Astonishingly, some serious people in Washington are advocating American military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. They urge that this be done soon, before "the window of opportunity" to rid the world of a clear and present danger closes.
This is not idle chatter. The Bush administration has left the option open. When the US and the United Kingdom informed the UN Security Council that they were at war in self-defense against Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization and the Taliban government, the American letter went much beyond the British one. In a sentence reportedly inserted by the White House, it reserved the right also to take "further actions with respect to other organizations and other states." In the present circumstances, that could only mean Iraq.
But the argument behind the call is a specious mixture of fact and ideology. Some of the fact is not in dispute. Mr. Hussein is a world-class war criminal. He launched a war of conquest against Iran in 1980 that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. He bombed Iran with poison gas and gassed thousands of Kurds.
President Hussein started the Gulf War in 1990 by invading Kuwait and annexing it as the "19th governate" of Iraq. Hundreds of Kuwaitis taken prisoner are still missing. He has still not returned the Kuwaiti national archives or recognized Kuwait's independence, and obviously intends to renew his claim at a favorable moment.
Driven out of Kuwait by Desert Storm, Hussein set fire to Kuwait's oil fields, and caused an ecological catastrophe. He is also, quite clearly, obsessed with having weapons of mass destruction - biological, chemical, and probably nuclear. He sees them as essential to Iraq's domination of the Arabian Peninsula and to his status as a figure of historical importance.
One could add to the indictment the butchering of all reachable dissent in Iraq, especially the Shiite majority in the south and the Kurds of the north. Terrorism is one of his techniques, and he would certainly turn it against the US when he could. In short, he deserves to be removed. But that is much easier said than done.
Those who now want American forces to drive him out contend that the West foolishly missed the opportunity in 1991 by not going on to Baghdad. In theory, that could have been done, but, in fact, it was politically impossible. The administration of the first President Bush had no mandate from the UN or Congress to take so serious a step. And public opinion insisted on bringing the soldiers home.
To go north would have made the US an occupying army for the indefinite future, responsible for law and order, feeding the people, and forming a new regime. It would have met resistance from Hussein in hiding and pro-Hussein elements. Recall the effort it took to capture Manuel Noriega in 1989 in postage-stamp Panama City, where we knew every alley.
None of the allies of Desert Storm would have gone along, leaving the US on its own. The Saudis feared the Iraqi Shiites would break off as a separate, hostile state or join Iran, either of which would destabilize the region. Turkey felt the same way about the Kurdish north. Unilateral US action would have made Washington responsible for the disorderly consequences and ruled out, 10 years later, mounting the international response to the present crisis. Today, in the uncertainty of the war on terrorism, all we need is another war whose first effect would be to rupture the present coalition.
The best way to neutralize Hussein, to lay the foundation for peace in Afghanistan, and to bolster Pakistan is to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Nothing succeeds like success when it comes to persuading the many fence-sitters calculating their prospects - in Afghanistan and the region - to jump down on the right side.
It's reasonable to assume that Hussein has been working hand in glove with bin Laden and the Taliban. Without them, he would be quite alone.
Richard C. Hottelet was a long-time correspondent for CBS.