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Bush Wins, Loses on Iraq
Published on Wednesday, September 18, 2002 in the Boston Globe
Bush Wins, Loses on Iraq
by Robert Kuttner

SADDAM HUSSEIN'S latest offer to readmit weapons inspectors is both a strategic gain and a political setback for the Bush administration. Iraq's apparent concession also reminds us that the basic principle of international politics is that even odious regimes get to stay in power as long as they leave their neighbors alone. Better to contain Saddam than to risk wider war, and the UN plan may yet accomplish that.

Why both a gain and a loss for President Bush? Saddam's new offer is the direct result of Bush's strong UN speech and the administration's strong diplomacy, coupled with the efforts of allies and the UN secretary general. This concession would not have happened without Bush going to the brink of war. Until Bush seriously threatened an invasion, most UN members and the institution itself tolerated the status quo. Doves should admit what a dismal status quo it was. After invading Kuwait and then being clobbered on the battlefield, Iraq agreed to a truce that included a stringent regime of weapons inspections. But by hobbling the inspectors, Saddam made their job impossible. And until Bush raised the ante, the Iraqis got away with it. Iraq hawks and skeptics of reliance on international institutions can correctly point out the lesson: The UN does little without American leadership. As Senator John Kerry observes, ''This is such a test of the UN that they know they have to deliver.'' Score one for Bush.

On the other hand, a deal that allows Saddam to stay in power in exchange for a UN-mediated inspection deal was the last thing the administration wanted. The White House, with good reason, doesn't trust the Iraqi dictator and suspects that Saddam is playing his usual stall-and-switch game.

The administration wasn't just posturing that it was ready to go to war. It wanted war. Bush got backed into collaborating with the UN because of pressure from NATO allies, friendly Muslim countries, and US public opinion.

Now, however, the administration may be faced with a scenario not of its own making that would be preferable, by far, to war. If - a very big if - Saddam Hussein really does admit weapons inspectors unconditionally with the imprimatur of the UN and the other great powers, this would more effectively accomplish the larger foreign policy goals of the United States: Saddam would be bottled up, he would cease being a menace to his neighbors, and US defense policy would be free to concentrate on more pressing challenges, like putting Al Qaeda out of business and making progress on the Israel-Palestine front.

Even though we might like to displace every tyrant on earth, sometimes this is just not practical at acceptable cost. That is surely the lesson of the Cold War era. In fact, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, even ones we don't like, has been the core principle of international law (and prudent statecraft) ever since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

Throughout the 20th century, America reluctantly coexisted with regimes headed by appalling despots, some armed with nuclear weapons, others of whom pillaged their own populations, some of them even our own allies. We managed to avoid going to war with Stalin, Castro, and countless minor dictators in the Third World. Even Hitler might have kept his job had he not invaded Poland.

And even as we uneasily celebrated Captive Nations Week, few sensible Americans thought it prudent to risk World War III to liberate Poland or Bulgaria. Just as George Kennan prophesied, we armed ourselves, drew a line in the sand, and waited the scoundrels out until they eventually fell. Deterrence and containment worked.

As an article in the New Yorker by Nicholas Lemann points out, most serious foreign policy hawks outside the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Wolfowitz cabal regard war with Iraq as serious diversion from the more pressing threat of international terrorism - maybe even a cynical one to cover up other policy failures. Many worry that an Iraq war would set back the goal of getting Middle East governments to cooperate with the United States in its struggle against Al Qaeda. Many fear that war with Iraq would increase the risk of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of radical Islamists and that a weakened Iraq would strengthen neighboring Iran, which we know has supported terrorists .

For all of these reasons, the Bush administration should take great pride in having stumbled into a policy it didn't seek. Instead of throwing cold water on the whole idea, the White House should welcome a blessing in disguise.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company


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