The Moment Of Truth

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These are the longest days. Time moves in slow motion. An entire world waits with shallow breath, and the news never ends. Snippets of hope are dashed almost as quickly as they appear, only to be succeeded by fresh rumors of a peaceful exit. In a sense, it is all familiar. End games fascinate. In school, where we studied them attentively, the chapters were invariably titled "The Drift Toward War." The conclusions, too, were nearly uniform: If only there had been more time; if only the antagonists had understood one another better; if only the crisis had been nipped in the bud before it escalated.

However historians eventually judge the rush of events in the Persian Gulf, few will fairly conclude that what occurred was a failure to communicate. For months, George Bush has agonized that Saddam Hussein has not got the message. Tariq Aziz buried that illusion last week in Geneva. That was no dialogue of the deaf, as some have labeled it. Clarity reigned. James Baker detailed the horror that awaits Iraq if peace dies. Aziz undoubtedly knew the truth of the Secretary of State's assertions. But Aziz knows his boss too, and probably knows as well that no matter how unambiguously a person sees the light, in the end he cannot be saved from himself.

If clarity has been assured, only tragedy remains. Both sides, it seems, are ready for war because neither is willing to suffer a supposedly worse fate -- the humiliation that capitulation, or its perception, implies.

"Don't go to war in response to emotions of anger and resentment," said Dwight Eisenhower, who regularly counseled the courage of patience. But if war begins, anger and resentment is what it will have come down to. "It is about power and commitment," says Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University. "On both sides, the greatest fear is being seen to be a wimp." The best analogy is perhaps literary. In "Shooting an Elephant," George Orwell's colonial functionary kills a rogue elephant because those watching him expect it. "It is the condition of ((the white man's)) rule," Orwell has his character say, "that he shall spend his life trying to impress the 'natives,' and so in every crisis he has got to do what the 'natives' expect of him . . . To come all that way, rifle in hand, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing -- no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me." George Bush "has drawn his rifle," says Ajami. "He cannot back down."

And neither, it appears, can Saddam Hussein. The fig leaves Saddam could seize to justify withdrawing from Kuwait have been available from the beginning. The Kuwaitis themselves have consistently said they are willing to negotiate over Iraq's grievances. Even the international peace conference that Saddam posits as a price for leaving Kuwait is possible -- or at least the promise of such a meeting is. The U.S. desire to avoid linkage is basically a semantic exercise, and the offers of explicit linkage carried by middlemen like the French and the Algerians could at any time be used by Saddam to save face. Were he to decide to leave Kuwait, the list of creative ways for the Iraqi leader to portray himself heroically is virtually limitless -- and some in Washington indicate that an attack may not occur for several weeks, in the hope that Saddam will finally come to his senses.

Through a Western prism, Saddam's behavior appears insane: How could a man facing certain defeat and quite possibly his own annihilation choose war? Three answers are possible. One is that Saddam believes his enemies will cave in. He has said as much on innumerable occasions, and he still "seems to believe that we lack the will," says a Bush Administration expert on the Middle East. Another possibility is that Saddam honestly believes he can win. "The Americans will come here to perform acrobatics like Rambo movies," Saddam declared last Friday. "But they will find here real people to fight them. We are a people who have eight years of experience in war and combat."

A third, more ominous answer is that Saddam knows he will lose but views defeat as preferable to surrender. "Even if he loses militarily," says a Bush adviser, Saddam may calculate that "he will survive and will have won for having stood up to the U.S." -- a political victory like Nasser's in & 1967. This last, apparently quite real, possibility confirms a Bedouin proverb: "A jackal is a lion in his own neighborhood." It is "increasingly obvious," says Ajami, that "Saddam sees himself as the avenger of the Arab nation, history's instrument to redress the slights visited on Arabs for milleniums."

In retrospect, there was a road not taken. A trip-wire force could have been lodged in Saudi Arabia, to serve America's initial goal of deterring an invasion, and the sanctions continued nearly forever. Kuwait would be remembered, but its liberation would not have become the high-profile litmus test of U.S. resolve. That option existed until November, when the allied presence was characterized as an offensive force and the United Nations deadline of Jan. 15 was imposed.

It is impossible to separate those two events. They form a package. Once the rifles were truly drawn, once the liberation of Kuwait, no more than a rhetorical goal during the first days of the crisis, became the real objective of policy, an ultimatum was shrewd strategy. "The advantage of having a deadline is that it creates the maximum pressure for a peaceful solution in the last days," says British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. Now the deadline is upon us, and it cannot be ignored. If it is, nothing will ever work.

It is pointless to second-guess Bush for not taking the other path. It is even more futile to wonder how the Middle East might look after an allied victory. Unintended consequences are a by-product of any action. The only certainty is that nothing could be worse than for Saddam to prevail. The possibility of other bad actors filling a postwar power vacuum will simply have to be met later on a case-by-case basis, or perhaps through the eventual convocation of a peace conference that would address both the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and the region's massive overarmament.

Ideally, a fine-line war would be waged, a battle that leaves Iraq powerful enough to defend its own borders but too weak to threaten its neighbors. But attempting to craft such an outcome in advance is asking too much. War is never as clean as planned. More important, if such plans were drawn and executed, a key strategic goal could be crippled. If Saddam is reckless enough to "take" a war, then he will have proved his insanity and his ability to wage battle again ought to be eliminated. Thus the scenario that envisions Saddam suing for peace after absorbing a first blow is best rejected. As in , 1967, when the Arab nations that fought Israel ran to the U.N. for a cease- fire resolution as soon as Jerusalem's superiority was manifest, such a resolution must await a complete military victory. In the present case, that means the destruction of Saddam's chemical, biological and nuclear war- fighting capabilities. To leave those intact after punishing Saddam into withdrawing from Kuwait would be folly.

How unreal it all feels. Never before have Americans waited for a war scheduled to begin on or close to a certain date, knowing too that they will watch its horror during prime time. How discouraging as well, after the freedom that swept Eastern Europe following 40 years of communist dictatorship. Because of that transformation, the possibility of massive war was supposedly lifted: the nukes were being destroyed. We were not totally lulled. We knew that madmen still held sway, messianic tyrants riveted by the Nietzschean principle that power is a good in itself. We felt bad for those subjected to such belief, but we felt ourselves immune. We were wrong -- and now it again falls to Americans to set matters right. Railing against the truth will not help. The fact is that if the U.S. does not check Saddam, no one else will.

Survival is not a trifling virtue. But those who make survival the supreme value declare that there is nothing they will not betray. Saddam would undoubtedly agree with this proposition, but because he misses the point, he must be stopped. If he is not, what will survival be worth?