Iraq Without George Bush

Saddam isn't any more threatened today than he was two years ago - much to the contrary, he and his country are strengthened

`MY name is Bill," I said extending my hand.

"Bill Clinton?"

The scene was repeated numerous times during a month-long trip to Iraq because people here think that Bill Clinton is going to come to their rescue. Why? Because he is not George Bush.

To Iraqis, President Bush was the problem - a perception confirmed by January's valedictory bombing. Iraqis don't understand the purpose behind the bombing of the factory near Baghdad - other than as a petulant message. The missile-targeted Rasheed Hotel was hit by the Pentagon, they believe, "to drive journalists out of the country."

In addition there has been no bombing since President Clinton took office. So it clearly seems to Iraqis Mr. Bush's personal doing. Numerous American threats were also made in 1991 and 1992 in other confrontations with the United Nations inspectors, and they never resulted in bombing. But that was when Bush was running for president.

Welcome to Iraq, and what might be called "absolvegate." US policy in the Reagan-Bush years - inconsistent, confusing, and finally intransigent - has fostered a national Iraqi pastime of practiced victimization and self-deception.

Iraqis explain the seeming vendetta against their country as a personal Saddam versus Bush battle. Now that Bush is gone, they believe, Clinton and Saddam can live together. Otherwise, US "inflexibility" confirms the suspicion that a great conspiracy is afoot: that the whole "invitation" to invade Kuwait, the Gulf war, and the two-year isolation is a premeditated Zionist-American strategy to roll back Arab power and pride.

Iraqi contrition may be the rarest commodity to come by in this embattled and defiant country. Yet while Clinton policymakers satisfy themselves with the status quo, fearful of appearing "soft" on Saddam, they should consider whether they aren't just bolstering the regime's resistance.

Bush may have forced Saddam to back down tactically, but since the Gulf war, the US has pursued a policy that punishes the wrong people. Rather than undermining Saddam, Washington has created a "rally round the flag" response. The frightening specters of chaos and breakup as represented by Lebanon and Yugoslavia prevent the population from gazing outward for salvation.

Here is one 1993 "reality check" I made up after my recent visit to Iraq:

* Saddam isn't any more threatened today than he was two years ago. Much to the contrary - he is strengthened.

* High prices, shortages, and unemployment exist. But the people of Iraq are not suffering as in Somalia, or Bosnia, or Armenia. The problems, moreover, are blamed on the US and the international community, not on Saddam.

* The rebuilding of the civilian infrastructure (electricity, oil, transportation, and telecommunications), despite sanctions, is a universal point of pride.

* Inadequate international support and protection for Kurdish and Shiite opponents, and an unwillingness on the part of the US or any of Iraq's neighbors to see the country split apart, lead most to conclude that they are better off finding a solution with Baghdad.

* Legal and technical wrangling over compliance with UN and US demands are believed to mask another agenda and a secret veto - one Iraq can never satisfy short of the disappearance of Saddam. So why should the government comply?

The bottom line is that Saddam cannot be eliminated. Far from neutralizing him through the current policy, in fact, Bush canonized him. This does not in itself argue for normalization of relations just because elimination failed. But it does argue for a radical change, a restoration of some modicum of peaceful interaction, and the pursuit of policies that place the welfare of the population above the priority of overthrowing Saddam.

The current cold-war-like strategy of lining up the enemies of Iraq and being satisfied with the interim tally should be abandoned.

While Bush remained intransigent on Iraq, Iraqis close to Saddam think their eventual compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, coupled with commercial interests and realpolitik, will allow Clinton to pursue more permanent US interests.

They feel that Washington's increasing obsession with Iran is a shift in attention that should be welcomed. If oil is the issue, officials say, we've got more than Kuwait anyhow. Please, no hard feelings. Iraq insists it can aid the Middle East peace process as well.

At the highest level, officials suggest Iraq can construct a package deal and make vital concessions because they would not be to Bush, the "evil one." Privy to the covert history of Iran-Contra and Iraqgate during the Reagan-Bush years, they wonder what the problem is: "You used to say one thing, and do the other? What changed?"

That Iraq might want to pursue ties with the US, even curry favor, might seem disingenuous. But clearly it is in Iraq's interest to regain control over its territory and come out from under the gun. Meanwhile, it will still pursue a clumsy campaign to portray its society as impoverished and victimized.

The reality of postwar Iraq is a new, self-sufficient ethic, and an industrious and competent civil machinery.

The country's grotesque over-militarization remains the major obstacle to democracy, stability, and wealth. But the military is not going to be defeated and reduced until the regime is robbed of convenient enemies and conspiracies to feed on.

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