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CORN: Next Stop Baghdad? Anti-War Warriors Say 'Whoa'
By David Corn, AlterNet
November 30, 2001
On Nov. 27, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, "The President is focused on phase one of this campaign against terrorism. Anything that may come subsequent to that would be something the president would discuss at the appropriate time -- if and whenever that would come to be."
Maybe Fleischer hasn't been paying enough attention to his boss. The previous day, George W. Bush had shaken his fist at Iraq and declared, "Part of the war on terror is to deny terrorists weapons." Referring to Saddam Hussein's regime, he said, "If they develop weapons of mass destruction that will be used to terrorize nations, they will be held accountable." Any sentient observer of Bush's statements would have concluded the President was indeed peering beyond "phase one" and perhaps eager to get on with the next chapter.
Yet there was spin-jockey Fleischer trying, as they say, to "walk back" the President's comments. It's doubtful Bush had made any true decisions about where to take his war next -- his National Security Council was still soliciting strategy papers for the post-Afghanistan phase -- but he was certainly sounding sympathetic to those voices calling for a Desert Storm sequel that would finish off the fella whom his daddy walloped but left standing.
The bomb-Baghdad lobbying campaign has been attributed within the media to conservative activists and their agents within the Pentagon, most notably Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense. But there are prominent rightwingers and experts with hawkish national security credentials who are saying no to war (at this point) with Iraq. It's not merely Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterrorism chief (who worked in the Reagan White House on the programs that provided covert support to the contras in Nicaragua and the mujahhedin in Afghanistan), argues it would be a "huge mistake" to redirect the war on terrorism against Iraq. The wider-war advocates, he says, "cannot find a pretext for doing it related to September 11, so they are now saying Iraq is involved in weapons of mass destruction. But they have no reasonable plan, no magic button to push. They want to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but the only way to do that is put U.S. ground forces in Iraq. That would be a bloody mess and we would have no support whatsoever from other countries."
Cannistraro is adamant that the Hussein-hunters have a policy goal (bring me the head of Saddam!) but no strategy for achieving that end and "no concept of a post-Hussein" Iraq. "If you want," he adds, "you can have bombing in Iraq and throw money at the INC" -- the Iraqi National Congress, an anti-Hussein opposition group that heretofore has displayed minimal effectiveness -- "but that won't do the trick." To have any hope of removing Hussein, the Bush Administration would have to mount a go-it-alone, expensive occupation involving massive numbers of US troops. And that, Cannistraro maintains, would undermine U.S. efforts against terrorism everywhere else.
Scott Ritter, the former UN chief weapons inspector in Iraq, is another alumnus of the national security community counseling caution. In 1998, after spending seven years in Iraq searching for Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, Ritter, a former Marine, resigned, citing the Clinton Administration's lack of resolve in pushing for inspections of Hussein's inner sanctums. He was hailed by conservative commentators, including A.M. Rosenthal, then a columnist for The New York Times, and George Will. Given his past experience, Ritter might be expected to be hankering for a final rumble with Iraq. But several times he has appeared on cable news shows and flummoxed conservative hosts by adopting the opposite stance.
In one such instance, John Kasich, a former Republican congressman sitting in for Bill O'Reilly on the Fox News Channel, asked Ritter "how much of a threat do you feel Saddam Hussein poses to the United States today." Ritter replied, "In terms of military threat, absolutely nothing. His military was devastated in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm and hasn't had the ability to reconstitute itself ... In terms of weapons of mass destruction ... we just don't know. We know that we achieved a 90 percent to 95-percent level of disarmament. There's stuff that's unresolved, and until we get weapons inspectors back into Iraq, that will remain a problematical issue ... Diplomatically, politically, Saddam's a little bit of a threat. In terms of real national security threat to the United States, no, none."
Who to believe -- Scott Ritter or pundit Bill Kristol, who has been the chief cheerleader for war against Iraq?
Kasich was not willing to accept Ritter's threat assessment, and he challenged him: "What about his ability to take weapons of mass destruction ... and to use it against us?" Ritter, who acknowledges Hussein is a brutal dictator who used chemical weapons against the Kurds in Iran, dismissed the melodrama. "Look, we need to be concerned about that. If we have some hard evidence that Saddam Hussein is, in fact, doing this, we should put that on the table and hold him accountable for it. But I do think that it's irresponsible for us to speculate about this, void of hard facts. We should be trying to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq so that we can ascertain exactly what's transpiring in Iraq today instead of guessing about it." Kasich was surprised by Ritter's position and noted, "I don't know anybody else that agrees with you, except a few of Saddam's friends."
