Four white lies

February 26, 1991|By William Safire

A FEW days ago, the world's media were certain that Iraq's acceptance of the Soviet proposal to avoid retribution meant at least this: that George Bush still had a mandate to press the air war, but could not conceivably launch a ground attack without dividing the coalition and invoking the wrath of world opinion.

Totally mistaken. The president, in his finest hour, rejected MikWilliamSafirehail Gorbachev's meddling and turned the tables with an ultimatum to Iraq to disgorge Kuwait or taste its own invasion medicine.

Within our coalition, Syria and, to a lesser degree, Egypt were queasy; but Britain did not waver, France surprised Bush with its fortitude, and most gulf Arabs were avid to attack.

Thanks partly to the way the degraded dictator made the table-turning easier by torching Kuwait and murdering civilians, public opinion remained with Bush. The inconceivable became the inevitable; that's leadership.

In light of that revelation of the reality of power, consider four white lies that still veil truth:

1. The Gorbachev attempt to save Saddam was "useful."

In the new Bush inner circle (Cheney, Scowcroft, Quayle) the Soviet meddling was seen to be troublesome, even contemptible: At no cost in blood or treasure, Moscow tried to become the radical Arab hero by preserving the dictator in power.

The decision was to kill with kindness the Gorbachev bid for brokerage. More honest rejection would humiliate him further at home, which is not in Bush's plan; hence the oleaginous expression of gratitude masking our irritation.

2. Our objective is to free Kuwait but not to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Since everyone knows this is untrue, why don't we come out and align our rhetoric to reality? Answer: because we want to leave the Iraqi people some dignity. We want the honor of deposing Saddam to be theirs. A white lie is forgivable when it helps a defeated nation's people regain their self-esteem and reduce their resentment.

After the coming surrender (how about the deck of the nearby battleship Missouri?), we will discover a vast pool of anti-Saddam feeling among Iraqis not in his secret police; indeed, it may be hard to find a Saddam supporter among the myriad "good" Iraqis who will swear they did not know anything about the atrocities against the Kurds.

3. The U.N. Security Council calls the shots.

This is not a U.N. enforcement action; that part of its charter has never been invoked. Instead, this is a collective defense authorized by the Security Council, similar to the Korean defense, which means the resolutions about reparations cannot be revoked without U.S. concurrence.

When the Soviet Union calls for a cease-fire before surrender, the U.S. representative can block it by simply voting no. We show obeisance to the U.N., but obedience to it is a white lie: The fighting coalition determines the timing.

4. We expected fierce resistance from well-dug-in Iraqi troops.

Military briefers painted a dire picture of defenses: half a million mines, ditches filled with burning oil, battle-hardened troops, etc. That was said to prepare public opinion for the worst; most experts said privately that the air war had made resistance along the front line unlikely.

Posterior-coverers wanted to assert a gloomy evaluation in case something went wrong; better to look unduly cautious than realistically optimistic. This white lie might have affected the decision to commit ground troops, but if you're wrong predicting the worst, nobody holds it against you (unless you're McClellan's Pinkerton; wartime presidents from Lincoln to Bush set aside overestimations of enemy strength).

White lying may be diplomatic or manipulative, but self-deception in war is madness. Consider Saddam Hussein's defiant come-and-get-me speech on the same day he sent his envoy to agree to a conditional withdrawal. Was he lying to his people or to himself? Was his personality or his revolutionary council splitting?

The dictator's fist has lost its cunning. The fearsome Wizard of Oz turns out to be a military charlatan.

Promise of victory in the face of sure defeat is not a white lie but a black one. No war-crime trial will be needed for this sociopath; we can set him free in the streets of Baghdad without his bodyguard and leave him to the Iraqis who refuse his invitation to suicide.

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