Honorable man shows flaws in Iraq policy

September 03, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- "Maybe Madeleine is the realistic one here," says Scott Ritter. "Maybe she says, 'We're not up to the task.' "

What Secretary of State Madeleine Albright seems to have said, sotto voce, to the United Nations is that the United States wants U.N. inspectors in Iraq not to conduct the most aggressive and important inspections of facilities pertaining to weapons of mass destruction. Why provoke Saddam Hussein to call the United States' bluff when Ms. Albright knows that the United States has been bluffing when threatening severe consequences for an obstructionist Iraq?

Mr. Ritter, speaking by telephone from New York about his resignation from the ranks of U.N. inspectors, said, essentially, this: Discretion, which may be a polite characterization of Ms. Albright's policy, might be right in the absence of valor, or of any other alternatives.

A resignation of note

Mr. Ritter, 37, was until last week the most senior American, in terms of responsibilities and length of service, on the U.N. team toiling to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. He resigned rather than continue to lend his considerable credibility to the charade that the inspection process has been reduced to. This reduction is a result of the secret U.S. policy of discouraging surprise inspections that might provoke a crisis.

Realists understand that arms control usually is impossible until it is unimportant. That is, arms control controls almost nothing, and is itself a process of competition, until adversaries stop competing. The collapse of U.S. policy toward Iraq demonstrates that the U.N. arms control policy in that country always depended on something that is nonexistent: a credible military threat to the survival of Saddam Hussein.

Regarding Iraq, arms control must mean regime removal, or it will mean nothing. If Saddam Hussein cannot be toppled, we should shut up rather than continue to squander U.S. credibility and contribute to the cynicism of the American public. Mr. Ritter rightly says that the illusion of arms control is worse than having no arms control "process."

Mr. Ritter says that in Iraq "the people who protect the weapons are the people who protect the president." If Mr. Ritter is right, "enforcement" of the original U.N. mandate of eliminating those weapons must mean eliminating the man. Mr. Ritter says his gulf war experience in "counter-Scud" operations -- trying to eliminate Iraq's missiles -- left him with no illusions about the feasibility of disarming Iraq solely by means of airstrikes. If Mr. Ritter is right about that, then conceivably attacking the barracks and command-and-control facilities of the presidential security apparatus might produce a coup against Mr. Hussein.

However, even if such a scenario is plausible, a prerequisite for implementing a muscular policy is a serious president, one who can persuade the country because he has beliefs and is believable. Obviously such a policy is currently impossible.

On television last Sunday, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, the Democrats' national chairman, likened the American public to airline passengers who are indifferent to the pilot's "personal life" because he is giving them a safe flight through a storm. But Iraq is erasing all impediments to its development of weapons of mass destruction, satellites are beaming back pictures of North Korea's new nuclear facilities that make a mockery of the 1994 accord that supposedly neutralized the threat, North Korea is expressing its contempt for the United States and its allies by launching a missile across Japan and the stock market is turbulent.

A rough ride

Conceivably, American passengers are becoming queasy. They may soon rethink the question of whether it is a purely "personal" matter that the pilot is an arrested-development adolescent liar who parties in the cockpit with the younger flight attendants. Is his "personal" character altogether irrelevant to the question of whether they will enjoy a soft landing?

Four congressional committees are interested in hearing from Mr. Ritter. The importance of the policy disarray that his resignation protests, and the rarity in American public life of resignation on a point of principle, will render his testimony riveting. But, then, the mere sighting of such an adult in Mr. Clinton's Washington would be newsworthy.

In this low, dishonest moment in our nation's life, two people have recently acted under the promptings of honor: Mr. Ritter, who resigned from a responsibility he relished but that he thought was being traduced by his country's policy, and Rep. Paul McHale, the Pennsylvania Democrat who called for the president to resign because the president has proved himself morally disqualified for leadership. Both Mr. Ritter and Mr. McHale were shaped by long service in an institution -- the Marine Corps -- that operates on the premise that character is a matter of life and death. So is foreign policy.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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