Gambling with History
       by Gene Lyons

     Be it recorded that last time the United States and its allies went to
war with Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, I won a dinner bet
with a New York editor who'd bought into the idea of a prolonged tank and
infantry battle on the Kuwaiti border. Having had a small amount of
experience in that region, I doubted that Saddam Hussein's army would
stand and fight. I figured once the shooting started, the war would be over
in two weeks.

     My thinking had nothing to do with the individual courage or"patriotism"
of Iraqi soldiers. These qualities are human constants. It had to do with
understanding that Iraq isn't really a nation in the sense that, say, Norway or
Mexico are: i.e. a people joined by bonds of language, culture, religion,
a sense of shared history and common destiny. Awaken most at gunpoint
at 4 A.M. and ask them who and what they are, and "Iraqi" would be just
about the last answer you'd get.

     Instead, most inhabitants of Saddam's desert paradise would name their
ethnic group or religious sect--be it Shiite, Kurd, Chaldean, Sunni--their
village or tribe. Ethnically, Iraq makes the former Yugoslavia look
coherent. It's not a nation, it's a geographical absurdity cobbled together
for their own purposes by the British and French after World War I from
the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire.

     Far from feeling loyalty to the Baghdad dictator, most frontline
soldiers were unwilling conscripts held in place by fear. Saddam kept
his best-trained and most loyal units close to him. The military position
they were defending was a meaningless line in the sand. As soon as they
became more afraid of the army in front of them than the tyrant behind
them, I reasoned, they would surrender en masse.

     As indeed, they did. But not before an appalling bloodbath that won't
soon be forgotten by the Americans who took part. Even many who merely
witnessed the carnage on CNN, which has been careful not to re-broadcast the
most disturbing footage of fleeing soldiers and civilians being annihilated
from the air, came away horrified.

     A friend who served in Desert Storm told me that far from clamoring to
push on to Baghdad, most officers felt immense relief when the war ended.
Their objective was to push Saddam out of Kuwait, not to conquer Iraq.
Slaughtering a fleeing mob offended their honor and cauterized their souls.
Much of the he-man rhetoric about "finishing the job the first time," comes
from the kind of people who get a vicarious thrill sitting in their studies
boasting of American power and sneering at European weakness.

     I thought of that conversation recently after reading in the Los Angeles
Times of President Junior's plan to reduce the citizens of Baghdad to a state
of "shock and awe" with a cruise missile attack of  unprecedented scope
and ferocity. Certain of the fervid enthusiasts around Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld also think that tactical nuclear weapons may be deployed
--lovely, antiseptic word--to take out Saddam's deepest bunkers.

     But let's assume that this is largely propaganda, scare talk designed
to send Saddam running. What worries many in the Pentagon nervous about
President Junior's scheme to occupy Iraq is not knowing whether soldiers who
fled in terror during Desert Storm will fight desperately to defend their
homes and families against foreign invaders.

     Will U.S. and British troops, as everybody assumes, race through the
Iraqi desert as easily as German tanks penetrated Poland on Sept. 1, 1939?
(Historical analogies, see, can cut both ways.) Or will they meet determined
resistance, sabotage, booby traps, and other nasty surprises? Nobody knows.
The administration's strategy of loudly proclaiming that Iraq poses a dire
threat to U.S. security while making a public spectacle of massing troops
along its border as if it were scarcely capable of self-defense makes no sense.
The Germans, at least, knew that Polish horse cavalry posed no real danger.
We Americans are new at this business of pre-emptive war.

     It's these uncertainties and more that caused the conservative thinkers
at the Cato Institute to object that "the assumptions that underlie the
administration's policy range from cautiously pessimistic to outright fallacious.
"Far from the unpredictable madman portrayed in President Junior's speeches,
Saddam Hussein has shown himself as cold-blooded a realist as Stalin.

     Left to his own devices and assured of massive retaliation to aggression
against the American homeland, he can be and, indeed has been,
successfully deterred. "If Hussein believes that his political survival is being
threatened, and there is nothing he can do about it," they warn "he may
respond in a dangerous and unpredictable manner-with weapons of mass

     In short, if Saddam can't retaliate, invading Iraq is pointless; if he
can, it's potentially catastrophic. Take your pick.

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