- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

Does history repeat? Twelve years ago this very month, George H.W. Bush, America's 41st president, ordered U.S. forces into action, leading a coalition of some three-dozen states to evict Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait and end Iraq's unlawful occupation of that tiny, oil-rich nation. Today, George W. Bush, America's 43rd president and son of the 41st, faces a similar decision. This time however, while Saddam and Iraq are still the adversaries, the casus belli will be Iraq's failure to comply with U.N. resolutions mandating it eliminate all its weapons of mass destruction. And, if it is war, Saddam and his regime will become history this time around.
Back then, when the United States was building up forces in the Gulf needed to defeat Iraq's large army, the Bush 41 administration had three major nightmares keeping it metaphorically awake. First, Saddam would use his chemical and biological weapons against coalition forces, his Arab neighbors and Israel. While coalition forces had protection against many of these deadly agents, the danger of Israeli retaliation in the event of a WMD attack and the consequences of that retribution were one very nightmarish scenario.
Second, Saddam could mine the Suez Canal or block it at a choke point requiring ships to make the long transit around the tip of Africa adding days to the voyage to the Gulf. A blockage would delay the arrival of VII Corps from Europe with all its armor and heavy forces needed for the famous "left hook" to complete the liberation of Kuwait and could have stalled the entire operation.
And third and probably scariest was the prospect of Saddam agreeing to a withdrawal from Kuwait before the war started making an attack politically impossible. That withdrawal could have been partial and could have been orchestrated over a lengthy negotiation possibly with Iraq retaining some access to Kuwait and its oil. However, given the choice of negotiation or war, most of the Arab states no doubt would have insisted on the former.
Today, the nightmares are not quite the same. True, if Saddam does have WMD, he could and most likely might use them in the event of war. The same problem over Israeli retaliation remains. However, an opposite political nightmare is the prospect Saddam has actually eliminated his WMD and that following a successful attack and occupation of Iraq by coalition forces, the cupboard really was bare.
In the event of that nightmare, the Bush administration would no doubt argue that, left alone, Saddam could easily restart his WMD programs. Hence, whether he physically possessed WMD was not relevant to the danger he posed. That line would have had difficulty abroad. Whether it would work in the United States is part of this nightmare.
A second and more menacing nightmare has North Korean origins. Suppose at the moment prior to war, Saddam loudly admits he has obtained nuclear weapons and, if attacked, will use them in self-defense, possibly asserting that Pyongyang was the source. Regardless of fact, the dilemma for the administration would be agonizing, intensified by predictable reactions from the U.N. to capitals stretching from Cairo to Islamabad.
If Saddam were bluffing and the bluff were called, the administration might be accused of recklessness and forgiven because it won. But if Saddam actually had nuclear weapons and used them, could any administration withstand the political aftershock? It can be argued that it was better to take Saddam on now even if he used nuclear weapons in anger rather than wait sometime in the future when Iraq acquired more with far greater potential to inflict damage. Still, that explanation is not for timid politicians, nor would it work well in the wake of any Iraqi nuclear strike.
There are, of course, other nightmares. The public, if polls are to be believed, wonders whether this is the right war against the right adversary given the situation in North Korea. The contradiction of inaction against an adversary who has atomic weapons, at least according the CIA, and the prospect of ending the regime of a weaker and therefore more vulnerable enemy who lacks them is not readily understood. And there is the broader worry that somehow the nation is biting off a great deal more than it can handle.
Fortunately, nightmares pass. And in making the choice for peace or war, nightmares ought not be dismissed entirely. Bad things can happen. But it is the great leader who can deal with bad things and ensure that, at the end of the day, they turn out favorably. The ultimate nightmare is that this does not happen regardless of whether or not we go to war.


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