WILTON, CONN. — On Iraq, the administration has abandoned one of the cardinal principles of common sense: When you're in a hole, stop digging.
With every new declaration of "regime change" and every threat of preemptive military action, the United States is in deeper, floundering in a pit of its own making.
Go back to basics. Saddam Hussein is a war criminal and a potential danger to a region whose oil is vital for the industrial world. The issue is not whether to get rid of him, but how. After he invaded Kuwait in 1990, his Army was smashed and thrown back by Desert Storm, but the first President Bush had no mandate from the Congress or the United Nations or America's allies to eliminate the dictator. There is no point in crying over spilled milk.
Urging the people of Iraq to overthrow President Hussein without promising more than moral support led to nothing except charges of betrayal. Hussein sits in Baghdad, officially recognized as the head of a sovereign state. Iraq is a member of the UN. Its regime has worldwide diplomatic and trade ties, including legal ones with American companies.
In 1991, the UN imposed on Iraq a tight system of sanctions to keep Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction (not to drive him out of office). UN arms inspectors roamed at will until Hussein forced them out. He has found the wiggle room to loosen the economic sanctions one way and another. There has never been control of what goes into the country and, through smuggling, he collects billions of dollars a year with which to cement the loyalty of his henchmen and, perhaps, buy arms on the international market.
It may be presumed that Hussein has continued his efforts to acquire biological, chemical, and even nuclear weapons. Over the years the United States and Britain (France bailed out long ago) showed their anger in sizable air attacks on targets in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Hussein was not shaken. It was essentially impotent rage in his league, a net gain for him. The present Bush administration began with air strikes against Iraqi air defense centers. Then, after 9/11, the president proclaimed a policy of preemptive action to meet potential danger anywhere on the globe and, specifically, the goal of regime change in Iraq.
One bright idea was to repeat Afghanistan, where the Northern Alliance was a ready-made spearhead against the Taliban. But there is nothing like a "Northern Alliance" in Iraq. Then, some quarter of a million troops were to mount a massive ground offensive from countries, like Jordan, which had not been consulted.
When a Pentagon official, obviously appalled by the uncertainty of the whole thing, leaked the plan and a number of friendly governments loudly objected, it was set aside for another. The new brainwave, nicknamed an "inside-out" offensive, centers on dropping divisions of paratroopers on Baghdad and other critical points.
This, too, was leaked by what must have been a distraught Pentagon planner. Where the first was a wild gamble, the second borders on madness. It plays directly to Hussein's strength.
His best troops are specially trained in urban warfare. The US Army is not. A force invading the capital may well arouse the patriotism of people who have no love for Hussein. The prospect of an infinitely larger version of the brutal 1993 firefight in Mogadishu is not impossible.
There is talk of a disorientation tactic to confuse Iraqi defenses, jamming wireless communications. But Hussein has for years been building a fiber-optic command and control network.
What can be done to eradicate this menace? Simply continuing the status quo, especially after Washington's grandiloquence, would mean he wins and the US loses.
The administration must abandon the search for the quick coup, broaden its focus, and prepare for a long haul.
One step is to discard the stupid "axis of evil" slogan. It stands in the way of an accommodation with Iran, without which the encirclement and containment of Iraq is not possible. In every way, the US should quietly support the younger generation's effort to shake off the radical and corrupt theocracy. Measures can be taken also to gain the cooperation of Iraq's other neighbors: Turkey, Jordan, and Syria, now haunted by their own problems.
Washington must shed its Lone Ranger stance and cultivate old friends in Europe, such as Germany, which has long ties to Iran.
Certainly, with Afghanistan, the India-Pakistan rumble over Kashmir, and the offensive against terrorism, the region does not need another war. But, more than any other thing, a credible maximum American drive to make peace between Israel and a Palestinian state would create a climate in which the United States could profitably pursue its many interests.
A new Office of Global Communication is being set up as a public-relations shop to peddle goodwill toward America. It is more likely to become a laughingstock, cheapening the message of a great country. Washington seems to have forgotten that its immense influence stems from what the US is and what it does, not from anything it says.
Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.