Brent Scowcroft is a grand old man of American foreign policy, so we should take what he says seriously. For that matter, Dick Armey is a grand old congressman – and we should take what he says seriously, too. Both say – Armey more directly – that Saddam Hussein has not given us sufficient "provocation" to remove him from power. Certainly to invade and topple him. But is it true?
Some people, in the last many months, have tied themselves in knots trying to figure out whether Mohamed Atta, one of the 9-11 terrorists, met with an Iraqi agent in Prague. This question of the Czech Connection became burning. Stand-patters in the CIA went out of their way to throw cold water on a Prague meeting; other elements in the government contended there was solid evidence of it. A couple of weeks ago, a senior administration official – unnamed – seemed to settle the matter, at least from the White House’s point of view: Yes, the meeting took place. And we could expect to hear more about it later.
But so what? There are ample reasons to go after Saddam, even if he didn’t supply the 9-11 terrorists with the box-cutters used to slit stewardesses’ throats.
In a recent conversation, I put exactly this question to Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser (who, as it happens, cut her teeth on the staff of Brent Scowcroft, when he served, under the current president’s father, in Rice’s present position): Does there need to be further "provocation" before we can confront Saddam in a very serious way?
She said, "It is remarkable that people could look at the Saddam Hussein regime that continues to threaten its neighbors and its own people, that shoots at our planes in the no-fly zone practically every day," that is driving toward weapons of mass destruction, that has already used chemical weapons – and wonder whether the United States would be justified to attack. "You should ask yourself, ‘Is the burden of proof that he’s a bad guy who will undoubtedly cause a lot of trouble for the world if there’s no regime change – should the burden of proof be on him or on us?’ And I would submit to you that the burden of proof ought to be on him, and he’s failing that burden of proof."
I further asked whether Saddam’s retaliatory capacity was "staying our hand." And, while she acknowledged that "you have to take into consideration all potential consequences of any action you might take," she gave an unflinching answer: "Non-action also has consequences." (President Bush himself has said this repeatedly.)
As recently as Thursday, Rice told the BBC that we "do not have the luxury of doing nothing." This is putting the matter as it is.
Saddam Hussein’s drive toward weapons of mass destruction ought to sober and chill us all. He is bent on obtaining them, perfecting them. It’s only a matter of time. And what was that phrase of Bush’s? "Time is not on our side." This may be the truest, bluntest statement of the entire post-9-11 period. Once Saddam gains his weapons of mass destruction, he will not let them sit around and look pretty. He will use them. To think otherwise – to hope otherwise – is reckless. Thus, the name of the game is pre-emption. Never before has the principle of pre-emption been so important in American policy. There is not much time for a response to a launch; we have very few options. As Mark Helprin has written, these things are measured in seconds. To fail to act pre-emptively is to fail to act at all.
Back in 1981, Israel didn’t wait around to see what would become of the (French-supplied) Iraqi nuclear reactor. No, the Israelis took it out – by themselves. And the world, including the United States, screamed bloody murder. Certainly by the time of the Gulf War – ten years later – Israel should have earned the world’s gratitude. That war might have been a far different proposition if Israel, a tiny power, but with a lot to lose, hadn’t acted alone, "world opinion" be damned.
In his Wall Street Journal piece, Brent Scowcroft makes clear that he sees Iraq as a separate issue from the war on terror. But the administration, by all evidence, sees the two things as one, as well it should. Our enemies are specific terrorists and terror factories, yes; but they are also terror supporters, "rogue" states, expansionist dictators, would-be hegemons, and nuke-tipped, too. Anti-American violence draws succor from such regimes as Saddam’s. And the president is right in saying, or at least strongly implying, that the entire equation in the Middle East has to change. The overthrow of Saddam would be a tonic in the Arab world, and in the world at large. It would complete the (uncompleted) work of 1991. It would show the vaunted Arab "street" that the U.S. means business, that it will back up its word, that it will commit.
The worst thing we could do now is leave Saddam in power, after so much saber-rattling (be it principled and correct saber-rattling). Commentators often ask whether Arabs perceive the United States as "on their side." To relieve them of Saddam Hussein is certainly an important way of being on their side. As Bernard Lewis and others have said, the scenes of jubilation in Baghdad or Tehran, if either of those regimes were toppled, would make the scenes in Kabul – you remember those joyful images? – seem funereal.
Nor would we face a frightening vacuum. Die-hard status-quoers in the State Department and CIA have thrown dirt on Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi opposition for years – but they are as poised as anybody could be to participate in a new Iraq, with American backing. Would the U.S. have to commit resources to sustain Iraq, even act in a quasi-imperial way? Of course. But who can argue, at this point, that it wouldn’t be worth it? Would that we had done this work in the early and mid-’90s.
Gen. Scowcroft says that Saddam is "unlikely" to share weapons of mass destruction with terrorists (discounting the fact that Saddam himself is a kind of terrorist, power-holder though he may be). Perhaps. But how much speculation can we Americans afford? The general concedes that "it may at some point be wise to remove [Saddam] from power." Okay, but when? When he is already at our throat? And would there still be time?
