WASHINGTON -- Iraq's Saddam Hussein has been so reckless, so demonized in most of the world, that he makes it difficult to ask even proper questions about the U.S. cruise-missile attacks on Iraq's military facilities.
He is such a brutal dictator and obvious aggressor that Americans are inclined to take it for granted that President Clinton is simply engaging in the protection of Mr. Hussein's pitiable Iraqi victims and of the vital interests of the United States.
But someone must ask:
How much were these attacks provoked by a "clear and present danger" to the United States' well-being, and how much by Bob Dole's charges that Mr. Hussein was "testing American leadership and finding it lacking?"
Are these attacks by an infinitely superior U.S. military as risk-free as they seem to be? Or do they further imperil the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan and even Turkey -- and thus U.S. interests in the long-run?
When the U.S. lets the Iraqi dictator goad it into attacking because of his intervention in a Kurdish civil war, is the U.S. helping Iran, which may be a far more dangerous enemy in the area than Iraq?
If our policies punish Saddam Hussein and his loyalists, but also hurt millions of relatively innocent Iraqis, denying them food and medicine, are we really securing our long-range goals in this oil-rich area?
There is no question that President Clinton will benefit in most every way for this military action against Mr. Hussein, whose craziness has been manifest in many ways, the most stunning being his invasion of Kuwait five years ago. Mr. Clinton's jump in popularity will make Senator Dole regret publicly daring him to take military action. Voters almost surely will conclude that the president had no choice but to use force to contain a bully who represents what Defense Secretary William Perry calls a "continuing" threat to U.S. interests, especially in terms of the area's oil supply.
Still, we Americans would be fools to think that our military assaults are cost-free or risk-free. The goal of our enemies -- and I still include Russia on that list -- is not just to grasp control of the area's petroleum in some military thrust; it is to wipe out U.S. influence in the area over the long haul. That means destroying the pro-Western current governments of the Middle East.
U.S. officials tried hard, with virtually no success, to get Arab and European governments to endorse publicly the missile attacks on Iraqi targets. Arab leaders know that for them to give open approval to attacks by "the great white Satan" that kill or hurt Arab brothers and sisters would invite the deeper hatred of Islamic revolutionaries. They know that even their silent consent will provoke more terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, Egypt -- and the U.S.
Some U.S. officials take dangerous solace in the fact that Mr. Hussein seems to have no military options, while we bomb his facilities with impunity. The Iraqi leader's recourse may be to provoke the U.S. again and again, believing that Islamic outrage eventually will triumph in the area.
Mr. Perry says that the U.S. has sent "a strong message . . . we expect to see a change in his behavior." We should have learned by now that there isn't going to be any change in his behavior -- or in the mind-set of the Iraqis we keep thinking might overthrow him.
It seems absolutely proper to me that U.S. and "coalition" forces punished Iraq for the military assault on Irbil in defiance of U.S. warnings. But it is doubtful that it is wise to renounce a plan to allow the sale of some Iraqi oil to provide funds for food and medicine for the suffering Iraqi people.
The world's greatest military power must send one message to Saddam Hussein. But in pursuit of its tenuous long-term goals in the world's most volatile area, the U.S. must send a non-violent message of care and compassion to the long-suffering masses of Iraq.
That's why, no matter how demonized Mr. Hussein may be, we must continue to ask the compelling what's-the-future questions of U.S. leaders.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 9/05/96