It's intriguing, having lived in the military monstrosity that was the Soviet Union for a few years, to witness all the paranoia over a fifth-rate power like Iraq.
The Soviets had the military muscle, at a rough guess, of about a hundred Iraqs. You could stand in the gray chill of Red Square for the annual pageant of military hardware on Revolution Day and get a sense of it. The Red Army and the Pershings, the MXs, the PL-5s, the ICBMs. An endless expanse of staggering might.
The Soviets had 8,000 strategic nuclear warheads. At last count, Saddam Hussein's Iraq had zero. The Kremlin had the capacity to incinerate the American continent in a matter of moments. The eunuch of Baghdad has a few missiles with a launch capacity of 140 kilometers. His combat strength is estimated at one-quarter of what it was in the Persian Gulf war when the U.S. rolled over him in a matter of days. His naval fleet has a reported one frigate.
In comparison to the old days, to the old Soviet Union and the old Germany, when the Americans confronted enemies worth the name, what we are hearing from Colin Powell today is pip-squeak stuff.
Having confronted the giants of the past, who could have imagined the United States, the biggest military power in history, worried silly over some two-bit tyrant who might have a canister or two of poison gas hidden somewhere or who, years from now, might get a pint-sized nuclear weapon.
Gerald Ford may well have summed up it up best when, Mr. Ford being Mr. Ford, he said: "If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he'd roll over in his grave."
Someone should tell George W. Bush that Super Bowl champs don't spread fear among their followers at the sight of a rundown high school team.
Clearly, we would be better off without Saddam Hussein. But beating the war drums for a year over a puny dictator who has not been the source of the terror we have lived through is something that seriously needs explaining.
Mr. Powell tried in his appearance before the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday. He brought forward good evidence of Iraq's playing hide-and-seek. But if perspective is everything, the world got very little of it from the Secretary of State's big show.
What he did say was interesting. What he didn't say was more interesting. Such as: This is a war on terror, and we have no real proof that Saddam Hussein is linked to any of the terror of recent years. Therefore, every last ounce of energy must go into bringing down Mr. Hussein.
Mr. Powell made no mention of the fact that, while Mr. Hussein is considered such an immediate threat, he hasn't so much as swatted a flea outside his own borders for a dozen years.
Mr. Powell made no reference to the fact that, while Washington has become paranoid about chemical and biological weapons, (a) the United States rejected an international biological weapons pact two years ago, (b) Mr. Hussein had bio-chem weapons available in the gulf war but didn't use them, (c) when he did use such weapons in the 1980s, the U.S., then a semi-supporter of Mr. Hussein, gave him the old wink wink, and (d) for all the fear that Washington is trying to generate over these weapons, the death toll in modern times is greater from the flu bug and soccer hooliganism.
Mr. Powell could hardly be faulted for failing to bring some perspective to the debate. There is a history to be considered here, a history of Washington's chronic practice of exaggerating threats. One need only recall the McCarthyist Red Scare, the alleged missile gap in 1960, the domino theory to get the Vietnam War going, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, Grenada and the dreaded Sandinistas of Nicaragua who, as Ronald Reagan put it, could have led a charge right up through Mexico and lay siege to the American heartland.
Mr. Powell did a fine job of keeping threat inflation alive and well. Given that Saddam Hussein should be toppled, given that the Iraqi people should be able to live in freedom, his big show may be for the better. The goal is good, if it can be achieved without setting off a chain of war.
But for the Americans, who have faced real threats, to present him as some kind of immediate and dire threat -- who must be attacked before diplomacy can work its way -- is fear-mongering at its worst.
Franklin Roosevelt, who faced giant powers such as Germany and Japan, had it right when he said something about there being nothing to fear but fear itself. Apparently, no one in the Bush White House has ever read the speech. They are the biggest peddlers of fear we have ever seen.
Lawrence Martin, a former Moscow and Washington correspondent, is the author of eight books.
© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc