NEW YORK, Sept. 30 (UPI) -- An increasing number of Americans are perplexed about why President George W. Bush is so fixated on Saddam Hussein, especially since the so-called imminent danger posed by the Iraqi despot does not appear to be so imminent.
Try as they may to justify the rush toward war to dislodge the Iraqi leader, Bush and the members of his administration have not made a convincing case because their real agenda transcends the mere destruction of Iraq's WMD.
To get to the bottom of Bush's fixation on the Iraqi president, let's first dispense with the obvious. Saddam is a ruthless leader who has made his people suffer greatly. He is driven by a blind ambition to control the Arab world and its oil resources by whatever means he can muster. He has been hard at work to rebuild his military power after the Gulf War and to amass weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons, along with the means to deliver them -- while aggressively trying to obtain nuclear weapons. In addition, Saddam lends direct and indirect support to various terrorist organizations, is a menace to our allies and friends in the region, and seriously threatens our interests inside and outside the Middle East.
Although other states, such as Iran and Syria, have weapons of mass destruction and support various terrorist groups, the Iraqi leader is the only one who has used chemical weapons against his enemies (Iran in 1987-88) and even his own people (the Kurds in 1991), and he is likely to employ them again. Surely these concerns are valid enough for us to demand immediate resumption of inspections, with the threat to use force in the event of his noncompliance.
Nevertheless, the question remains: Why is Bush seemingly obsessed with waging war rather than first exhausting all other options?
Several reasons come to mind:
First, I believe that Bush wants to finish what his father left undone, namely, to topple the Iraqi leader, seeing this as the "true" end to the Gulf War. Whether his father had a U.N. mandate to do so is not relevant in today's discourse on the Iraqi situation. Many blame the former president for keeping Saddam in power, for the present danger emanating from the Iraqi regime, and for many of the difficulties we are currently experiencing in the Middle East. Saddam is simply a monster, and from our current president's perspective, inspections, however unfettered, will not do the job -- Iraq's dictator has got to go.
Second, had Bush not invoked several times in the past week alone the assassination attempt on his father life by Iraqi agents, I would have dismissed this event as a ridiculous motivation because a president rarely, if ever, thinks in terms of personal vengeance. But although Bush did not explicitly talk of revenge, his implication was clear. I can understand his anger and the hatred he must feel toward the Iraqi leader, but I never imagined that a personal vendetta would influence his decision to wage war against Iraq. But I have come to believe it has, for why else did he mention the assassination attempt in the same breath as when he spoke about the need to get rid of Saddam?
The recognition that Bush is acting from personal reasons, at least in part, explains the growing skepticism of our allies and many congressional leaders concerning his efforts in making the case for war.
Third, many in the administration see the removal of Saddam and the installation of a pro-American regime in Iraq as ushering in a new era in the Middle East. His ouster, they argue, would end much of the regional strife, break the back of Arab extremists who are bent on undermining the interests of the United States and its allies, encourage the Palestinians to seek peace with Israel, make a serious dent in the war against terrorism, help spread democracy and human rights throughout the region, and secure a steady flow of oil.
In brief, a successful campaign against Saddam may transform the Middle East from a region torn apart by strife and despair into a peaceful, democratic and progressive region, where America would enjoy an unquestioned dominant influence.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who has the president's ear, is the catalyst behind this new agenda for the Middle East.
He has been very effective in persuading Bush to embrace this larger vision for the region, which he argues, only war can accomplish. But what Wolfowitz does not discuss is that a war can also trigger new perilous developments such as attacks on Israel and/or Saudi Arabia, severe oil shortages, the disintegration of Iraq, as well as undermine our ability to sustain an effective war on terrorism.
Fourth, the collapse of the Iraqi regime will also bring about a dramatic geopolitical shift in the region. Iran, another country on Bush's axis of evil, will be completely surrounded by American allies or pro-American regimes. Afghanistan borders Iran on the east, Pakistan on the east and south, Turkmenistan on the north and northeast, Turkey on the northwest, Iraq on the west, while across the Persian Gulf lies Saudi Arabia also to the west, and some of the Gulf states in the south.
With such a geopolitical shift, we would be in a much stronger position to influence Iran's internal affairs -- a gloomy prospect for its clergy, a possibility that has not been lost on Tehran. Although there is no love lost between Iran and Iraq, and under different circumstances Saddam's demise would be a cause for celebration, Iran realizes that, if encircled, it could be Bush's next target.
The Iranian government is, therefore, determined to disrupt the administration's war plans. Israeli and American intelligence have recently disclosed that Iran has shipped thousands of Katyusha rockets to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, (with the obvious consent of Syria) with the goal of opening up a new front against Israel should we attack Iraq. It will not be a pretty prospect if Israel is then forced to retaliate, especially against Syria, as the Israelis hold Damascus responsible for any acts of violence against them emanating from Lebanon.
Fifth, oil has been, and remains, a major motivator of Bush's Iraq strategy. The administration's strong connections to the oil industry make a change in the Iraqi regime even more palatable. With the demise of Saddam, it is reasoned, increasingly more oil will flow uninterruptedly from the Middle East and probably at much lower prices. Although it is true that Saddam has occasionally tried to instigate higher oil prices, and is an agent of disruption and instability, I am not sure how much of a dividend the Administration can expect to reap from his disappearance, especially if he manages, and he will certainly make the attempt, to incinerate oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf states.
Moreover, even under the best scenario, we will become more, rather than less, dependent on Middle Eastern oil.
As the debate over war with Iraq is thrown into the mix of the Congressional elections, I can't help but feel something is dramatically wrong. Is this administration waging war against Iraq to distract the public's attention from the sagging economy and also evoke patriotic fervor in order to boost the chances for the Republicans retaining their majority in the House while retaking control of the Senate? Certainly, I would like to believe that this is not the case. But, then, is beating the drums of war so loudly at the height of the election season just a coincidence?
Like millions of other Americans, I'd want to give the president the benefit of the doubt, but only if he truly exhausts every other option to destroy all of Iraq's WMD and the means to produce them before he commits us to war.
(Alon Ben-Meir is Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute and a professor of International Relations at New York University, New York.)