SADDAM Hussein has to go. George W. Bush says so himself.
The Iraqi leader and his arsenal of weapons pose such a threat to U.S. security that the Bush administration is prepared to pull out all the stops to topple him from power. This could involve a covert campaign to overthrow his government. But if it requires sending troops in, we're prepared to do that, too, the president and his cabinet members have implied.
This prompts me to ask the same question I've been asking for more than a decade. Why is Washington so obsessed with Hussein? Is he truly the personification of evil, the sponsor of terrorism, the potential wielder of mass destruction that Washington makes him out to be? Or is this obsession really about something else?
Since 9-11, there've been attempts to link Hussein to the terrorist attacks. His people allegedly talked to Osama bin Laden's people at some point. Hussein was behind the anthrax scare. He was tied in with an international network of terrorists who planned and carried out terrible deeds, if not exactly the 9-11 attacks.
There's no proof of any of this - at least none that's been made public. There's evidence that Hussein was involved in a plot to assassinate George Bush Sr. after the Gulf War. But that was a long time ago. Most of the Sept. 11 terrorists came from Saudi Arabia, and the radical Muslim movement that spawned them was nurtured in Pakistan, both of whose leaders the Bush administration has been cozying up to lately.
Hussein, however, is the demon. When he's not being linked to terrorism, he's a menace, allegedly trying to develop "weapons of mass destruction." During the Cold War, that meant nuclear weapons. In Hussein's case, it means poison gas of the type used in World War I, and biological weapons - or germs - for which there is no delivery system in existence to spread them to large populations or to an enemy far away.
Hussein has allegedly tried in the past to develop nuclear weapons. But that's difficult in a country that doesn't even own a nuclear reactor or warheads capable of delivering atomic bombs. And the myth that Iraq is stealing or importing plutonium from former Soviet Bloc countries to make a bomb is just that - a myth. Pakistan and India are further along the nuclear weapons road than Iraq. So why is Hussein the bad guy?
Hussein's dangerousness is being hyped for political reasons. The Bush administration doesn't know where Osama bin Laden or Sheik Mullah Muhammad Omar are, so Hussein has become the personification of evil in the public relations war against terrorism. The main reason for Washington's obsession, however, is that he's a strong leader who refuses to be controlled by the United States in a region where we have strategic interests - oil and Israel.
That doesn't mean Hussein isn't a dictator or that his government isn't corrupt. His belligerence toward the United States could make him a dangerous wild card and an obstacle to future U.S. goals in the Persian Gulf. But that doesn't make him a terrorist, a purveyor of mass destruction or a threat to our national security.
Americans still believe that George Bush Sr.'s failure to finish off Hussein is the reason he wasn't re-elected. That makes Hussein especially annoying to George Bush Jr. and the Republicans. Meanwhile, the president's conduct of the war on terrorism has driven his popularity way up at a time when his domestic program is under attack.
"This war on terrorism is very important both in reality and in politics," says Richard Bulliet, a history professor at Columbia University. "If you don't have the terrorists, then you can focus on Saddam, who is a very good placeholder. Everybody accepts that he's a terrorist, whether he's done any terrorism or not."
Frankly, I'm not sure Hussein is a danger to anybody - maybe if he were to get his hands on some nuclear weapons. But, as Bulliet points out, at most he could only get a handful, and it would be suicide to use even one of them. For the moment, he is George W. Bush's version of the evil empire. And just as the Cold War was used as the pretext for doing things the government wanted to do anyway, the war on terrorism is being used as a pretext now. Hussein isn't a mayor player in it. He's just the wolf, lurking in the forest.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.