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The word among wags in Washington is that George W. Bush will invade Iraq right after the fall congressional elections, giving himself time to get the war out of the way before his own presidential campaign swings into gear. An attack before November would be difficult because the desert would be too hot for troops to maneuver with all their biochemical gear, or so the argument goes.
More importantly, launching an expensive -- and hard to justify -- assault amid a suspect economy and heated midterm battles for the House would be politically tricky, at a minimum. What's more, say those who purport to know, the defense industry needs time to build up its stock of smart bombs, run down in the razing of Al Qaeda strategic positions and Afghan villages.
With all the press speculation focused on an attack in February or March, an autumn shot might be a surprise. Since American allies in the Middle East are skittish about letting us launch attacks from their soil, aircraft carriers will be much more important than during the Persian Gulf War. By November, five of them -- each carrying up to 85 planes, including 50 strikers -- will be near enough to carry out raids. Finally, Bush's current major foreign-policy advisers, Ariel Sharon and the rest of the Israeli right, are pushing the president to go for it. They're even vaccinating hundreds of key emergency responders for smallpox, just in case the Iraqi president retaliates with an unprecedented biological assault.
"Any postponement of an attack on Iraq at this stage will serve no purpose," Raanan Gissin, a senior Sharon counselor, told The Guardian over the weekend. "It will only give Saddam Hussein more of an opportunity to accelerate his program of weapons of mass destruction."
As a practical matter, while modest reservations against an attack have been voiced by such luminaries as former Daddy Bush top aide Brent Scowcroft and retiring House heavy Dick Armey, most of the criticism is actually thumb-sucking by people like Henry Kissinger, who are skilled at being on all sides all the time. The only real opposition in Congress is from the right-wing Republicans. The Democrats are demure.
The political opposition, such as it is, pretty much thinks war is in the cards. "My feeling is that the administration has staked so much in it that they're going to have an awful hard time backing down," says Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguist and author of the anti-imperialist treatise 9-11. "I suspect that they're putting such a heavy stake in it to make it difficult to back down."
Chomsky says the current hawks are mostly recycled Reaganites, bullies who steamrolled dissent in the '80s and can be expected to do the same now. "Anytime they wanted to ram through some outrageous program, they would just start screaming and Congress would collapse," he says. "I mean, it's not just Congress; it's the same in what's called intellectual discussion. Very few people want to be subjected to endless vicious tirades and lies. It's just unpleasant, so the question is, Why bother? So most people just back off."
Those Reaganites have had their own dealings with Hussein, and they remain preoccupied with him now. They were there when the U.S. helped Iraq with its chemical warfare against Iran, as The New York Times reported on Sunday, letting the world in on what everyone in Washington knew already. In fact, as Iraq gassed its enemy, the U.S. actually removed the nation from its list of terrorist states and enthusiastically increased military and other aid across the board to help Saddam beat the fundamentalist Muslims in Iran.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iraq never was a predictable ally for the West. In the early 1970s, Saddam signed a friendship pact with the Soviets, nationalized the Iraq Petroleum Company, and strongly opposed Israel. But in the face of Iranian fundamentalism, the U.S. sought ways to curry favor with Iraq against Iran.
After re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iraq in 1984, the U.S. expanded its guaranteed agricultural exports to Hussein. Saddam shifted away from collective farms and toward tree crops, chickens, and dairy products, a changeover that went hand-in-hand with the relocating of the population from the countryside to the cities. At one point, the U.S. sold as much as 20 percent of its entire rice crop to Iraq. And Saddam wasn't just buying food. In December 1990, Village Voice writer Murray Waas documented the U.S. sales of military hardware -- weapons systems and helicopters -- to the Iraqis, shipments that armed Saddam with weapons he later used against us in the Persian Gulf campaign.
Despite having our own equipment at his disposal, Saddam quite quickly went down to defeat -- a lesson not lost on Hussein's military commanders or on neighboring nations. Chomsky argues the Iraqi army would fare no better this time, but he warns against false confidence on the part of the White House. The last time around, Mideast leaders wanted Hussein out of Kuwait. This time, they want the U.S. out of their affairs. "If I was in the Republican Guards, I'd just hide my rifle and run," Chomsky says. "They're just going to get devastated. And I also suspect that the guys in Washington may be right in their assumption that the rest of the region and the world will be so intimidated that they won't do anything. That's a possibility. On the other hand, the whole place might blow up. It's just flipping a coin -- you've got no idea."
The only certainty, it seems, is that the U.S. will attack. "I think this war will happen, and I think it's likely to be right after the midterm elections or sometime in winter 2003," says Chris Toensing, editor of MERIP Report, which tracks the Middle East. The thinking of the administration is that "the U.S. is strong enough that none of these countries [Britain or the Middle Eastern allies] can mount an individual challenge to the United States, and that they won't, and that they will protest until the last moment, and when it becomes clear that the war is going to happen, then they will be quiet and let it go on and assist in various ways, either quiet or open. . . . The group of policy-makers that's really pushing this forward, that's really driving the policy, the really hawkish group, believe in American unilateralism as, not just a necessity, but a virtue. It's the first principle of their international relations."
Morton Halperin, senior director for Democracy at the National Security Council under Clinton and a present director at the Center for National Security Studies, thinks Bush will at least solicit the support of Congress before going in, but not because of the War Powers Act or any other legal requirements. "He will consult because people will tell him that this is going to be very expensive, it's going to be very complicated, we're going to have to stay there for a long time, and you don't want to do it without having gotten the permission of Congress," says Halperin. "And at the end of the day they're not going to turn you down." Turning dove on Iraq proved painful for Democrats before, he says, and they're not about to take that chance again.
These days, the smartest opposition to attacking Hussein comes from quarters like the left-leaning Foreign Policy in Focus, which has published a point-by-point rationale on its Web site, foreignpolicy-infocus.org.
The war would be illegal, the group argues. The dispute with Iraq over weapons of mass destruction rightly belongs to the UN, not the U.S. If the U.S. on its own decides to attack Iraq because it violates a Security Council resolution, then any other member of the Security Council, acting on its own, can attack any other country, thereby creating international anarchy.
Our allies in the region oppose the war. Kuwait itself has been mending fences with Iraq, which has agreed to respect Kuwait's sovereignty. Kuwait is opposed to a new attack by the U.S.
There is nothing to show that the government of Iraq had links to Al Qaeda or other anti-American terrorists.
None of the 9-11 hijackers were Iraqi, no major figure in Al Qaeda is Iraqi, and no Al Qaeda funding has been traced to Iraq.
U.S. officials have admitted that there is no evidence that Iraq has resumed its nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs. After the 1991 war, all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems were destroyed. Before UN inspectors were withdrawn in 1998, they reportedly oversaw the destruction of 38,000 chemical weapons, 480,000 liters of live chemical weapons agents, 48 missiles, six missile launchers, 30 missile warheads modified to carry chemical or biological agents, and hundreds of pieces of equipment with the capability to produce chemical weapons. "In its most recent report," writes Foreign Policy in Focus, "the International Atomic Energy Agency categorically declared that Iraq no longer has a nuclear program."
"Iraq's current armed forces are at barely one-third their pre-war strength," the group argues, with a nonexistent navy and a tiny air force. Military spending is one-tenth of what it was in 1990.
Iraq is not a military threat to its neighbors, most of which have sophisticated air-defense systems. The think tank quotes Israeli military analyst Meir Stieglitz, who noted in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot: "The chances of Iraq having succeeded in developing operative warheads without tests are zero."
Research: Joshua Hersh, Gabrielle Jackson, and Cassandra Lewis.