Has removing Saddam become Bush's war aim?

On Politics Today

February 12, 1991|By Jack W. Germondand Jules Witcover

PRESIDENT Bush insists his war aims haven't changed: "full compliance with the 12 relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions" including Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and restoration of the Kuwait government, plus assuring security and stability in the Persian Gulf.

But denials by Secretary of State James Baker to the contrary, Bush's tough rhetoric suggests that an essential element is also the removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. And if so, it raises serious questions about what it will take -- probably the kind of ground war guaranteed to turn the trickle of American casualties so far into a flood.

The Bush administration's insistence that no one individual, not even Saddam Hussein, is being targeted for extinction -- physical or political -- is belied by Bush's demand for unconditional surrender. The Iraqi leader, Bush said last week, has "got to say, 'I'm going to get out of Kuwait now, and I'm going to get out fast. . ."

But the president, acknowledging that Saddam remains unyielding on refusing to withdraw from Kuwait, said he would not "mourn if somehow Saddam Hussein did not remain as head of his country." He said it would be easier to end the war if that were the case "because I don't believe anybody other than Saddam Hussein is going to want to continue to . . .subject his army to the pounding they are taking, or his people to the pounding that is going on."

While Baker subsequently said he didn't think "we should amend our war aims" to include Saddam's removal, Bush's words suggest he believes the best answer for post-war regional stability is to get rid of him.

But what if the Iraqi leader did agree ultimately to pull out of Kuwait, yet continued to insist that it was still the "19th province" of Iraq and he would reclaim it later? Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who opposed launching the war, asks: "Do we then have to go into Iraq for Saddam Hussein?" And what, he asks further, if in the ensuing ground war the United States sustains "a thousand or more casualties? Will the American people be satisfied then with just getting him out of power?"

Already, considering Saddam's Scud attacks on civilian populations in Israel and Saudi Arabia, demands are being heard that Saddam be held personally accountable as a war criminal. One of Israel's staunchest defenders in Congress and most outspoken proponents of the war, Democratic Rep. Stephen Solarz of New York, has told CNN that forcing Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait will not be enough. Letting Saddam "get away with thousands and thousands of chemical and biological weapons that he's stashed away in bunkers all over the country [Iraq] which he could then use a few years down the pike," Solarz said, "in my opinion would be a huge mistake."

Harkin, however, observes that it may be one thing to get the coalition of United Nations members, including the participating Arab states, to join forces to force Saddam from Kuwait and quite another to keep them together for the purpose of an invasion of Iraq to bring Saddam to book. For all of President Bush's uncompromising talk, pressure from coalition members for a cease-fire once Iraq did withdraw would be difficult to turn aside. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's expressed concern that the U.S. forces are already exceeding the U.N. mandate is a hint of that sentiment.

Although for all practical purposes the war in the gulf is an American operation with Bush as commander-in-chief, as long as he legitimizes it as the lawful implementation of the 12 U.N. resolutions he cannot dismiss out of hand the sentiments of his coalition associates. As the casualties for all of them mount in a ground war, they could well decide that withdrawal from Kuwait would be enough, and that Saddam's military threat to the region already had been removed for years to come by the massive air bombardment.

In knocking out Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical plants in the first days of the war, Bush early on achieved one of the major American objectives not mentioned at all in the U.N. resolutions justifying the use of U.S. force. But Saddam has done such a good job of demonizing himself by his conduct, with Bush making the war sound like his personal feud with the devil, it is hard to see how the war will end without Saddam's physical or political demise as well.

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