- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Those girlish noises on the eastern horizon are the sound of Saddam Hussein giggling.

Well, why not?

The government in Kuwait, retrieved from clammy Iraqi embrace by the Persian Gulf War a decade ago, invited some of the principals back for a celebration yesterday, or at least a commemoration, and from the popping of the champagne corks (or whatever pops at a Muslim gala) you might have imagined the Kuwaitis and their American rescuers won that war.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, dropping in from his first tour of the Middle East, made the ritual pledge that "freedom will live and prosper in this part of the world" despite everything Saddam Hussein can do. That's expecting a lot from something as fragile as freedom, particularly in a grim part of the world where freedom is a foreigner, grudgingly tolerated.

"Aggression," he said, echoing the earlier President Bush on that long past day 10 years ago, "will not stand." Then he joined Mr. Bush and Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf War, to lay a wreath at the American Embassy in remembrance of the 148 Americans killed in the desert.

Alas, Saddam's aggression does stand, and in Iraq, it is standing fully upright.

The rest of the world laughed when Saddam portrayed abject military defeat as his personal triumph. No one laughs at him now. He is the most important Muslim politician anywhere, the unrepentant enemy of the United States, archfoe of the civilized, the intimidator of the brave peace processors at the United Nations. The Muslims whom those 148 Americans (Christians, mostly) died to protect demand now that the United States relieve Saddam's pain.

Americans sometimes learn lessons slowly and only with difficulty. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East. If a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience, as Dr. Johnson famously observed, ingratitude is the bastard child of sacrifice. You could ask anyone within spitting distance of Suez.

Colin Powell heard a chorus of complaint, bluster and whimper at every stop on his Middle Eastern tour, and was told over and over that the new American president owes it to the Arabs in general and the Iraqis in particular to ease the sanctions imposed by the United Nations in an attempt to make Saddam keep evil at a minimum.

The sobs and bluster seem to be working. In Damascus, the nexus of much of the trouble-making in the Middle East, the general indicated diplomats never "say" if they can "indicate" that he will recommend that President Bush ease the curbs on civilian goods to Iraq, even civilian goods that can be easily converted to military use.

The general comes home tonight after meeting with Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, and Farouk al-Sharaa, the foreign minister, to discuss the sanctions and no hooting, please Middle East "peace" efforts. Since the general has banned the use of that thigh-slapper of a term, "peace process," recognizing the home truth that processed peace is to peace as Velveeta is to cheese, he probably had to work at it to keep a straight face in his discussions with the Syrians.

The United States will consult with France, which is always on the lookout for opportunities to subvert and obstruct; with Russia, which sees continued trouble in the region as its path back to pretense if not power; with China, which has helped build the air bases from which Saddam's planes threaten American and British aviators, and with various Arab governments, who cry buckets of tears over the plight of Iraqi civilians but are nevertheless willing to risk nuclear disaster at Saddam's hands if that's what it takes to kill the Jews. Some process. Some peace. A decade hence somebody else can lay a wreath in remembrance of a fresh crop of American corpses.

"We want the world to know our quarrel is not with the people of Iraq," Gen. Powell said in Kuwait, "but with the regime in Baghdad." True enough. It's Saddam who has the quarrel with the people of Iraq, and it is Saddam who will manipulate concessions so that whatever mercy the good-hearted Americans deliver will be so strained that the Iraqi people will never see it.

Saddam can't expect to roll George W. Bush in the way he rolled Bill Clinton, but he won't have to. He kicked out the United Nations arms inspectors, to perfect his germ-warfare weapons and his nuclear experiments without being disturbed. The West, softheaded as usual, contented itself with mere military victory in 1991, and now there's a new threat. This is what cannot be left to stand.

Saddam Hussein isn't entitled to much, but so far he's earned the giggle.

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