The high drama of the Iraqi crisis descended into low comedy for a moment last weekend when United Nations weapons inspectors set about demolishing their first batch of forbidden Al Samoud 2 missiles. Setting to work, the inspectors found that the missiles refused to disintegrate under the weight of the Iraqi bulldozers brought in for the job. The missiles’ shells, it seems, were too tough to crack. The operation was put on hold for hours while the inspectors sent out for heavier machinery.
The missile-crushers’ helplessness makes an apt metaphor for the larger impasse confronting the world community as it seeks accord in the coming days on the best way to disarm Iraq and defang its dictator, Saddam Hussein. The difference is that the larger crisis has no easy answer. And there’s nothing funny about it.
As the U.N. Security Council gathered this weekend for yet another round of deliberation on the crisis, America and its longtime partners, the democracies of Europe, had set themselves on a path of reckless and unnecessary brinkmanship. Washington, London and Madrid were backing a new resolution that would have the council find Iraq in non-compliance and open the way for an armed attack. Paris, Berlin and Moscow were vowing to block the resolution, by veto if necessary, in order to give the weapons inspectors more time. The difference between the two sides is four months. And over those four months, the Western alliance is coming apart at the seams.
Whoever comes out on top in the procedural debate, the real winner in this confrontation will be the Iraqi dictator himself. While America and France face off, Saddam laughs.
The disarray among the Western democracies has given Saddam an opening to strut about the world stage, one minute posing as the penitent eager to comply with U.N. orders, the next minute attempting to rally the Islamic states behind him in defiance of America’s supposed bullying. So long as the Americans and the French remain deadlocked, the initiative is all his. And he is milking it for everything it’s worth.
What’s pathetic about the impasse is that there’s almost no disagreement on the essential nature of the problem. Saddam has a decades-long record of astonishing brutality at home and recklessness abroad. He’s not the only such tyrant on the world scene, to be sure. He’s arguably the most dangerous, however, given his volatile mix of ruthless ambition and advanced weaponry. No member of the Security Council — not France, not China, not even Syria — has publicly dissented from the basic goal of cutting him down to size.
It’s easy to belittle the threat, but only if you close your eyes to history. Way back during the U.S.-Soviet cold war — back, say, a dozen or so years ago — the superpower confrontation imposed a sort of bipolar system of world order. In those days rogue dictators like Saddam could be seen as regional irritants, occasionally useful to one side or the other, rarely threatening beyond their own neighborhood. That’s changed. The rise of global jihadism gives Saddam a new, far broader canvas for his brand of mischief. The spread of new technologies of death makes the mischief incalculably more dangerous.
The disagreement between Washington and Paris is not unbridgeable. They’re arguing over four months. Unfortunately, arrogance and shortsightedness in both capitals have poisoned the atmosphere. Infatuated with their own rectitude, advocates on each side have rushed to vilify the other, when the truth is there’s an argument to be made on both sides. France is justified in hoping for a solution short of war, given the stakes and the high risk of unanticipated consequences. There is still room for the inspectors to do their job. But the inspectors would not be there if not for the American military buildup. Making America out as the villain only encourages Saddam’s mischief, which in turn forces America to ratchet up the threat. It’s time for both sides in this debate to remember who the real enemy is.