Saving Iraq For 2004

With reams of disinformation spewing from Washington--much of it designed to keep the odious Saddam Hussein off balance, some of it scripted to torpedo resumption of U.N. arms inspections, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in the administration's plans for Iraq. But one thing is clear: Bush is bent on war.

Tom DeLay's hyper-jingoistic August 21 speech -- "The question is not whether to go to war, for war has already been thrust upon us ... the only choice is between victory and defeat" -- was, according to pundit Mark Shields, prepared in careful collaboration with Condoleeza Rice, the president's hawkish national security adviser. And Dick Cheney's August 26 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars -- mocking the notion of resumed inspections and all but declaring (without any supporting evidence) that Saddam has nukes -- made it crystal clear to any doubters that Dubya and his civilian cronies in the military-industrial complex have made up their minds.

That the superhawks won the debate within the administration has been clear ever since early June, when the White House dumped its principal military anti-terrorism counselor, Deputy National Security Adviser Wayne Downing, over his opposition to a long and destructive air-and-ground campaign in Iraq. But history will undoubtedly record the defining moment as Bush's Iraq-driven June 1 speech at West Point, which has received insufficient attention. In it, Bush outlined the most radical change in military doctrine since the dawn of the Cold War, consigning deterrence and containment to the dustbin and affirming the U.S. readiness to take "pre-emptive action" (a euphemism for aggression). The result of a year-long reflection by the Bushies, the speech prefigured the Cheney and DeLay's first-strike drum-beating.

With Bush decided on a "pre-emptive" war, the only question is: When?

Despite musings in some quarters about a November Surprise, or an all-out military campaign next spring, there is every reason to believe that the war on Iraq will be timed for maximum effect on Bush's re-election in 2004. The White House reasons that a full-scale invasion of Iraq -- the only way to secure its professed goal of "regime change" -- will reignite the nationalist fervor unleashed by the 9/11 attacks, guaranteeing the continued quiescence of the Democrats and sending the president's approval ratings (now around 65 percent in most polls) back into the stratosphere.

The tanking of the economy -- too slow so far to offer any measurable improvement of the Democrats' chances in November, but likely to have accelerated by 2004 -- and the nagging Harken and Halliburton scandals' residual potential to tarnish the Bush-Cheney ticket, together mean that Bush will need to keep in reserve the option of lighting the counterfire of war fever to ensure his victory. (That's what Dubya meant when he proclaimed from Crawford, "I'm a patient man.")

The economic consequences of the war -- including soaring oil prices -- at the time of a metastasizing budget deficit (the Democratic-controlled Senate Budget Committee is already projecting a deficit of $400 billion-plus without the war) cannot be allowed to hit voters' pocketbooks until Bush's second term is assured. Nor can the stream of body bags (inevitable in the kind of air-ground campaign envisioned) be allowed to give pause too soon to voters used to the infinitesimal U.S. casualty rates of the Gulf and Afghanistan wars.

This is the most poll-driven administration in U.S. history -- even more so than during Clinton's Dick Morris period -- and the Bushies' readings of the numbers tell them the public is not yet ready for war. For example, the August 13 Washington Post/ABC poll showed that, when asked if war on Iraq meant "significant" U.S. casualties, support for it plummeted to 40 percent, while opposition rose to 51 percent. A CBS survey days later produced similar results. And the CNN poll taken near the end of August showed a one-month drop of almost nine points in support for the war.

Numbers like these suggest a significant political opening that the Democrats are failing to exploit against Bush. The Democrats refuse to behave like the opposition party they're supposed to be. By continuing to hew to the mantra "don't criticize Bush's war on terrorism," the Democrats are not only ignoring a chance to attract increasingly uneasy voters and improve their chances for this November's issue-less congressional elections, they are sidestepping an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a solid challenge to Bush's leadership in the presidential elections just two years hence. Of course, they're also abandoning any claim to moral leadership (an irrelevant quibble with the cynicism that dominates domestic political calculus these days). When they're not bleating their support for all-out war on Iraq, as Dick Gephardt has done, the Democrats' silence on Iraq is, to borrow Talleyrand's famous dictum, worse than a crime -- it's a mistake.

