We have seen a frightening performance in the last few weeks. President George W. Bush has shown us the ease with which a relentless and obsessed president, wielding simplistic language, exaggerating dangers, distorting history, invoking patriotism, churning fear and nightmarish memories, can smother debate and take almost all of us along for his ride. True debate was impossible because he made many politicians with doubts fear that the public would brand them as traitors rather than doubters. Never has the presidency seemed more imperial. The Iraqi adventure may go as smoothly as the Chenites and Rumsfelders want, but the precedent strikes me as threatening to both democracy and good sense.
The president, even when trying to assuage his allies, cannot rid himself of his bellicose tone. He revels in it, in fact. If you read the General Assembly speeches by both the president and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on last September 12, they seemed to be saying the same thing. They both insisted that, in accordance with the resolutions that ended the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein must rid himself of all weapons of mass destruction. But Annan spoke with the moral authority of a statesman who abhors war and will try all else first. Bush spoke as if war were not a last resort but an all but inevitable resort. [Yet this speech was tailored to make his policy palatable to skeptical European governments; on the campaign trail, his stridency makes him sound like a video game addict itching to fire first.] The two U.N. speeches prompted a Los Angeles Times cartoonist - as simple-minded as his hero - to caricature Bush as Winston Churchill and Annan as Neville Chamberlain.
It may be, of course, that all this war talk is calculated bluff, that Bush, speaking loudly and carrying a big stick, feels that a credible threat is the only way to make Saddam Hussein cower and give in. But I don't think so. The American-proposed resolution making its way around the Security Council is so onerous that it seems designed to goad Saddam Hussein into defiance. Under the American scheme, American officials could go along with U.N. inspectors and raise cries of alarm if the inspectors did not. The most ardent Iraq-baiters in the administration make it clear that they do not trust U.N. inspectors anyway. Even if the inspectors declared Saddam 100% clean, these administration officials wouldn't believe it. Moreover, it may not matter if all the war talk began as bluff. Rhetoric has its own power. If the United States keeps talking war, war becomes more and more acceptable and even inevitable.
Unlike his father, who strengthened the U.N. enormously through the Persian Gulf War, young Bush has hurt it badly. He insists that the U.N. will lose its relevance if it fails to do what he wants it to do. Yet, if it fails, he warns, the United States will go ahead on its own and do what is necessary. Such words do not leave the U.N. much room for relevance.
Bush also implies that Iraq has gone unpunished for its "decade of deception and defiance." He sounds as if the U.N. spent ten years issuing empty threats while closing its eyes to Saddam's finger. "We want the resolutions of the world's most important multilateral body to be enforced," he told the General Assembly. "And right now those resolutions are being unilaterally subverted by the Iraqi regime." This ignores the reality that the U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions on Iraq for more than a decade. These sanctions remain in place until Saddam Hussein complies with the resolutions or at least with the resolution demanding the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. Now, it may be that these sanctions aren't much or that they hurt the Iraqi people more than they hurt Saddam, but they are tough enough for Saddam and his minions to cry out again and again for their removal. It is a canard to portray the U.N. as a milquetoast for a decade.
Since I do not believe that Saddam is an immediate threat to the United States but do believe he should disarm in accordance with the Security Council resolution that he accepted to end the Persian Gulf War, my preferred scenario would be a thorough and intrusive series of U.N. inspections that did away with his weapons of mass destruction once and for all. That might take a good deal of time - and time might help temper the war talk. At the end, if Saddam complied and allowed continued monitoring, the sanctions should be lifted in accordance with the same resolution. Any incentive for Saddam to comply in the past was taken away by the insistence of the elder Bush and Clinton administrations that they would never allow the lifting of sanctions so long as Saddam remained in charge.
But that scenario is probably a pipe dream. I'm not sure that Saddam is smart enough to comply. And I don't believe that the present Bush administration would ever accept anything from the U.N. inspectors except a damning verdict.
It is obvious that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the others want Saddam out of there. I'm not sure why they are so hot about it. Erasing a stain may be one reason. They did not topple him in 1991, partly because they wanted Iraq to remain strong enough to stand up to Iran, partly because they thought the army would surely get rid of this loser. That failure still rankles. Vengeance may be another reason. Saddam ordered an assassination attempt on the elder Bush. It's also good politics to rant and rave about Saddam; it keeps unemployment, corporate scandals and a plunging stock market off the front pages. And, finally, they may really believe, as Paul Wolfowitz seems to, that they can usher in an era of stability and democracy in the Middle East once Saddam falls.
Decades ago, when I covered Africa for the Los Angeles Times, I used to wish for some international mechanism that would somehow pluck out the host of bloody tyrants that seemed to rule many of the countries. Of course, the CIA did do a lot of that kind of stuff in the world, kicking Allende out and keeping the Shah in. But the CIA didn't care about ridding the world of tyrants, only about squelching communists and over-liberal lefties. Now we seem to have an overt policy of getting rid of dangerous bloody tyrants. And it frightens me. I just don't trust the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld risking war while deciding for me who should go and who should stay.