intelligence good enough so that we might have an idea where he is some of the time? A commando raid to capture him would entail risks, but they may be worth it with so many lives at stake.

Isn't it against American law to go after a head of state? But this would not be a covert action in peacetime, but an open military move during the conduct of a war authorized by Congress and initiated by the president. If we may shoot their soldiers, is not their commander-in-chief an eligible target? If we can bomb their command and control centers, can we not go after the one whose orders govern their entire military machine?

Our military leaders dismiss the idea of going after one man. This is not, they say, how we fight our wars. But new situations require us to alter our habits.

Our only real quarrel, in the present conflict, is with this one man. All the rest of the pieces are but his pawns. We should not forget, even if he does, that they are human beings, too. Going after the king, in this instance, is the most humane and sensible end-game strategy.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ''The Parable Other Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution''.

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