Has Saddam Cheated the Hangman?

by Patrick J. Buchanan – September 23, 2002

With Russia, China, France and Saudi Arabia shifting to back a U.S. invasion, Saddam played his ace of trumps. U.N. inspectors, he told Kofi Annan, can come back in and inspect whatever they wish.

The White House was caught flat-footed. But the Russians seized on Saddam’s offer as ending the need for new U.N. resolutions. The Arab League, which had a hand in coaxing Saddam to cooperate, declared there was now no need for the U.N. to threaten war. Within hours, the momentum of the president’s U.N. address had dissipated and the coalition forming up behind a U.S. invasion had disassembled.

The president’s denunciation of Saddam’s offer as a deceitful ploy is almost surely on the mark. But that does not mean it will not work. For as Bush is seeking any pretext for invading Iraq, the U.N. is casting about for any pretext not to authorize an invasion. And now it has it.

Has Saddam cheated the hangman again? Probably not.

The War Party has too much invested in taking down Saddam and taking over Iraq to let itself be sidetracked by U.N. officials chatting with Iraqis about how to inspect weapons plants. And the president, whose popularity has soared to 70 percent, seems to have made up his mind – for war. Absent regime change in Baghdad in 2003, there could be regime change in Washington in 2004 – so deeply has this president locked himself into the war box with his bellicosity.

Also, most Democrats, including their presidential hopefuls, are paralyzed with fear of being on the wrong side of a popular war, as many found themselves in 1991. The president should win easily on a joint resolution ceding him “maximum flexibility” to invade Iraq, if necessary, to destroy Saddam’s weapons and regime.

Some Democrats want to make their support for an invasion contingent on U.N. authorization. But with the president playing the patriot card and framing this as an OK Corral showdown between Uncle Sam and Saddam, appeals to multilateralism will not cut it.

But if Saddam has not cheated the hangman, he has ensured that this war will not be the grand coalition affair of Desert Storm, which was supported by the Arab League, the Security Council, the NATO alliance and the Congress of the United States.

A second complication for the White House is finding, in the absence of an Iraqi provocation, a casus belli to justify an attack. For the president to declare Iraq a threat to world peace, while U.N. inspectors are freely driving about the Iraqi countryside, will seem less a justification for war than a Great Power’s pretext for launching one.

There is a third complication. Even if Saddam fully intends to “cheat and retreat,” his duplicity may not be known for six months, until U.N. inspectors are denied access to suspected weapons plants. But these are critical months if Rumsfeld intends to fight a winter war, as in 1991. By April, Iraq’s desert heat may make an invasion a far more hellish exercise than the U.S. Army wishes to undertake.

Moreover, the fallout from a U.S invasion of Iraq, without U.N. authorization, is certain to be far-reaching. What then becomes of the U.N.? What happens to NATO if Germany denounces the war and France endorses a Security Council demand that the British and Americans withdraw from Iraq, as Eisenhower demanded that the Brits and French get out of Suez? What becomes of the vaunted “international community” if a triumphant America pursues the War Party’s secret agenda, which includes the overthrow of many more Arab and Islamic regimes than the one seated in Baghdad?

The War Party assures us that the Arab regimes that oppose war publicly will privately toast Saddam’s demise. Perhaps. But that does not tell us why these regimes must stand against us.

The answer is obvious. Though none is democratic, all must be in some way responsive to the will of their people, and the Arab and Islamic masses are virulently anti-American. No one loves Saddam, but tens of millions detest us. Neoconservatives tell us we will be admired when we are victorious. But the Israelis were victorious in five Arab wars. And how admired, respected and loved are they?

In war, truth is the first casualty – and truth is already hors de combat. The president tells us that Saddam’s Iraq is the greatest threat to world peace anywhere on earth, while retired generals assure us his army is disloyal, his equipment is obsolete, the war will last at most 30 days and U.S. casualties will be minimal.

That explains why the regimes of the region do not seem to fear him, but it raises again the question. Why do we?