Pearl Harbor in Reverse

Iraq, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the question of a pre-emptive strike

"I had other priorities."
—Dick Cheney, on why he did not serve in Vietnam.

Richard Perle, a Pentagon official during the Reagan years, says that unseating Saddam will be "a cakewalk." Perhaps, ventured Senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, Perle should join the first wave into Baghdad to experience his hypothesis. An estimated one million Iraqis are tied in with Saddam's regime or party. They face imprisonment, war-crimes trials, or reprisal murders if Saddam loses power. The collateral damage that will accompany a bombing campaign could rally even more Iraqis to Saddam, making the war more lethal and the U.S. occupation more hazardous. Regimes as cruel as Saddam's have successfully used foreign aggression to galvanize resistance. Stalin scourged the Russian people, yet he successfully appealed to their nationalism to defeat the Nazis. Pol Pot, after killing more than a million of his fellow Cambodians, was able to mobilize support against the Vietnamese invasion of 1979. Saddam's strategy will be to draw us into the cities. In the open we can target his artillery, neutralizing his capacity to deliver chemical weapons. That will be difficult to do in the streets of Baghdad. Saddam will want to make us kill civilians to get at him, knowing that the bomb blasts, the collapsing houses, the bloody faces and torn bodies will be shown throughout the Arab world by al Jazeera, exacting a potentially catastrophic political price. Beyond the battlefield, if Saddam strikes Israel with weapons of mass destruction Israel could well respond with nuclear weapons—so Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, testified before a Senate hearing in August. According to a former CIA agent who spoke recently with Iraqi government officials, Saddam plans to "take the Middle East down with him"—to strike Israel, to use a fifth column within Saudi Arabia to sabotage oil production, to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. forces. Street fighting, chemical weapons, a possible nuclear strike—"a cakewalk?"

The Administration says these military risks must be taken because Saddam has chemical and biological weapons and is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons—and will use them on the U.S. or its allies unless we strike first. When the U.S. faced a mortal threat not 6,000 but ninety miles away during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a threat for which the evidence was incontrovertible as it is not with Iraq, President Kennedy rejected a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet missiles. Striking first, his brother Robert said, was un-American—it would be "a Pearl Harbor in reverse." If the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive strikes had been in place, the Soviet commanders on the scene, faced as Saddam will be with a "use it or lose it" situation, would likely have launched their missiles. We now know they were nuclear-armed. The Bush Doctrine would almost certainly have led to nuclear war between the U.S. and the USSR. It stands condemned by the sternest test in our history. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the presidential historian and former adviser to President Kennedy, wrote recently, basing a declaration of war on fear instead of on overt acts of belligerency is not only illegal under international law but also immoral. It cannot be right to kill a country's civilians because you are afraid of what their ruler might do to you. Pearl Harbor lives in infamy.

Deterrence won't work against Saddam, Bush says, because it did not work in the past. "Saddam has used weapons of mass destruction against his neighbors and against his own people." The relevant truth now, when Saddam is bottled up by allied forces, is that Saddam has in fact been deterred from using weapons of mass destruction in the past. In the Gulf War, with the survival of his army and possibly his regime at stake, he did not use them against the U.S., which of course possesses its own weapons of mass destruction. Nor did he use them on the SCUD missiles he fired at Israel, which also has weapons of mass destruction. He did use weapons of mass destruction against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and against the Kurdish minority within Iraq. But neither one had such weapons to deter him. In the case of Iran, the United States told Saddam where the Iranian army was massing—knowing, as a front-page story in The New York Times revealed, that he would attack with poison gas. His weapons of mass destruction were useful to us. They kept the million-man armies of Iran from spreading radical Islam to the Gulf. That Saddam gassed the Kurds did not bother the Reagan and Bush Administrations. On the contrary, Bush Sr. refused to implement the sanctions that Congress voted on Iraq after the Kurdish massacres. "[We kept supplying him with the material to make weapons of mass destruction even though] Saddam used weapons of mass destruction against his own people." The bracketed truth does not make Saddam less monstrous, but it would make war a harder sell.

Saddam cannot be contained, Bush says, because he is incurably aggressive. His attacks on Iran and Kuwait are the proof. But in 1981 an article in Foreign Policy argued that, to use its title, "Iran Started the Iran-Iraq War." The origins of that war are more ambiguous than "He attacked his neighbors" allows. And the circumstances surrounding Saddam's attack on Kuwait were equally ambiguous. Days before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the American Ambassador, April Glaspie, met with Saddam as he was massing forces along the Kuwaiti border. She told him that Secretary of State James Baker wanted him to understand that the United States took no position on Arab-Arab disputes, like his border dispute with Kuwait, though we preferred they be resolved peacefully. A yellow light to invasion. She also expressed the sympathy of an anti-colonial power with Saddam's denunciations of the "colonialist" map-making after World War I that had annexed portions of what he regarded as Iraq to Kuwait. Saddam could easily have mistaken that for a green light. If he had seized only the disputed territory and not the whole of Kuwait, Saddam might still be our reliably ferocious counter to Iran in the Gulf. His deeds were not what made him Hitler to U.S. officials. (Senator Simpson, the Wyoming Republican, told Saddam in 1990 that he sympathized with his complaints that the Western press was exaggerating his mass murders. They weren't that bad.) What made him "Hitler" overnight was oil. Somewhere on the road between the Kuwaiti provinces that we seemed set to let him occupy and Kuwait City, Saddam Hussein became a threat to the American standard of living.

Oil haunts the current crisis, a ghost of imperialisms past. Joseph Conrad denounced the imperialism of his day as a "vile scramble for loot"—for diamonds, tin, copper, and oil. Can it be right to make war for loot? When he was CEO of Halliburton, Dick Cheney opposed the sanctions on Iraq. They got in the way of business. As Molly Ivins reported, Halliburton, through a front, nevertheless managed to do a $30-million-plus deal with Iraq in 1998. But Cheney wanted more, a clear field for Big Oil. Vietnam fouled the language with the "nun gap," Henry Kissinger's sordid formulation for the interval between the time we pulled out of South Vietnam and the time the first nun was raped after North Vietnam conquered it. If Bush attacks Iraq, I suspect the "Halliburton gap" will be closing even as telegrams home will be regretting to inform the bereaved.