A new president's first challenge: Saddam Hussein

A. M. Rosenthal

March 12, 1992|By A. M. Rosenthal

EVEN before he is sworn in, the man who wins the election will have to face for himself the most important question of his term.

So it was put to all the candidates:

"Should the U.S. take further steps to topple Saddam Hussein?"

The question was sent recently by the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles to all the candidates then running.

It was part of a questionnaire on domestic and world affairs.

All the survivors have answered except Patrick Buchanan, who did not answer the questionnaire at all.

But only Paul Tsongas identified the heart of the Saddam question straight on: nuclear weapons. Then he gave a straight-on answer.

Of course, there are other issues. For instance: Every day Saddam Hussein survives he kills more of his own people. A United Nations report says his regime has racked up hundreds of thousands of victims -- murdered, tortured, forever missing or exiled to slow death.

But nations do not take action against mass murder. We know that. There has always been so much around.

Yet when the winning candidate finally is alone with himself he will have to decide how long the United States can afford to wait while Saddam Hussein develops a nuclear bomb.

Let's not be children: Saddam Hussein is working hard on the bomb.

U.N. inspectors say so -- and that it is impossible for them to expose the work because Iraqi officials were left in position to block them. The United Nations knows Iraq has all the knowledge, most of the equipment.

It also has a world network of companies that armed Saddam once. Since then, they have not been overcome by morality.

Candidates and voters do not need secret reports. Kenneth R. Timmerman's book, "The Death Lobby," details how the world armed Iraq. Gary Milhollin's article in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday tells us how Saddam is building the bomb.

Information comes steadily from organizations fighting nuclear proliferation, like the Center for Security Policy in Washington.

President Bush answered the Saddam question by saying that if a new government willing to accept U.N. resolutions came to power in Iraq it would find a friend in the United States.

Jerry Brown said the United States should "take seriously and give support" to democratic stirrings in Iraq. As for Gov. Bill Clinton, he came right out and said the United States should stand behind the U.N. resolutions.

The wording of the question did not force the candidates to face the nuclear issue. But Paul Tsongas went right at it and gave his answer:

"If sanctions and U.N. efforts are not succeeding at keeping Iraq from becoming a nuclear power, I would support further military action to insure that this does not happen."

This does not commit a President Tsongas to a coup against Saddam Hussein or a full-effort war. Those steps would be open to him. But without removing the fascist apparatchiks around him a coup would solve little. Removing the gang would involve sending U.S. supplies -- possibly troops -- to support a democratic rebel government.

That should have been part of Desert Storm. It can still be done -- provided that this time Americans are told and agree to the goals of war, in advance.

But the United States understands that the Iraqi bomb would have been in place long before the invasion of Kuwait had it not been for Israel's destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. Saddam's domination of the Arab Mideast would not have been challengeable without risking nuclear war.

Going after Iraq's nuclear capacity is very much a U.N.-U.S. possibility, although not much discussed publicly yet.

It could mean sending armed teams into Iraq to find all nuclear facilities and then destroying them on the ground, or directing air attacks at known nuclear targets, without notice.

Saddam Hussein could not stop either action -- now.

A search and destroy mission or an anti-nuclear air attack might also touch off a full anti-Saddam rebellion that could succeed with U.S. help.

Even if he survived longer, the destruction of Saddam's nuclear potential would make the Mideast a somewhat less dangerous place.

That is, unless the West decides to build up one more Gamal Saddam Assad.

In any case, Mr. Tsongas has provided some clarity and candor. If he goes on this way, the man is in danger of giving politics a decent name.

A.M. Rosenthal writes a column for the New York Times.

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