What's the Rush?

The devil du jour is a feeble tyrant.


In preparing for a war against Iraq, military planners seem to anticipate that it will probably be something of a walkover. The Iraqi military performed badly in the Gulf War of 1991—Saddam Hussein promised the mother of all battles but his troops delivered instead the mother of all bug-outs. And the planners note that Iraq is even weaker now.

Moreover, the regime appears to enjoy very little support, and Saddam Hussein lives in such fear of his own military forces that he keeps them out of Baghdad. It is generally anticipated that most of the military will not fight for him—indeed, that there may be substantial defections to the invaders even among the comparatively coddled Republican guard. In addition, the regime really controls only a shard of the country. The Kurds have established a semi-independent entity in the north, and the hostility toward its rule is so great in the Shiite south that government officials often consider the region hostile territory.

Advocates of a war with Iraq insist such a venture is necessary because Iraq's feeble, wretched tyranny is somehow a dire and gathering threat to the entire area and even to the United States. Saddam's inept, ill-led, exhausted, and thoroughly demoralized military force, it is repeatedly argued, will inevitably be used by its leader for blackmail and regional dominance, particularly if it acquires an atomic bomb or two.

Exactly how this might come about is not spelled out. The notion that Israel, with a substantial nuclear arsenal and a superb and highly effective military force, could be intimidated out of existence by the actions or fulminations of this pathetic dictator can hardly be taken seriously. And the process by which Saddam could come to dominate the oil producing states in the Middle East is equally mysterious and fanciful. Apparently, he would rattle a rocket or two and everyone would dutifully jack up the oil price to $90 a barrel.

Saddam's capacity for making daffy policy decisions is, it is true, quite considerable. But he seems mostly concerned with self-preservation—indeed, that is about the only thing he is good at. And he is likely to realize that any aggressive military act in the region is almost certain to provoke a concerted, truly multilateral counter-strike that would topple his regime and remove him from existence. Moreover, even if he ordered some sort of patently suicidal adventure, his military might very well disobey—or simply neglect to carry out—the command. His initial orders in the Gulf War, after all, were to stand and fight the Americans to the last man. When push came to shove, his forces treated that absurd order with the contempt it so richly deserved.

Over the last half century American policy makers have become variously hysterical over a number of Third World dictators—among them, Egypt's Nasser, Indonesia's Sukarno, Cuba's Castro, Libya's Qaddafi, and Iran's Khomeini. In all cases, the threat these devils du jour actually posed to American interests proved to be very substantially exaggerated. Nasser and Sukarno are footnotes, Castro a joke, and Qaddafi a mellowed irrelevance, while Khomeini's Iran has become just about the only place in the Middle East where Americans are treated with popular admiration and respect.

Significantly, Iran is also just about the only place in the area where the United States has been unable to meddle over the last 20 years. And it is possible there is a lesson here.

With characteristic self-infatuation, American leaders like to declare their country to be "the world's only remaining superpower" or "the indispensable nation." But this self-proclaimed status doesn't mean that it is accordingly obligatory or possible or wise for the United States to seek to run the world.

Or even the Middle East. American interests there are limited. There is a romantic and sentimental attachment to Israel, of course, but that country seems fully capable of taking care of itself. In time, perhaps, and probably after a change of leadership on both sides, mediation efforts between Israel and the Palestinians can become productive again. But for now at least the conflict is so deep that there is little any outsider (even an "indispensable" one) can do about it.

Quite a bit of oil comes from the Middle East, of course, but discussions of the American interest on that score tend to ignore simple economics. The area already is dominated by an entity, OPEC, which would dearly love to hike the price for the commodity. It is constrained from doing so not by warm and cuddly feelings toward its customers, but by the grim economic realization that such a policy would damagingly reduce demand, intensify the search for new petroleum sources, and bring about a world wide inflation that would raise the prices of imported commodities even more than any gains obtained by an increase in the oil price. Whatever happens in the region, this fundamental market reality is likely to mellow and correct incidental distortions.

In the meantime, monarchs in a number of countries may gradually be coming to the realization that they are out of date—rather in the way Latin American militarists more or less voluntarily decided over the last quarter century to relinquish control to democratic forces. If this does happen, however, the process will be impelled, as in Latin America, primarily by domestic forces, not outside ones.

A humanitarian argument could be made for a war against Iraq—to liberate its people from a vicious tyranny and from the debilitating and destructive effects of the sanctions which the United States apparently is congenitally incapable of really relaxing while Saddam Hussein remains in power. Such a war would have to be kept inexpensive in casualties, and the United States would have to be willing to hang on for quite some time to help rebuild the nation—something that experience suggests is unlikely.

However, calls for war do not stress this argument. Instead, they raise alarms about vague, imagined international threats that, however improbably, could conceivably emanate from a miserable and pathetic regime. In due course, nature (there have been persistent rumors about cancer) or some other force will remove our current devil du jour. The situation calls for patient watchfulness, not hysteria.