Get the story straight

March 07, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Oops! A funny thing happened on our way to Iraq. Somebody moved the goal posts.

For a while, it looked as though the Bush administration would only invade Iraq if Saddam Hussein refused to rid himself of weapons of mass destruction.

But now that Iraq realizes we and the United Nations are serious and has stepped up its compliance, President Bush has begun to talk once again about changing Iraq's regime, by invasion if necessary, whether it complies with weapons inspections or not.

That's OK, as long as the White House offers good reasons for the changes, but it is unsettling to hear the reasons keep changing.

Remember how United States troops went into places such as Vietnam, Beirut and Somalia with the highest of humanitarian aims, only to find that our announced "mission" kept changing as unanticipated disasters arose? By the end, we were satisfied with a mission goal of "peace with honor" or some facsimile of it.

Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the administration criticized Iraq for violating U.N. resolutions to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.

But President Bush didn't put any muscle behind those objections until after 9/11, when he drew rhetorical links between Saddam Hussein and terrorism.

Then the administration failed to turn up evidence linking Mr. Hussein to Osama bin Laden's terrorism, which was the terrorism that Americans cared about the most.

Then Mr. Bush brought a new argument to the United Nations: The body should enforce its own resolutions that Mr. Hussein had violated or the United Nations risked sliding into irrelevancy like the defunct League of Nations.

He made a very good point. If the United Nations is going to make nations accountable, it must put some teeth into its pronouncements. But now that some of our allies have a different interpretation of how much time the inspection regime needs to work, Mr. Bush is talking about the United States picking up its ball and bat and heading off to war all by its lonesome, except for some pals in our "coalition of the willing."

This is a radical move of which most Americans disapprove in the polls and which most of the people in our allied countries such as Britain and Turkey appreciate even less. But that's OK, says Mr. Bush. He's come up with a new reason for us to force a regime change in Iraq: We're going to bring democracy to the Middle East.

But to achieve that worthy vision, the president laid out no roadmap beyond combat, a gamble we must be willing to take, sad to say, with the lives of our young fighting men and women, not to mention untold numbers of innocent Iraqis.

He did not explain how Uncle Sam might help cobble together the elements of democratic rule in a country with almost no democratic traditions, organized democratic opposition or national identity strong enough to bind its deeply divided ethnic groups.

Nor did he explain exactly how the toppling of Mr. Hussein would lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace. In the short term, at least, Mr. Bush appears to be looking at reality backward. So far, his administration's failures to address the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy as an honest peace broker have only fueled anti-American rage across the Middle East and around the world.

Even the hardheads among us Americans who do not care what the rest of the world thinks have to admit that an American invasion of Iraq would fuel that rage further, especially if we do it without the blessings of anyone but a thin and narrow "coalition of willing."

I have no doubt that Mr. Hussein is a bad guy or that the United States can topple him with our military might. But it is unsettling to note how often major military disasters have been preceded by White House squishiness over what the war was about.

It's called "mission creep." It happens sometimes when people ask, "What are we fighting for?" and our national leaders scramble to come up with an answer that sounds attractive enough, even when they haven't worked out the details.

That's what happened back in the '60s, when I was drafted during the Vietnam conflict. I don't think America will make a mistake like that again. I'm more worried about our making new ones.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-email at cpage@tribune.com.

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