Furthermore, the Bush administration will wait because the United States is not ready for this war, either diplomatically or militarily. Those like James Baker who argue that U.N. approval must be sought for any war on Iraq are whistling in the wind -- it would certainly be scuttled by a Security Council veto from China or Russia (unlikely to approve war on a country with which Vladimir Putin has just signed a huge long-term trade deal). Bush will thus be forced to cobble together a coalition outside U.N. auspices. But with whom?

The only solid anti-Saddam ally until now has been Tony Blair. But British support for the war is weakening under public pressure -- a U.K. poll released August 28 shows support for the Bush-Cheney line on Iraq has fallen to just 30 percent, with 56 percent of Labour Party supporters opposed to the war. Numbers like these explain why British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw publicly plumped for a political solution based on resumed inspections of Iraq the day after Cheney's speech rejected them.

Among other NATO allies, Spain's Jose Maria Anzar and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, Bush's arch-conservative pals -- are going no further than generalized condemnations of Saddam, without committing themselves to war. France's Jacques Chirac is opposed to anything but a political solution. Germany's Gerhard Schroeder has scored points campaigning as an anti-war candidate, forcing his formerly hawkish opponent Edmund Stoiber to advocate U.N. approval before an attack and favor a "European common attitude" toward the war -- inevitably a negative one. The smaller European countries are all against military action.

Turkey, with its U.S. bases, would be a critical component of the anti-Saddam coalition. But the lame-duck administration of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has already proclaimed its opposition to the war; and the most likely product of this November's parliamentary elections -- a coalition government of the Islamist party and ultra-right nationalists -- would be even less likely to allow Turkish soil to be used for an attack on Iraq.

According to Aviation Week and Space Technology (noted for its Pentagon sources), planning for the war includes three projected bases in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. But Washington has assured Ankara there will be no independent Kurdish state once the war is over -- so there's little incentive for the Kurds (already betrayed by the United States during the Gulf War) to see the autonomous zone they've won destroyed by Bush's bloodthirsty adventure. They're getting rich from the handsome rake-offs on nearly all trade with Iraq, for which the territory under their control is the principal route.

Even Egypt's Hosni Mubarak -- America's lavishly paid client -- has thundered that in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, "not one Arab leader will be able to control the angry outburst of the masses" if the United States attacks Iraq. That leaves an unsavory gaggle of corrupt and despotic sheikdoms as our allies in the "war for democracy": the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Yet the Kuwaitis, like the Saudis, are opposed to the war because they're worried Saddam's forces will blow up their highly vulnerable oil fields, as occurred in the Gulf War. And the huge new U.S. base just south of Doha in Qatar -- designed to replace America's Saudi base in al-Kharg (which the Saudis won't let us use for the war) as headquarters for the U.S. air command -- has not yet been completed. But Qatar's foreign minister has said his country will follow the Saudis: no use of its bases. (It's curious that this new base, unlike al-Kharg, is not being constructed with bunkers or other systematic protections against chemical and biological warfare -- which would seem logical if U.S. claims about Saddam's weapons capacity were really true). This helps explain Bush's repulsive late-August boot-licking of the corrupt and repressive Saudi royal family, in a vain effort to win Saudi support for the war.

Given all this, war with Iraq is more than unlikely before 2004 -- meaning there's still time to convince the U.S. electorate that it's a foolhardy project, illegal under international law, that will only manufacture new generations of terrorists throughout the Islamic world. Such a war would vitiate our preachments on no pre-emptive war to countries with nukes like India and Pakistan and would leave the planet's only superpower further isolated in world opinion as an aggressor nation.

That makes the Democrats' decision to leave the education of the American people about the dangers in Bush's war plans to a handful of members of Bush's own party even more indefensible. This reprehensible caution will prove, in the end, to have been self-defeating. All together now: Four More Years!

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