Sending Home the Troops


"A regime change [in Iraq] is in the interests of the world," said President Bush at a press conference yesterday on his Crawford, Texas ranch. Speaking to reporters, the President and Defense Secretary Donald. H. Rumsfeld pooh-poohed the suggestion that the administration had spent Bush's summer vacation planning a high-stakes game of Risk—i.e., plotting a schedule for war against Iraq.

But war with Iraq—or at least creating the perception that we will wage war—is clearly on the White House's To Do list. Why? Beyond the fact that such bluster handily distracts Americans from a failing economy and corporate scoundrels, why does the administration appear bent on waging an unprovoked war that's been roundly denounced by major U.S. allies?

The official line at the White House is that Iraq must be prevented from creating weapons of mass destruction. (That's what we here in the U.S. would normally refer to as a "defense program.") As Bush commented yesterday, "Saddam Hussein is a threat…. Nothing he has done has convinced me…that he is the kind of fellow that is willing to forgo weapons of mass destruction, is willing to be a peaceful neighbor." The administration has also tried to link Iraq to the 9/11 attacks—so far, without real success.

For White House critics, it's tempting to see the administration's Iraq fixation as the resurfacing of an old Bush family vendetta, a sort of reflexive twitch among warmongering Republicans, particularly Rumsfeld, to finish what they started in the Gulf War. The fact that the President and his aides are meeting as cowboys on Bush's windswept Texas ranch only enriches the image.

Ego-stroking as that explanation might be, there's a more plausible one. A regime change would provide the necessary excuse to withdraw the 5,000 U.S. troops that remain in Saudi Arabia.

A U.S. military presence on Saudi soil is increasingly untenable. It ranks chief among the grievances of Osama bin Laden, himself a Saudi, and threatens to further strain the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world. Yet to withdraw now would be perceived as a victory for Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism, which in some sense it would be. Neither Bush administration showed much inclination to reduce the American presence in Saudi Arabia, and to do so now would indicate a sea change in the administration's thinking—unless the withdrawal could be attributed to a regime change in Iraq.

The goal of removing troops from Saudi Arabia doesn't justify an attack on Iraq, at least for this onlooker. Toppling Saddam also creates the risk of an open-ended U.S. mission in Iraq, which would leave us chasing Kurdish, Shiite and freelance warlords around the desert for years to come, and make the relatively unobtrusive presence in Saudi Arabia look attractive by comparison. (Concern about such potential chaos was one of George Herbert Walker Bush's stated reasons for ending the Gulf War with Saddam still comfortably in his beret.)

But the possibility of ending our debilitating commitments in the Persian Gulf deserves a place in the debate. In the meantime, it's always possible that the White House's bellicose pose will foment internal rebellion, toppling Saddam without large-scale U.S. involvement.