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Surrealistic silence on Saddam

Ten years after the Gulf War, Republicans reassemble an old team, but tread softly on war’s legacy, writes MSNBC’s Michael Moran, in his foreign affairs column, Brave New World.

Does it strike anyone else as strange that on the 10th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a general named Schwartzkopf, a Republican named Bush and another named Cheney managed to spend the entire day in the international media spotlight without once uttering the name “Saddam Hussein”? To my ears, the GOP’s silence on that subject is deafening.

TRYING TO IMAGINE what might be going through the mind of Iraq’s wily leader is a chump’s game. Yet it seems a fair bet that the dictator who should be held responsible for plunging his small nation into two of the bloodiest wars of the late 20th century is getting quite a kick out of this.

Ten years ago, George Bush the Elder fell into the same trap that the Ayatollah Khomeini had made before him - declaring that no real peace could be possible with Iraq until Saddam Hussein was toppled. Bush Sr. and the Ayatollah have come and gone - and another American president, Bill Clinton, is about to leave the stage. Yet there sits Saddam Hussein: master of his own people’s disaster, yet also blessed with enemies who made pledges they couldn’t keep. How must Saddam Hussein regard the possible coming of Bush the Younger (and the re-introduction to political battle of that old war horse, Cheney? Somewhere in Baghdad, Saddam is laughing.


As any Iraqi would tell you, if free speech were not a potentially lethal issue in that country, Saddam has been a curse. He launched the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, gained nothing and caused the deaths of millions. He then invaded neighboring Kuwait, bringing to Iraq destruction and isolation that will take a generation to repair. And yet, ten years after the Gulf War, that same Iraqi will tell you that it is the United States and its insistence on inflicting brutal economic sanctions that has turned Iraq into a country with infant mortality rates comparable to those in the poorest parts of Africa.

“Saddam has used this demand (for his ouster) to divert responsibility for the misery of sanctions away from himself and onto the United States, ” writes Iraq scholar Ofra Bengio of Tel Aviv University, in the current edition of Foreign Affairs. “The prolongation of the embargo has thus strengthened Saddam rather than weakening him.”


Retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Gulf War’s chief military strategist, spoke movingly Tuesday about the sacrifices American military personnel made during the Gulf War and those that preceeded it. He praised former President Bush for mobilizing much of the world against Iraq’s ill-considered invasion of Kuwait. He even used the occasion to lash out at Clinton for holding military spending down and, in the general’s view, diminishing the power of the U.S. military.

But Schwarzkopf wisely avoided any mention of the morass that the Bush administration bequeathed to Clinton in Iraq. This was not like the address Gen. George Marshall delivered in 1955, the 10th anniversary of the end of World War II, in which the great statesman pointed across both oceans to the physical and political transformations taking hold in the lands of his former enemies. Instead, the central figure of the Gulf War - Saddam - hovered over Schwarzkopf’s remarks like an uninvited guest.


Whose fault is this? Not Schwarzkopf’s, certainly, and not Colin Powell’s. Here’s why “victory over Saddam” didn’t rank as a theme for the GOP convention: it’s not Bill Clinton’s fault either. One can argue Clinton hasn’t done enough to finish the task, and certainly his Iraq policy is a shambles. But blaming him for the still-beating heart of the Iraqi dictator would be intellectually dishonest. Schwarzkopf, to his credit, did not do that. As he knows better than any, Saddam’s reign was secured the day the Bush administration decided not to pursue the retreating Iraqis into Baghdad, and no amount of dissembling on the part of loyal military men can change that.

The Schwarzkopf speech came and went without much fanfare - in part, because of the decision of both parties to turn presidential nominating conventions from forums to debate their policies into four-day political advertisements. Yet a close examination of the Schwarzkopf’s words betrays the depth of the dilemmas facing the Republicans this year of national defense and foreign policy.


One passage is particularly revealing - and must have caused Bush and Cheney to squirm in their hotel divans. The men and women who won the Gulf War, the general said, “were both active-duty and reservists who willingly answered the call to duty that disrupted their lives, took them away from family and jobs and put them in harm’s way.” Imagine how that went down with Bush and Cheney - two children of the sixties who used influence and academic deferment to avoid active duty in Vietnam.

What’s more, while the general rightly points out that navy, army and air force budget expenditures during the Clinton administration have forced tough choices and downsizing, many military officers and analysts would disagree that a lack of money is the problem.

By far the greater problem is the proliferation of long-term, containment-oriented military deployments - for instance, the decade-old Anglo-American air patrols over the northern and southern “no fly zones” in Iraq - that are stretching the American military network to the breaking point. Sure, more money would help. But strengthening international institutions so they can handle peacekeeping without major American deployments would be even better. And thinking through the long-term implications of decisions like the Gulf War cease-fire.


George W. Bush has been frank in conceding that when it comes to foreign policy, he’s no Metternich. But the men and women with whom he surrounds himself - Richard Perle, James Baker, and now Dick Cheney - are the very people who over-extended the U.S. military in the first place with their call for a “New World Order.”

It was a noble ideal, actually, badly implemented. Yet to turn around now, eight years after Bush the Elder passed from the scene and blame Clinton for all that’s wrong with America’s standing in the world is just a bit rich. As with Saddam’s absence from the GOP’s Tuesday theme of “Strength and Security,” the failure of these re-enlisted policymakers to take responsibility for their past errors is disturbing. It suggests that Saddam will be more amused than frightened by the idea of a return of the Bush family to the White House.

Michael Moran is MSNBC’s senior producer for special projects. His foreign affairs column, Brave New World, appears regularly in MSNBC’s Opinions section.