America's holiday with history may end sooner than we think

November 27, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- The world is a more dangerous place than it was one month ago, for reasons that will make it steadily more dangerous. Americans probably believe, it being pleasant to do so, that Saddam Hussein ''miscalculated'' when he expelled the American weapons inspectors and suffered a ''defeat'' in the form of restoration of ''the status quo ante.'' But the status quo ante was a slow-motion defeat of the United States.

'Pattern of deception'

Defense Secretary William Cohen says that ''for the past six years, there's been a pattern of deception and lies, deceits and cover-ups'' by the Iraqi regime. And Mr. Saddam knows -- note his announcement of 63 sites forbidden to the inspectors -- he can alter the status quo with impunity.

Mr. Saddam paid no price for the three weeks of privacy he won for his weapons-makers. And from now on, if inspectors come close to awkward discoveries, they will be expelled for a while. If they do not come close, that will be presented by Iraq and its allies as proof that there is nothing to come close to, so the sanctions should be lifted.

Mr. Saddam expelled the Americans because he thinks the nationality of inspectors matters. But U.S. policy is that only the inspectors' expertise matters. So the United States cannot object if the inspection team is increasingly seeded with Russian, French and other inspectors technically qualified but politically obedient to governments eager to acquit Mr. Saddam of misbehavior.

It is axiomatic: If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Since Desert Storm -- since the victorious coalition dispersed, and the United States continued downsizing its military forces, especially its ground forces -- the United States has had two tools for dealing with Mr. Saddam: air power and the United Nations. So to the United States, Mr. Saddam looks like a problem to which those tools can be decisively applied. He isn't.

The administration's feelings for the United Nations, which border on the erotic, make U.S. policy hostage to the cultivation of consensus, and hence to the most reluctant member of the Security Council. And air power can neither disarm nor destroy ++ Mr. Saddam.

Fred Kagan, professor of military history at West Point, writing in The Weekly Standard, notes that ground forces deal in certainties -- what a target is and whether it is destroyed -- but air power deals in probabilities: Whether a target is correctly identified; whether a pilot finds it; whether a bomb or missile hits it and destroys it. The steady weakening of U.S. ground forces has occurred in the context of the fiction that air power won the gulf war.

Last March 26 Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said:

''We do not agree . . . that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted. Our view, which is unshakable, is that Iraq must prove its peaceful intentions. . . . And the evidence is overwhelming that Saddam Hussein's intentions will never be peaceful.''

However, Mr. Saddam is stronger than he was then. The faint residue of the gulf war coalition is weaker. And an administration wedded to multilateral ''consensus'' has a policy for which there is decreasing consensus and a defense capability decreasingly plausible as a basis for unilateral action. The administration, having rightly alarmed the country about Mr. Saddam, may soon have a country alarmed about the administration's foreign policy.

For several generations -- approximately from Dec. 7, 1941, until the Berlin Wall crumbled on Nov. 9, 1989 -- Americans felt that the world was too much with them. Since then they have been taking, and enjoying, a holiday from history. That holiday is ending as this year's holiday season is beginning.

When Congress reconvenes it will debate NATO expansion and extension of the June ''deadline'' for removing U.S. troops from Bosnia. Those debates will be colored by the crisis with Iraq. An agreement (the Founding Act) intended to reconcile Russia to NATO expansion can be construed to make NATO actions reviewable by organizations (the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) in which Russia participates. However, regarding Iraq, Russia has proven be an energetic ally of a dangerous enemy of the United States.

A principal partner

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin rejoices that the United States, ''which we know has been tempted to be hegemonistic in recent years,'' was forced by ''the direct and coordinated influence'' of France, Russia and others ''to soften the position it took on the Iraq crisis.'' France is one of America's principal partners in NATO operations in Bosnia.

Perhaps NATO expansion and America's Bosnia involvement

should proceed. But amber lights are flashing.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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