Ritter, no friend of Saddam at all, was merely saying there is no proven threat that justifies a war against Iraq. And there are elements of the conservative movement that agree with him. In an odd piece of political theater, Terry Jeffrey, the editor of Human Events, an arch-conservative magazine read by grassroots rightwingers, was on television days ago defending Colin Powell's lack of enthusiasm for a war against Iraq. Normally, Powell, a pro-choice, pro-affirmative action moderate Republican, would be a target for the wrath of Human Events. Yet Jeffrey praised him for being "clearly in the American tradition of foreign policy where we engage in wars when they are necessary to defend the liberty and security of the American people" and where "we don't rationally jump into conflicts where the end consequences may be worse than the risk that we face." Jeffrey, whose publication is the largest conservative weekly, noted that his magazine and its subscribers have "vigorously supported the president [in] his very sharply targeted, very calibrated war against the Taliban and al Qaeda."
Debating Jeffrey was not the editor of The Nation or another left-of-center magazine but Thomas Donnelly, deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a conservative think tank founded by Kristol. Donnelly whacked Powell for being a "reluctant warrior" and claimed that Iraq posed "a direct and proximate threat to the American people." Asked for proof of this threat, Donnelly replied, "You wouldn't suggest to American pilots who fly over Iraq every day that Saddam Hussein's air defenses are not a threat to them. This is a man who has threatened to assassinate a former president of the United States, who has invaded his neighbors, who is seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction as fast as he can."
That is, Donnelly offered a half-empty mug of stale and weak beer. Should the United States occupy Iraq because Hussein's military takes the occasional shot at a U.S. plane patrolling the no-fly zone? The invasion of Kuwait is a decade old, and President Clinton bombed Iraq for the supposed assassination plot against Bush the Elder. As for the weapons of mass destruction, see Ritter. Donnelly's list hardly cries out for an unilateral invasion.
As Jeffrey noted, "Right now, [Hussein] is contained ... The ten years since the Persian Gulf [war], Saddam's forces have not moved an inch across his border. He has not threatened the American people directly. And unless there is evidence that comes forward that he is a credible, imminent threat to our liberty and security," there is no reason for war. Jeffrey mocked Donnelly's argument by noting, "you can make the same case for communist China. Here is an aggressive, malevolent regime that threatens Taiwan. They have nuclear weapons. They're developing further weapons of mass destruction. Yet no one is arguing that we launch a preemptive war against China ... [Powell] is a true conservative in his foreign policy, and I think the grassroots of the conservative movement support him."
It truly is a small band of neocons that are orchestrating the campaign for war in Iraq. They are a decidedly pro-Israel bunch, the spiritual heirs of the late Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the Democrats' most assertive and most pro-military Cold Warrior of the 1970s. Another leader of this gang, R. James Woolsey, a former CIA chief, endorsed Bill Clinton in 1992 over President Bush because Bush wasn't more supportive of Israel. Think Commentary goes to war. But credit this bunch for leveraging influence within the world of media punditry and within the Bush Administration.
Some political reporters have speculated that Bush is talking tough about Iraq but at the same time offering Hussein an escape clause. Here's the deal, Saddam: permit weapons inspectors back into Iraq, and the United States would lose the rationale for attacking Iraq. The neocons are nervous that such an arrangement might actually transpire, and then they would lose the delicious opportunity of the moment.
They probably ought not fear. National security experts who participate in war games will tell you that most times signals are not read as they are intended. Consequently, if Bush is attempting, between the lines, to provide Hussein a way out, Hussein is probably going to read those lines as a bullying and belligerent threat and respond as a thuggish dictator can be expected to do. In that case, Bush, with his war-mongering rhetoric, is raising expectations about going to war in Iraq and narrowing his options. If Hussein does not back down, Bush has set himself up for criticism for being weak on Hussein. In fact, what he has done is to assume, prominently and unnecessarily, another difficult foreign policy burden while still in the middle of war in Afghanistan. That's not mission creep; that's foolishness.
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