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When will we learn our lesson about ornery dictators?


NEW YORK -- Remember this name: Gen. Anthony Zinni. He is the commander of U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf -- and he is probably on his way to retirement or professional martyrdom for telling the truth to power.

It was Gen. Zinni, testifying last week before the Senate Armed Forces Committee on American operations above and around Iraq, who said:

"I will be honest: I don't see an opposition group that has the viability to overthrow Saddam at this point. . . . it would be very difficult, and I think if not done properly, very dangerous."

We have been this way before: The road to Baghdad leads through Havana and Saigon. Oh, what a web we weave when we start out to assassinate and then grieve! The wishful and willful kind of thinking our leaders are doing now in Washington has, in my lifetime, cost us the lives of 55,000 young men and, perhaps, one president named John Kennedy.

In 1963, President Kennedy signed off on a military coup to displace President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, because we did not believe he was effective enough in prosecuting a civil war against Ho Chi Minh's North Vietnam. Diem, predictably, was assassinated in the coup, and his country became an American colony presided over by one fool "strongman" after another.

And on President Kennedy's watch, the United States made one fool attempt after another to assassinate Cuba's Fidel Castro. It was within that environment of blood-politics that Kennedy himself was gunned down by a Castro sympathizer.

What Gen. Zinni tried to say in Washington is that there is no way to loose the dogs of political murder and then control the outcome of their blood lust. "Even if we had Saddam gone," he said, "we could end up with 15, 20 or 90 groups competing for power."

Since World War II, Americans have periodically deluded themselves into believing that because we have the power to disrupt normal life in most any part of the world, we therefore must have the power to stop or start ancient enmities we know little about -- and that little is often wrong.

The current threatening talk about what NATO may or may not do in Kosovo is a current and depressing example of that power-blindness. Keep this in mind: Neither the Serbs, who are Orthodox Christians, and the Kosovo Liberation Army, who are ethnically Albanians and Muslims, want to stop killing each other. They have been doing that since long before the memory of any of today's fighters. The KLA wants war and secession. The Serbs want to destroy the KLA. It does not matter what we do; this is just another rebellion or civil war, which will end with the last man standing.

We have been wrong in Iraq from the start, and we continue to make things worse for ourselves and everybody else. A foreign diplomat reminded me the other day that the photographs of gassed Kurds we use to depict Saddam Hussein as a monster -- which he is -- originally came out during the Iran-Iraq war, and we denounced them as Iranian propaganda.

In those days, if anyone remembers, we were encouraging and arming the Iraqis in the hope they would do a job for us, destroy the Ayatollah Khomeini and his government. Later, seven years ago, we made a great mistake in not telling Saddam Hussein we were prepared to go to war if Iraq invaded Kuwait -- in fact, in their ignorance of our ways, we let the Iraqis get the idea that we did not care if they invaded. So we ended up invading them.

The Iraqis, and the Kurds, too, have been on that ground for centuries, if not millenniums. Just like the Vietnamese and the Serbs. They are going to be there for centuries more. Forever. We fly over and think we can control the ground under them and go home. Forget that. Listen to Gen. Zinni. The man is speaking both sense and truth.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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