Offer Hussein exile as alternative to war

January 30, 2003|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - Memo to: President Bush

From: A pro-American Arab leader

Dear Mr. President, I and my colleagues from the Arab world and Turkey share your view that Saddam Hussein is lying, has not complied with the United Nations and must go.

But is an American invasion the only way to remove him? Would you consider a deal for his exile?

I ask because we have been getting mixed signals. Your defense secretary seemed to endorse the idea, but others suggest to us that we shouldn't even bother. I admit, we and the Turks have not exactly been profiles in courage. The meeting that our foreign ministers held in Istanbul last week was a PR event staged by the Turks to show their public that they were looking for some alternative to war. But to tell you the truth, in all our discussions no one even brought up a deal for getting Mr. Hussein out.

Let me explain why. First, we're all uneasy about appearing to our publics as an extension of your military policy. Mr. Hussein is not popular in our region, Mr. President, but you are even less popular.

Second, each of us is looking to the other guy to present the deal to Mr. Hussein, but none of us wants to be the one to do it for fear of being rebuffed. But the most important reason is that we have nothing concrete to offer. We need a hard offer, and neither we nor you are putting that together - even though we both believe that this could save a lot of pain if done right.

So, Mr. President, I am proposing that you give me a letter on your stationery authorizing a joint mission from the Arab League and the Islamic Conference to offer Mr. Hussein the following:

1. A U.S. commitment not to interfere with safe passage out of Iraq for Mr. Hussein and his whole entourage. (I assume they will want to go somewhere in the former Soviet Union.)

2. We understand that as a legal matter, the United States could never and would never forswear the right to hunt or prosecute Mr. Hussein for war crimes. But we need a public commitment from you that America's "priority" once Mr. Hussein leaves Iraq would be to focus on the rebuilding of that country and not on hunting Mr. Hussein or any Iraqis who were once part of his regime.

This last point is critical, because Iraqi army officers who want to stay behind - and whose help you will need in holding Iraq together - have to know that they will not be prosecuted. If they know that, there is a much better chance they will pressure Mr. Hussein to go and cooperate with you later.

3. A commitment by you to give whichever Iraqi general succeeds Mr. Hussein a chance to work with you and the United Nations to complete the disarmament in good faith and begin political liberalization - before you opt for any military action.

Iraq is a highly tribalized society, Mr. President, and it can be held together for now only by the Iraqi army. We know, though, there are Iraqi generals eager to put Iraq onto a more normal path. It is true that if you occupied Iraq, you could have more control over its transformation. You also could find yourself in a hornet's nest.

This proposal has several virtues: By engineering Mr. Hussein's exile, we make the moral, legal and strategic point that no one can get away with defying the United Nations and flouting international norms forever. But we do it in a way that avoids a U.S. occupation of Iraq, with all the risks and dangers that could entail.

It will be a big political win for you: Your tough line will have been vindicated, your public will be enormously relieved, uncertainty will be removed from your markets and the image of the U.S. bully will be softened. Most of all, the Germans and French, who deep down would like to see you step into a mess in Iraq, will be left looking silly.

It would be a big win for us Arabs, too - because if we could actually broker a deal to avoid a war in Iraq, it would be the first time that we really assumed responsibility for our region.

The chances are very slim that we could persuade Mr. Hussein to accept such a deal. But we will know only if you keep your gun loaded and pointed right at his head - and if you accompany that with a firm offer. And the mere fact of your and our offering such a deal will strengthen your hand, by demonstrating to the world that we are going the extra-extra mile to avoid a war. But we need a firm offer from you. Without it, Mr. Hussein's argument that America will not be satisfied with anything but war will stand.

Mr. President, it would be a travesty if we all wanted an alternative to war for removing Mr. Hussein, but couldn't overcome our respective inhibitions to give it one real honest try.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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