Red-Hot Rhetoric Getting Dangerous

Rarely has there been a display of hysterical exaggeration like that observed over the past few days in Washington, where the government is preparing for war with Iraq. According to President George W. Bush, as well as Senators John Warner, Joseph Lieberman and many others who have spoken lately in the Capitol, there is no limit to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. According to them, it is 1939, and we are again facing the twilight of Western civilization.

The Iraqi dictator is more dangerously armed than Hitler ever was, said Senator Warner. He could attack us with model airplanes loaded with germs. Senator Lieberman agreed that those unmanned planes-also mentioned by the President in his Cincinnati speech-are a terrible threat, perhaps an even bigger threat than the “primitive” nuclear weapons that Saddam doesn’t actually possess. The fatuous exchange between the gentlemen from Connecticut and Virginia revealed how thin the rationale is for an invasion.

Yet the Lieberman-Warner colloquy achieved a higher level of reason than much of what passed for debate, with all the clichĂ©d references to appeasement of the Axis. “We have to do something!” cried one Republican lawmaker. Neville Chamberlain was repeatedly exhumed, as if someone were proposing to let Saddam take over parts of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Now, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein is a murderous tyrant who aspires to be dangerous, both to his neighbors and the United States. He must be curbed, and if that is impossible, he must be overthrown. But the justifications for immediate, unilateral action to bring him down are no more convincing today than the first few times they were repeated by the President.

It is still difficult to understand why Saddam’s brutalities against the Kurds and the Iranians, which occurred well over a decade ago and didn’t disturb the Reagan or Bush administrations then, should motivate an invasion of Iraq now. It is puzzling that Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, which the United States and its allies repulsed after the Bush administration did so little to discourage that aggression, should now justify pre-emptive war. It is disturbing that four years after the U.N. inspectors left Iraq, political preparations for war have so suddenly become the administration’s overriding imperative in the weeks leading up to a national election.

When the President’s father confronted the problem of driving Saddam’s army out of Kuwait, he waited until well after the midterm elections of 1990 to bring a war resolution to Congress, and his ambassador first obtained the relevant U.N. resolutions. That Bush White House made no sustained attempt to politicize the impending war, despite the prospect of Republican losses in that year’s midterm elections.

Perhaps this President Bush has reversed that order in hopes that the Security Council will feel pressured into passing the new resolutions he wants if Congress first provides him a blank check for war. The problem is whether he and his civilian advisers-several of whom apparently dream of a global Pax Americana enforced by our soldiers and treasure-can be trusted with that authority. In his Cincinnati speech, he tried to reassure the nation that he isn’t quite as hot for war as some of his hawkish associates appear to be. Expressing his hope that war can be avoided, he redefined “regime change” to include Saddam’s acquiescence to a list of demands for disarmament and reform.

But is Mr. Bush any more committed to a workable inspection regime than Saddam himself? It isn’t easy to assess the intentions of an administration in which the State Department indicates one attitude and the Defense Department suggests the opposite, while the White House occupies a vague middle.

Despite his self-proclaimed lack of interest in polling data, the President seems to have been reading recent polls that warn of public skepticism about war on Iraq. His speech sought at once to reassure and to frighten. He wants Americans to believe that he too would prefer a peaceful resolution, but he also wants Americans to believe that this country faces the imminent prospect of a “mushroom cloud.”

That was surely Mr. Bush’s intention when he compared the situation in Iraq with the Cuban missile crisis. The comparison is overblown, to say the least. The ballistic missiles installed by the Soviets on an island 90 miles from the United States were capable of destroying every major city on this continent. Saddam has few missiles that can reach Istanbul, let alone New York, and no nuclear weapons with which to arm them.

The lesson of the 1962 crisis-whose 40th anniversary will occur next week-is that John F. Kennedy managed to preserve American security while avoiding war. Among the snares Kennedy avoided were the invasion and prolonged occupation of Cuba. Let us hope that Mr. Bush, who seems certain to get his Congressional resolution, will ignore the counsel of his armchair warriors and act as wisely. If Saddam ultimately fails to comply with the legitimate requirements of the United Nations, there will be time to muster a coalition that can force him to do so.

Red-Hot Rhetoric Getting Dangerous