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Settling Old Scores

What the heck, let's bomb Baghdad. Sure, it's one of the more historically important cities in the world, and many of its more than 3 million inhabitants will probably end up as "collateral damage," but if George the Younger is determined to avenge his father and keep his standings in the polls, that's the price to be paid.

George the Elder, it will be recalled, was a bit squeamish about leveling Iraq's capital, but his son, who has emerged as a big believer in "regime change," will stop at nothing in his drive to win foreign victories that distract from his startling domestic failures. If nothing else, a nightly CNN fireworks display will take our minds off pervasive corporate corruption and the Incredible Shrinking Stock Market.

Unfortunately for those determined to wage war in Iraq, there is no logical connection between Saddam Hussein and the big political problems facing George W. domestically. In a very real way, Bush's key corporate contributors, beginning with Enron's likable "Kenny Boy" Lay, have savaged the U.S. economy -- and even Teflon politicians pay during recessions.

Meanwhile, the so-called war on terror, which boosted the president's poll numbers astronomically, is falling into a dismal bureaucratic morass, and this week's Time magazine carries an exhaustive report reminding us that indifference to the Al Qaeda threat by the Bush administration before 9/11 is another scandal waiting to explode.

Bush's claims in the first days after the Sept. 11 tragedy that Iraq was complicit in the disaster have never been backed up by any real evidence. The existence of an alleged, unrecorded encounter between one of the 9/11 terrorists and an Iraqi official in Prague has been debunked, reaffirmed, debunked again and on and on. Yet, while there is no credible connection with Hussein, there is ample evidence that the biggest funders and most enthusiastic cheerleaders of the 9/11 terrorists came from the very Persian Gulf states that were saved by the first Bush war against Iraq.

So, back to the old gambit that Iraq poses a threat of unleashing weapons of mass destruction. Our allies aren't buying it, and even Scott Ritter, the ex-Marine who conducted on-site U.N. inspections in Iraq, has testified before NATO that the current alarm is politically motivated and not supported by facts on the ground.

Among the skeptics is Richard G. Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who questioned the lack of evidence supporting the war push after last week's Senate hearings: "We're all saying today that we haven't found the evidence, but somebody has to ask, 'Why not?' "

The consensus of experts expressed last week before the Senate is that there is no hard evidence that Iraq has a nuclear weapon and that its biological and chemical arsenal, almost totally destroyed during eight years of inspections, would be of only local military application. No serious observer suggests Iraq has the ability to spread infectious "weaponized" diseases like smallpox to the United States.

Hussein is clearly a brutal bully, savage in the repression of his own people, but he does not conform to the madman caricature of U.S. policy. The madman theory does not explain Hussein's ability to survive for decades by never crossing the line that would invite his obliteration. Instead, he is a devious chameleon who was once a U.S. surrogate and defender of the Arab world in the long, bloody war against Iran -- and then turned around and invaded his Arab neighbor Kuwait when, according to some reports, U.S. diplomats led him to understand he could get away with it.

Nor did Hussein use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons against U.S. troops during the Gulf War that followed, even though subsequent inspections established that he possessed variants of the first two. He sacrificed his army and continues to force immense suffering on his people, but he has been quite effective in preserving the sanctity and comfort of his own nest.

For that reason, Hussein is likely to follow up on last week's offer for talks on the resumption of inspections by accepting the conditions imposed by the United Nations. If that happens, the Bush administration will be in a truly tough spot, as its so-called axis-of-evil theory disintegrates. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has already initiated contact with the North Koreans, desperate for aid, and the theocracy in Iran is gradually crumbling.

Bereft of a credible Evil Empire, the administration will have to finally hunker down and deal with those forces at home, including some of the president's Cabinet and business cronies, who so far have done far more than Hussein to damage America.

Robert Scheer writes a syndicated column.

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