Analysis: War of nerves, but whose?

By NICHOLAS M. HORROCK and RICHARD SALE  |  Feb. 14, 2003 at 1:19 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- As President George W. Bush awakened on this Valentine's Day, the path to disarming Saddam Hussein must have seemed astoundingly more difficult than it did a year ago, now presenting him with decisions as dangerous as any president has faced in a half century.

Around him, the capital is on "high alert status," grocery shelves and hardware stores stripped of water, masking tape and plastic sheeting, on the advice of the Homeland Security Department to protect against chemical and biological attacks by terrorists.

Stinger missile batteries guard the National Mall and armored cars ring the Department of Defense.

New York City streets are patrolled by machine gun toting police, and city bridges, tunnels, airports and subways are under police and military guard.

The cause for the government to raise the alert is not publicly known, but the decision was taken Feb. 7 shortly after the government learned of a new voice tape from Osama bin Laden, urging Muslims to rally to protect Saddam Hussein and Iraq. The warning draws a not-too-subtle point that if the West attacks Iraq, it could open homelands to vastly increased terrorist attacks. That certainly has driven public opinion in Great Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair called out Army units with armored cars to secure Heathrow Airport.

The coalition that Bush's father rallied to attack Saddam Hussein in 1991 came together almost effortlessly by comparison to the difficulties the younger Bush is now facing. Public opinion in Western Europe is overwhelmingly against the war, and the opposition of France, Germany and Russia to immediate military action threatens to destroy the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that only in November Bush lauded.

A New York Times/CBS News poll published Friday found the American people ambivalent about the war. Despite the massive campaign by Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell to urge immediate action against Iraq, 59 percent of the people polled earlier this week wanted the administration to give the United Nations more time. Sixty-three percent said Washington should not act without the support of its allies.

The president also awoke to the unpleasant news that the poll found his approval rating at 54 percent, still good, but down from 64 percent just a month ago.

At the weekend millions of people worldwide, some young and some not so young, furiously chattering with each other over the Internet, planned peace demonstrations from Cortez, Colo., to Christchurch, New Zealand, to Berlin. Two major demonstrations were planned in the United States, one in New York and on in San Francisco. Though the turnouts may not rival European cities, Bush's foreign policy has seemed to reinvigorate the almost moribund U.S. peace movement.

While he never set a formal timetable for unseating Saddam, his advisers for months have whispered war dates and D-Days. It may seem ironic to the president that one of the most persistent dates suggested for attack was Valentines Day, Feb. 14.

Instead, this Valentine's day, Saddam Hussein is still in Baghdad and George W. Bush is in the White House facing more delays in the United Nations Security Council.

Friday's report to the Security Council by U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix did not give Bush the push he wanted. The French-German-Russian détente have offered a more muscular inspection plan which is gaining interest and no one expects Security Council action on a new resolution before March 1.

Part of the problem is North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who, with the adroitness of the desperate, began a bid late last year for Western money by a nuclear blackmail. From the beginning, the Bush administration hopefully asserted that this could be handled through diplomatic channels, but by late this week Japan warned it would consider a pre-emptive strike against North Korea if it was threatened.

The U.N. nuclear agency, the same one whose inspectors are tramping though Iraq, cited North Korea for non-compliance and sent this case, some say a more urgent one, to the Security Council. The United States welcomed the move, but in reality, North Korea is fast becoming a rival with Saddam Hussein for Bush's concern. Whether Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il are working together is not known, but these are opportunistic and despotic leaders who know a good thing when they see it. Playing each other off against the United States may buy them both more time.

Is time important? Is there a deadline for Bush to act against Iraq and is there a penalty for failing to are questions that can get you a dozen answers in this terrorist-jittery city.

Gal Luft, former analyst of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, for instance, argues "any delay of any time will prove to be very bad. This president is on a very tight timeline. He has elections in 2002 and he needs to wrap up Iraq at least a year before so that he can concentrate on the economy. If he didn't start the war until late summer, he would miss the deadline for elections."

Luft and others claim the indecision alone is troubling. "You have very severe economic implications. There is a limit to how long people in the public are going to be willing to hold their breaths. They want to get on with their lives. The tension of this is nerve wracking."

Tony Cordesman, Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: "I think it will depend on the coherence of the debate. If things are said that undermine administration's allegations, then the government could lose support. But does the administration depend on public support is order to go to war is the question."

Nathaniel Hurd, an NGO consultant on UN Iraq policy, certainly thinks support is vital. He told UPI that "worldwide support for alternatives to a war is almost unanimous. That support grows more active and vocal with time. U.S. public opinion often cares what the rest of the world thinks. Perhaps existing domestic opposition to war will increase as the international community continues to stop the Bush Administration's obsessive drive to war."

The best scenario, according to Max Singer, a petroleum and foreign policy at the Hudson Institute, would be that the Iraqis choose to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but he and others interviewed held out little hope for that outcome.

Throughout the entire Iraq confrontation, from the "axis of evil" phrase in the State of the Union address last January until Bush's speech at naval base Thursday, the United States has been playing a masterful strategy to form a coalition by threatening to do alone what the other nations are reluctant. This played out as a war of nerves on Saddam Hussein designed to shake his resolve as well.

But as massive world public opinion shifted away from Bush, the war of nerves has gone both ways. It faces Bush with a decision as critical as any commander-in-chief's. If the United States attacks Iraq alone, it will not mean military casualties, but civilian ones as well.

Jessica Tuchman Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said she does not believe the war is inevitable, nor does she believe the president thinks it is. She told UPI that the U.S. should pursue "coercive" inspections of Iraq, putting more inspectors in, providing U-2 overflights, destroy with air strikes any site being "sanitized" by Iraq and don't let any dangerous items slip away by enforcing a "no drive" zone with air cover. She thinks the U.N. should consider providing bases for ground troops if necessary. Others deride these ideas as something Saddam Hussein would not accept, which could be the provocation that President Bush has been looking for.

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