- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

At a book party given by Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne Cheney last week, there was no doubt among conservative columnists and intellectuals that the U.S. would be at war with Iraq before summer. "Within two months of Cheney's return from a 10-day, 10-country (no reporters allowed) swing through the Middle East (which begins in mid-March)," predicted one of the better informed columnists, "the U.S. will take on Iraq until the Saddam regime, like the Taliban, is defeated."
The only reason for not going after Saddam as an addendum to Afghanistan, another media insider explained, is that the Pentagon had to replenish its almost exhausted arsenal of smart bombs and other precision-guided munitions.
The fact that no European ally or Middle Eastern friend (with the exception of Kuwait) will back the Bush administration if it decides to go it alone does not faze Mr. Cheney. He told the Council on Foreign Relations he believed the international community would stand behind the administration.
It is hard to believe U.S. Embassies have fallen prey to telling the home office what the administration wants to hear. More likely, ranking visitors from the Middle East have nodded instead of shaking their heads. The only problem with a nod in the Arab world is that it's a sign of politeness, not acquiescence. The Arabs are always loath to say no. It's rude.
At the vice president's book party for the paperback of edition of the novel "The Apprentice" by Scooter Libby, his national security adviser, the buzz was that the U.S. would go it alone, or almost alone. "All we need is Turkey and Kuwait," said one media star, "and we have them both."
When it was suggested that Turkey was not even lukewarm, the knowledgeable columnist said, "Not according to my Turkish sources, including the ambassador." Phone calls to equally knowledgeable sources in Ankara elicited no favorable echo.
A check with other guests amid the dozens of loud conversations that drowned out the lone army piano player conveyed the same foregone conclusion. The day of reckoning with Saddam was at hand, the die had been cast.
When it was suggested such an operation would require about 100,000 U.S. combat personnel and that the only immediately deployable divisions are the 101st Airborne and the 10th Mountain, the conventional wisdom was that the U.S. wouldn't need that many troops, witness the fact that Colin Powell during Desert Shield had estimated that 500,000 troops were needed before Desert Storm could be launched.
The Afghan model came up repeatedly. The vast difference between a backward, medieval society like Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the Middle East's most militarized society was dismissed with, "Saddam's forces are only one-third the strength they were when he invaded Kuwait in 1990." Iraq now has 424,000 men under arms and another 650,000 in the reserves.
Clearly Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz who was among the guests and his let's-get-Saddam-now hawkish followers within the administration have won the intramural struggle against Secretary of State Colin Powell. But the Saddam devil is in the Pentagon details.
The Kurds will rise up against Saddam as soon as the first bombs fall was another given at the vice president's party. Two days later, the Wall Street Journal front-paged a 2,000-word piece from the Kurdish area of Iraq that made clear the Kurds had never had it so good with their share of Iraqi oil sales and wanted no part in a war to remove Saddam from power.
Another question raised with the conservative opinion-makers was what happens if the U.S. victory in Afghanistan continues to unravel as it appears to be doing. There was a response for all the caveats. "We should not be involved in Afghanistan beyond the defeat of al Qaeda and Taliban," said another stalwart.
What happens if Saddam does not sit this out waiting for the superpower to strike? He may well agree to a return of U.N. inspectors whatever weapons of mass destruction capability he has accumulated are well hidden by now and presumably beyond discovery under the 1991 U.N. Resolution 687. Saddam is reported to be leaning in that direction with a little wrinkle designed to sway Arab opinion: Resolution 687 has an unimplemented provision that calls for "the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East region." Israel is known to have a nuclear arsenal of some 300 weapons. Such a ploy would automatically garner the support of the Arab league of 22 nations.
This was a likely dilatory diplomatic tactic that might throw a monkey wrench in the timetable for unilateral U.S. action. But questions that reflected caution were dismissed as irrelevant. The war will be sooner rather than later. The allies are dismissed as nervous nellies for criticizing President Bush's "axis of evil" State of the Union address, as the European Union's External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten did when he described U.S. policy as "unilaterialism in overdrive." This is not routine European carping.
What the unilateralists have not thought through is the extent to which the Bush Doctrine pushes away close allies and new friends like Vladimir Putin's Russia and encourages them, in effect, to stand up for America's enemies. Not a good tradeoff.
To speak softly and carry a big stick is a geopolitical philosophy that has been rejected since September 11. The American people now want their president to speak loudly and use, not carry, a big stick. But the U.S. should not mix rotten al Qaeda apples with rotten Saddam oranges. There is no proof, and much doubt, that Iraq was ever part of Osama bin Laden's global network.
So long as Saddam remains in power, he will be a menace to the region. But that is no reason to throw caution to the wind. Act now and think later is not good policy. Invidious suggestions that President Bush's popularity as a wartime president means he is now in search of another war to keep his ratings up are being whispered half-facetiously in some NATO capitals.
The Bush administration is quite right when it argues that the mission dictates the coalition, not the coalition the mission. But that should not detract from the need to cobble a coalition from the remnants of the post-September 11 coalition.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and United Press International.

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