- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Some things, like fine wines and exotic cheeses, improve with age. The opportunity to execute a swift, decisive and relatively low-cost U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq is probably not among them.
In fact, were President Bush to hue to the conventional wisdom that he must play out the United Nations "process" for at least the next month, awaiting Hans Blix's inspection report on Jan. 27 and consulting further with the Security Council, if not seeking its approval before initiating hostilities the dangers would grow inexorably.
For one thing, the passage of time offers Saddam Hussein additional chances to prepare for the use of weapons of mass destruction against U.S. forces and allies overseas and perhaps civilian targets here at home. It also would afford him the opportunity to ready the "scorched earth" option his reported plan to blow up Iraq's oil fields and infrastructure so as to impede the allies and turn the Iraqi people against them.
Subordinating U.S. military plans and offensive operations to the dictates of publicized and closely monitored U.N. timelines carries with it one other, potentially very high cost: It jeopardizes the element of surprise that usually is crucial to success on the battlefield.
The best chance we are likely to have to prevent Saddam's use of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and elsewhere and to keep him from exercising the scorched earth option is to act before he expects us to.
If these considerations were not sufficient cause for acting on the now-ample consensus that Saddam continues to defy the U.N. demands for a full accounting of his weapons programs, there are at least three other compelling reasons for acting at once. Further delay will only translate into ever-more dangerous inattention to policy paralysis and erosion of U.S. interests in the Levant, the Korean Peninsula and Latin America.
The Levant: In an excellent article in last Friday's Jerusalem Post, columnist Caroline Glick described how Mr. Bush's vision for creating a Palestinian state that is not simply another terrorist-supporting nation and mortal threat to our ally, Israel, is morphing into a "roadmap to Perdition." This is hardly a surprise, given that the principal architects of this roadmap are a quartet comprised of the European Union, the United Nations, the Russian Federation and the U.S. State Department.
Unlike Mr. Bush, whose support for the Jewish state emanates from personal belief and deep-seated commitment, the driving forces behind the quartet have all historically been hostile to Israel. They have seized upon the president's preoccupation with Iraq to displace the United States as the exclusive Middle East peacemaker. Last June, Mr. Bush described an event-driven plan for creating a Palestinian state (notably, predicated upon the election of an altogether new Palestinian leadership that is genuinely committed to peaceful coexistence with Israel and constitutional democracy. The new lowest common denominator appears to be a state for the Palestinians starting "provisionally" whatever that means by the end of 2003, whether the president's preconditions have been satisfied or not.
Korea: Like U.S. foes and so-called friends elsewhere, Kim Jong-il's regime in North Korea has clearly calculated that this moment of maximum distraction with Iraq is the best time to advance its agenda at U.S. expense. It has turned up the heat by pursuing, and even acknowledging, a covert program to acquire nuclear weapons; by effectively renouncing the 1994 agreement whereby it had promised (again) to forego such arms; and, most recently, by moving to restart the weapons-relevant plutonium reactor and reprocessing facilities that had been sealed pursuant to that accord.
Such menacing moves had, most immediately, the desired effect of securing the election of a South Korean president who is, if anything, even more disposed to appease the North than was his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung. All other things being equal, widespread anti-American sentiment in the South precipitated by a fatal accident involving U.S. troops and two Korean schoolgirls, but perhaps fanned directly as well as indirectly by Pyongyang will make it more difficult for the United States to forge a common, robust position with its ally. The job of doing so requires presidential-level attention from Washington, not simply that of diplomats ever-disposed to try to buy off the likes of Kim Jong-il with new concessions.
Latin America: The latest evidence of the general unraveling of stable, democratic Latin America that has been taking place in recent years is on display in the streets of Venezuela.
There, millions of citizens are trying to take back their country from the ruinous economic and political predations of a one-time military coup-mounter-turned-elected pro-Castro autocrat. The prospects for widespread violence and a potentially devastating disruption in the country's principal export, oil, is real and growing as long as President Hugo Chavez remains in power.
Since 15 percent of U.S. energy imports come from Venezuela, Washington has a huge stake in helping to restore democracy there as quickly and as peaceably as possible.
Mr. Bush ran for office on the proposition that he would give Latin America the attention U.S. strategic and economic interests in the region demand.
Regrettably, under present circumstances, he seems unable even to decide to renominate Otto Reich, one of our time's most skilled Latin American hands and a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, to boot to help him as the top State Department official charged with designing and executing the sort of coherent, concerted policy toward the region that is so clearly needed.
Liberating Iraq will not necessarily be a panacea for the troubles afflicting the Middle East, let alone the rest of the world. Still, swift and effective action aimed at accomplishing that objective should not only make a huge difference in transforming an ever-more worrisome Persian Gulf. It should also help clear the decks for appropriate U.S. action on other pressing diplomatic and/or military fronts in the global war on terrorism.


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