Washington -- THERE'S A distinct Alice-in-Wonderland quality to the Western nations' -- and particularly President Bush's -- response to the human and political quagmire produced by Saddam Hussein's slaughter of Kurds and Shiites in his own country.
After forcing his retreat from Kuwait with an unprecedentedly massive and effective assault on Iraq, the United States and its U.N. coalition allies occupy an estimated 20 percent of the country. They also have ordered Saddam to destroy all his capabilities to produce nuclear, chemical and biological warfare weapons.
Yet they can argue with a straight face that to establish an enclave within Iraq in which thousands of the fleeing victims of his brutal repression could find refuge and humanitarian aid might constitute impinging on Iraq's sovereignty and intruding on its internal affairs. Can they be serious?
The White House's tardy reaction to the deplorable refugee situation is now to warn Saddam against interfering with the also tardy airlift of relief supplies to the hunkered-down Kurds in northern Iraq. In a classic case of locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen, the United States has overcome its disinclination to meddle in the internal affairs of a country it has already partially occupied by now prohibiting Iraq from using aircraft of any kind against the refugees or -- imagine this -- the relief workers.
That disinclination stayed Bush's hand all during the brutal days of the Iraqi military's wanton repression of rebelling Kurds and Shiites and hapless civilian bystanders by the hundreds of thousands. Now that the most severe damage in human lives has already been done, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater says, "We want to make it clear the world expects that humanitarian assistance be carried out without threat."
Caught up in the Alice-in-Wonderland spirit of it all, the Iraqi government, while insisting that its territorial integrity not be violated, says it will handle humanitarian aid to the victims of what some are already calling its pogrom against undesirable elements of its own population. It calls on the fleeing refugees to return to their homes, where they will get all the relief they require. The chutzpah of it is enough to make Ed Koch jealous.
To further the bizarre quality of this international tragedy, there are reports that two Iraqi civilians were killed when a packet of parachuted relief supplies -- described by veteran relief experts as little more than airborne Band-Aids -- fell on them. Whether true or not, there have been ample scenes captured by television cameras of mayhem in the distribution of what relief supplies have managed to be trucked into the remote mountain areas of northern Iraq.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations, the Iraqi ambassador is said to reject the proposal for any enclave on his country's territory as an infringement on its sovereignty. So the striped-pants wordsmiths counter with a plan to create not an enclave but a "safe haven" of a purely temporary nature that would not do as much injury to Iraq's tender diplomatic sensitivities.
It has long been a lament within the human rights community that diplomatic concerns always are afforded precedence over humanitarian needs in international disasters such as the present one. The defense is made that sovereign states must in all cases protect their right of domain within their borders, an attitude that generates a solidarity on the point even when the beneficiary is a regime widely viewed as an outlaw in the community of nations.
But with Iraq in effect a quasi-occupied country that with incredible gall has nevertheless committed mass atrocities under the open eyes of its occupiers, this argument that its sovereign rights stand undiminished is ludicrous.
At the start of the humanitarian effort, the Bush administration PTC was a hesitant player behind the British and French. Now that the public-relations downside of that posture is clear, it seeks to get in front of the parade, while incredibly seeming to put credence in Iraq's claims of sovereign rights.
Much is being written and said about the administration's need to adhere to Realpolitik -- for policy to be dictated by political practicality rather than morality -- so as to leave an Iraq that can contribute to the region's stability. But it has to be asked: What is practical and stable about permitting Saddam Hussein to take actions that approach genocide, and then worrying about diplomatic protocol in trying to mop up the human carnage after him?