'62 crisis illuminates flaws of policy on Iraq

Conflict: Unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. approach to Baghdad seems emotional, ill-conceived and too risky.

October 13, 2002|By William R. Polk | William R. Polk,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As the American government mobilizes to attack Iraq, it's worth comparing the dangers, objectives, means of action and possible results with that other great crisis: the Cuban Missile Crisis 40 years ago this month.

Having been a member of the "Crisis Management Committee" on the Missile Crisis and having studied the Middle East for a half-century and helped to design American policy toward it, I suggest the following perspectives:

First, how real and how urgent is the danger? In the Missile Crisis, America faced a superpower of roughly its size and strength, run by an experienced, capable and centrally controlled military and civil bureaucracy with a huge and well-equipped armed force that had nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Certainly, the Soviet Union had the capability of destroying the United States. The American government believed that its best chance of surviving the century was by maintaining a balance - stunningly referred to as "the delicate balance of terror" - with the Soviet Union. What seemed so dangerous was that by putting missiles in Cuba, the USSR would "tilt" that balance and so endanger world peace.

In contrast, Iraq is a tiny country about two thirds the size of Texas of which 70 per cent is desert or steppe, inhabited by fewer than 20 million people deeply divided religiously and ethnically. Moreover, one third of the country (Kurdistan) is, de facto, a separate state.

Under boycott, Iraq's revenue (particularly in foreign currency) has been drastically reduced. Its small and comparatively obsolete armed forces, badly mauled in the gulf war, have never been fully rebuilt.

Like virtually every other country, Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, but there is no indication (despite vague accusations) that Iraq has - or in the foreseeable future could produce - nuclear weapons.

Finally, unlike the Soviet Union, Iraq is ringed by stronger neighbors: Turkey and Israel both have much larger and more modern armed forces, and Israel has about 400 nuclear bombs and the means to deliver them.

Despite attempts to link Iraq to the al-Qaida organization, there is no evidence of such a link. Osama bin Laden was so strongly opposed to the Iraqi regime that in 1990 he offered to form an international brigade to attack it.

Objectively speaking, Iraq has no significant capacity to harm its neighbors or to threaten the United States. Yet, the American government believes that there is a threat and intends to react.

Response is the second point of comparison. The U.S. government's reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis was essentially defensive. True, the U.S. was prepared to invade or bomb Cuba to destroy the missiles, and quickly mobilized forces to do so. But throughout those critical days of October 1962, everyone in the circle around President Kennedy was attempting to find alternatives, in accordance with international law.

In contrast, American policy toward Iraq today is offensive: President Bush has deployed military force and announced his intention to attack Iraq, whether or not it allows full and unhampered inspection of military assets, whether or not American action violates international law and whether or not it is sponsored by the United Nations.

The third comparison is the objective. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. objective was limited: Get rid of the missiles. Had Washington raised the stakes to include the overthrow of Castro, Moscow probably would not have acquiesced.

In contrast, America's announced policy toward Iraq calls not just for full access for inspectors or even just for reduction of real or alleged military potential but also for a "change of regime." That equates, bluntly, to a death sentence for Saddam Hussein and other members of his government. Thus, while Iraq has a "national interest" to avoid invasion and bombing, its rulers have no incentive to meet U.S. demands. Regardless how they act, the U.S. has told Hussein and his regime that they are doomed.

The Iraqis might conclude that the best chance of survival lies in making attack unacceptably expensive. Thus Iraq would try to acquire nuclear weapons, to produce as much chemical and biological material as it can, to develop means of delivery, to engage in, encourage or position itself to be able to carry out terrorist acts and, of course, to hide from prying eyes. In short, Washington's current policy appears likely to produce exactly the result it should seek to avoid.

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