A further Scowcroft contention is that "an attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken." I have already given the view that dealing with Saddam is part of that campaign, not a diversion from it. Furthermore, our allies follow us to the extent that we show leadership and will – to the extent that we follow through, that diplomatic and military imperative. Our enemies respect us to the extent we do the same. In the run-up to the Afghan action, there were mass demonstrations in Muslim streets in favor of Osama bin Laden. When the U.S. began to prevail, those demonstrations dried up. The streets went silent. As David Pryce-Jones and others have pointed out, power is greatly – almost shockingly – respected in this area. Those in the square cheering for Saddam today, will cheer even more loudly when he swings from a lamp-post tomorrow.
Gen. Scowcroft writes, "[T]here is a virtual consensus in the world against an attack on Iraq at this time. So long as that sentiment persists, it would require the U.S. to pursue a virtual go-it-alone strategy against Iraq, making any military operations correspondingly more difficult and expensive." Anyone who waits for a world consensus in favor of attacking Iraq will wait forever. If the United States goes ahead and acts in its interests – and the world’s – the consensus will follow. And the wise heads in London, Paris, and elsewhere will say, "We told the Americans to just get going all along."
What is perhaps most amazing about the general’s piece is his use of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "The obsession of the region," he writes, "is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." This may be the obsession of the Palestinians – but of the Arabs generally? Back when he was making propaganda tapes, bin Laden would forget to mention the Palestinians, until prompted to do so by more alert PR hands. Bin Laden would talk only of the intolerable American presence on "holy land." The Iranians – good Muslims, of a sort – certainly never mentioned the Palestinians when they seized the American embassy and held our personnel for a year and three months. We were "the Great Satan"; the little Satan – Israel – wasn’t even an afterthought. Arabs and Arab governments care so little about the Palestinians that, 50 years on, they are still living in "refugee camps." Arabs – for example, in Riyadh – bleed over the Palestinians when it is convenient to do so, PR-wise.
No doubt Arab sources bring up "the plight of the Palestinians" when talking to Brent Scowcroft and other Western opinion-makers. But do they do so among themselves?
Besides which – to echo an earlier point – if the United States waited for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be resolved, it would wait forever. That conflict has already been going on a half a century. Gen. Scowcroft writes, "If we were seen to be turning our backs on that bitter conflict . . . in order to go after Iraq . . ." This is what Al Gore refers to as "first things first." You can’t deal with Iraq until you have made the Palestinian lion lie down with the Israeli lamb. This is a neat way of saying: no dealing with Iraq, ever. If we took care of Saddam, we would no more be "turning our backs" on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than we would the arrest of Martha Stewart. This mighty nation – the sole remaining superpower – can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Writes the general, "We would be seen [if we went into Iraq, before peace between Palestinians and Israelis] as ignoring a key interest of the Muslim world in order to satisfy what is seen to be a narrow American interest."
First, satisfying American interests is what the U.S. government – with its military – should do. But second, how could Brent Scowcroft write such a thing? The national security adviser at the time of the Gulf War! The removal of Saddam Hussein is not just an American interest – "narrow" or not – but an Arab interest. Ask the Iraqis. Ask them whether they are interested in the removal of Saddam. They are just as interested as the Afghans were, in the removal of the Taliban. How about the people of Kuwait? One will recall that Saddam Hussein invaded and raped and tortured this brother Arab nation – hence the Gulf War. One will recall something about protecting the House of Saud from invasion as well.
Of course, those royals are nervous about an American toppling of Saddam – that might plant ideas in the heads of their subjects.
Then there is the question of the United Nations, and its pathetic, years-long half-effort to "inspect." The phrase of the old rascal George C. Wallace comes to mind: that it’s time – certainly with respect to these bogus U.N. "inspections," which serve mainly to buy Saddam a little time and space – to "stop pussy-footin’ around."
We must not reject "a comprehensive perspective," warns Gen. Scowcroft. But it is, indeed, a "comprehensive perspective" that embraces Iraq as a major problem in the Middle East and for the United States. The administration of the first Bush did not deal with this problem decisively – although the Gulf War was genuinely heroic. The next administration let things fester – for two terms. It now falls to the administration of the second Bush to finish the job, which includes, to be crude about it, finishing off Saddam.
This must be hard, at a certain level, for veterans of Bush I. It is similarly hard for officials of Bush II, beginning with the president himself – action now may be seen as a rebuke, however indirect, to the performance of Bush I. Colin Powell is now in an extraordinary position: He has the opportunity to correct – almost personally! – an earlier mistake. But will he blow it? Here’s an odd question: If the U.S. liberated Iraq and positive consequences flowed, would Powell consider it an embarrassment? Would he consider it a negative judgment on the decisions of Bush I? Would others?
I happen to have great sympathy for those earlier Bushies – the U.N. mandate and all. The Democrats who now chide Bush the Elder for stopping short of Baghdad are the same people who would have been all over him "like ugly on a gorilla," as he would say, if he had gone one inch beyond the U.N. mandate. That mandate said: the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. Period.
But we can do better for ourselves, and the Middle East, now. We keep hearing that 9-11 "changed everything." If it did, then it must have changed the belief that we can afford a world in which the Iraqi dictator is free to work his ill.
Jay Nordlinger is Managing Editor of the National Review.