Sand Trap


Sending carriers to the gulf and ultimatums to Iraq is a dangerous game. So is conveying through leaks and hints that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is an object of administration policy.

Iraq as it stands is a trap for President Bush. A resumption of bombing would be a worse one.

The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual dictator of Iran, relished his ability to defeat Jimmy Carter in the American election of 1980 by holding American hostages and defying Mr. Carter to free them.

That does not mean he thought Ronald Reagan preferable, just that he could cut one American president down and meant to tame the next one.

Saddam Hussein probably feels the same way about George Bush. How could he not? This does not mean he has any reason to think Bill Clinton better from Iraq's perspective.

It just means he would love to humiliate and destroy the man who threw him out of Kuwait and bombed the Baghdad sewers to smithereens. That would make Mr. Hussein a hero in much of the Arab world's eyes and his own.

How good is Mr. Hussein's intelligence on U.S. capabilities and intentions? Probably lousy. Many Iraqis understand American society and politics, but the dictator is notoriously inhospitable to unsought advice. He is a terrible consumer of intelligence. By reputation, he listens to CNN. The question would be the analysis. He, alas, is the analyst.

In the gulf war and its aftermath, the dictator underestimated the U.S. will and the president overestimated his ability to manipulate events within Iraq. There is no reason to believe that either has remedied his deficiency.

Linking the sending of cruise missiles and aircraft carriers to an array of United Nations Security Council ultimatums, some of them concerning Iraq's internal affairs (such as persecution of ethnic groups), puts too much control of U.S. actions into Saddam Hussein's hands. He, not George Bush, can determine if there is to be an October surprise. That is not a good idea.

Bombing is a most imprecise persuader. The threat of violence can be effective, but the violence itself invariably has unintended effects. As a tool to coerce policy, it should be expected to fail.

What happens if Washington threatens to bomb, is spurned, carries out the threat and is spurned again? What do we do next? Contrarily, how would we know when to declare we had won?

No American president serves himself well by fixation over some Third World despot. Fidel Castro's defiance of John F. Kennedy and Muammar el Kadafi's nose-thumbing at Ronald Reagan are cases in point. The U.S. bombing of Libya in 1986 did not chasten Mr. Kadafi, but rather showed the futility of assassination through air power. It made him a hero in the minds of those whose minds he controls.

The exception to this argument is Gen. Manuel Noriega of Panama. The one president who did eliminate a tinpot irritant was George Bush. If this raised expectations that he can do this whenever he wants to whomever he wants, it was a dreadfully misleading precedent.

The biggest danger of any military operation now is that, even more than in the gulf war last year, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein will be understood to be the object.

There can be no United Nations or allied mandate for such a goal. It cannot be proclaimed. But after all the winks and nods from Marlin Fitzwater at the White House and Margaret Tutwiler at State -- and especially after Secretary of State James A. Baker III met leaders of the Iraqi insurrection -- that goal will be understood.

And then all Saddam Hussein has to do to "win" is to survive. As Mr. Castro did and Mr. Kadafi did. As Mr. Hussein himself survived the smart-bombing of deep shelters in Iraq last year.

What President Bush does not have to worry about is Democratic obstruction. Mr. Clinton as good as gave him a blank check. Democratic leaders of Congress came tamely out of their briefing fully supporting the president.

The Democrats will not be maneuvered into seeming to be unpatriotic this time. Mr. Clinton will not be caught sympathizing with the demon Saddam. That is their trap, and they are staying out of it.

The problem for Mr. Bush, rather, is creating expectations that cannot be met, of letting Saddam Hussein control the shots, of bombing for no discernible purpose but the bombing itself. Of seeming to the world and the American voter (without a word from Mr. Clinton) to kill out of pique.

None of this is necessary. But to avoid it, Mr. Bush has to keep control for himself and out of the hands of Mr. Hussein, civilian hawks and his own passions and frustrations.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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