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© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2002
TALLAHASSEE -- No living American can recall a president as eager for war as George W. Bush appears to be, and there may be no precise parallel in all of our history. Not since the Mexican War has the United States knowingly fired first. Poor William McKinley, who had to be dragged into it, had at least the pretext of "Remember the Maine," though it eventually came out that explosive coal dust, not a Spanish torpedo, was more likely to blame for sinking the ship. Ever since, our war presidents have been in the posture of responding to aggression against ourselves or our friends, a justification that fails to stand up only with respect to Vietnam.
That Bush is so bellicose doesn't necessarily mean he's wrong. Saddam Hussein is a bad guy. But the rest of the case isn't so simple. The question is not just what Hussein might do if he isn't attacked, but what he might do if he is.
The White House invokes the memory of Franklin Roosevelt, who fully understood the menace of Adolf Hitler but was frustrated by an isolationist Senate from helping the British until it was nearly too late. And of course it cannot talk about Hussein without bringing up Hitler himself.
That point is apt. The beginning of World War II can be traced not just to the invasion of Poland in 1939, or the Munich agreement a year earlier that had infamously "appeased" Hitler at the expense of Czechoslovakia, but all the way back to his earliest days in power, when he re-armed Germany in violation of the treaty that had formally ended World War I. The last, best chance to stop him short of global war was lost in 1936 when he sent troops into the western part of Germany, the Rhineland, that had been demilitarized by the Treaty of Versailles, and France -- the stronger power at that time -- did nothing to stop him. Having promised to allow arms inspections as a condition for surviving the Gulf War, Hussein walked in Hitler's footsteps when he threw the inspectors out.
Is there a moral justification for taking him out? Absolutely. Is he ruthless? Certainly. Is he trying to come into possession of nuclear weapons? No doubt.
But the Bush administration's argument that he will eventually use weapons of mass destruction if he is not attacked prompts equally important questions. Hussein not only has poison gas but has already employed it in combat. Under what circumstance might be use it again? As a last resort, perhaps, when U.S. troops close in on his bunker beneath the smoking ruins of Baghdad?
Invasion is, in fact, the one circumstance most likely to provoke Hussein into unleashing poison gas. The targets would not be just American forces in the field, who would be prepared for it. Nor is Israel the only other potential victim. The Saudis and Kuwaitis should be nervous, too.
Saddam Hussein is just about every bad thing one could call him. Tyrant. Murderer. Ruthless. Evil. But nobody has seriously suggested that he is insane, at least not to the point that he can no longer perceive and respect superior power. It cannot be far from his mind that the first use of any weapon of mass destruction would be suicidal.
Nor is it just the United States whose retaliation he would have to fear. Israel does not pretend any longer to deny that it has nuclear weapons. Under attack from Iraqi Scud missiles with nerve gas warheads, Israel would be entirely justified in a nuclear response. But if there were nothing left for Hussein to lose, such a consequence might no longer be so unthinkable. Another thing that should be remembered about Hitler is that he wanted Germany to die with him; only the belated disobedience of Albert Speer and others kept that demoniacal Gotterdammerung from becoming a reality.
The administration's entire argument for a preventive attack turns on the scenario of Iraq developing a nuclear weapon as an instrument of blackmail. As seen in the light of Iraq's existing chemical capability, however, blackmail is a present danger. Congress cannot possibly debate war without acknowledging this.
Vice President Dick Cheney, the loudest hawk, is no doubt haunted in hindsight by the decision to let Hussein and his regime survive once Desert Storm had fulfilled its mission under U.N. authority to liberate Kuwait. But regret is no substitute for sober reflection on the full consequence of launching a new Mideast war for which there is no explicit U.N. authority, no support from any government other than Great Britain's and opposition from most everyone else. The speculative results of allowing the present Iraqi regime to remain in power must be weighed against the consequences of a pre-emptive attack to civilians, in Baghdad and elsewhere, to the economy of this nation, and to the survival of America's friends in that region.
It is ironic that this war is proposed by an American administration whose own legitimacy is clouded by a contested election and that the top official who conspicuously has the least to say in favor of it is the only one among them who ever commanded troops in combat. What does Colin Powell know that the hawks don't?