Toppling Hussein not in the cards

November 17, 1998|By GEORGE F. WILL

AMERICA nearly went to war last weekend in defense of weapons inspections in Iraq that U.S. diplomacy surreptitiously subverted last summer. That subversion provoked an American rarity, a resignation on principle, by an American rarity, inspector Scott Ritter, who never learned in the Marine Corps the delicacies of surrender.

The surrealism of U.S. policy -- suddenly threatening war to support an inspection regime that an anonymous administration official admits has been "moribund" for three months -- was compounded by proof that the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword. A letter, reiterating the broken promises of a recidivist liar, turned back airborne B-52s and prevented launchings of cruise missiles and other aircraft.

Which is good, there being no evidence (other than his words; slight evidence) that President Clinton has suddenly developed the requisite seriousness for dealing with Saddam Hussein. Mr. Clinton is seriously committed to an unserious policy, the flaws of which derive, as the entire post-gulf war debacle does, from the subcontracting of U.S. policy, and the consequent subordination of U.S. interests to the United Nations.

Dictator Hussein remains in power because former President George Bush felt constrained by the fact that the U.N. mandate for military action extended only to expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Perhaps that constricted mandate was a price worth paying for the breadth of the gulf war coalition that Mr. Bush so brilliantly constructed.

However, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, sounding more presidential than the current president, says it was a "terrible abdication of our responsibilities" when we allowed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to broker the February deal that deterred U.S. military action by producing more absurd promises by Hussein.

Clinton legacy

Mr. Clinton enters the last quarter of his presidency still searching for a "legacy." Removal of Hussein would suffice, and Mr. Clinton is now committed, sort of, to trying to overthrow Hussein, even though his administration has not yet asked "Mother, may we?" of the United Nations.

That is the formal meaning of Mr. Clinton's Sunday promise to "intensify" U.S. "engagement with the forces of change in Iraq" under provisions of the Iraq Liberation Act, which provides $97 million for aid to Iraqi insurgents. In the highly unlikely event that Mr. Clinton really tries to topple Hussein dam, the two most important legislative acts of his presidency (the other was welfare reform) will have been forced upon him by Congress. But Hussein will not be removed by radio broadcasts, or by Kurdish, Shiite and other resistance groups supported only by money and air power from foreign governments.

Surely we have written a new chapter in the story of this century's overestimation of air power. Arms control and disarmament -- enforcing nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- cannot be administered from the air. Neither can insurgencies be protected from the air against a ruthless tyrant's military and security apparatus.

The mass graves of Srebrenica, scene of Europe's worst atrocity since World War II, contain the bones of those who trusted international assurances that Srebrenica was a guaranteed "safe area." For any Iraqi insurgency to succeed, it will require, sooner or later, help from international forces on the ground.

Air power can do what Mr. McCain, the former Naval aviator, suggests should be avowed U.S. policy: U.S. forces should quickly destroy any site, such as a presidential compound, that inspectors are prevented from examining. There should be no time-consuming "consensus-building" with that fiction, the "international community," no "mother, may we?" permission seeking.

But such vigor is not to be expected from Mr. Clinton, who displays the constricted imagination of liberalism regarding human complexity and menace. In his Sunday morning appearance in the White House press room, he hoped that keeping the U.N. inspectors in Iraq would give Hussein "a chance to become honorably reconciled" to U.N. resolutions.

Someone should acquaint Mr. Clinton with Alan Bullock's epigraph for his biography of Hitler. It is Aristotle's statement, "Men do not become tyrants in order to keep out the cold." That is, tyrants are not banal utilitarians; they have unusual passions and aspirations.

Hussein plays with Mr. Clinton as Heifetz played a Stradivarius, with subtle virtuosity. But, says Mr. McCain, Hussein's ruthless and occasionally (invading Kuwait in August 1990) reckless boldness in pursuit of megalomaniacal aims -- Iraq as regional hegemonist and then world power -- makes it intolerably risky to count on simply deterring him, as the Soviet Union was deterred, by threats of destructive retaliation.

Perhaps last weekend clarified this much: Mr. Clinton's foremost legacy will be Hussein -- overthrown, or more secure and threatening than ever.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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