BEIRUT — Iraqi President Saddam Hussein rang in the new year with the largest military parade Baghdad had ever seen. Over 1,000 tanks rumbled through the capital. According to the opposition Iraqi National Congress, they were equipped with new engines and cooling systems, imported from Ukraine in defiance of international sanctions. There were new ground-to-ground and surface-to-air missiles. Some 60 helicopters took part, evidence of a greatly increased availability of spare parts and servicing capability.
Hussein himself, cigar in one hand, Brno rifle in the other, presided over the spectacle. When new, U.N.-prohibited missiles passed by, together with the chemical unit, he became particularly exuberant, firing his Brno at a much faster pace, while the TV commentator exulted, “These are the ones we rained down on the Jews.”
That was a reference to the 37 Scud missiles that Iraq unleashed on Israel during the Persian Gulf War — the so-called Desert Storm, or Mother of Battles in official Iraqi parlance — that began 10 years ago this week, with the heaviest and most sustained aerial bombardment since World War II. It was not the official objective of the 500,000-man, U.S.-led military coalition to bring Hussein down, only to liberate Kuwait. Even so, then U.S. President George Bush could scarcely have imagined that Hussein would still be there, 10 years on, when his son entered the White House, the fifth U.S. president Hussein has dealt with since he usurped power in 1979.
He is seemingly indestructible. Not only has he survived all manner of challenges — from mass popular uprisings to local mutinies, from attempted coups to the defection of top henchmen — in the past decade, he is now manifestly gaining in strength, self-confidence and boastfulness.
With his parade and his personal theatrics, Hussein could hardly have displayed more contempt for what Desert Storm was supposed to achieve, or sent a more provocative message to the new president. After the liberation of Kuwait, divesting Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction became the raison d’etre of the U.N. sanctions, and the central plank of U.S. policy. Yet no U.N. arms inspectors have darkened Iraq’s doors since the last ones were thrown out in November 1998.
The essence of Hussein’s staying power is the total ruthlessness of his regime: That never changes. But other things do — and to his steady advantage. Thus, despite the sanctions, the lot of the ordinary people, though still appalling, does seem to be improving.
Regionally and internationally, things are changing even more. No leader has profited from the Palestinian intifada like Hussein. In 1990, Palestinians, notoriously, used to go onto rooftops to applaud every new Scud landing on Israel. Now, once again, Hussein is outbidding Arab leaders with his militancy, castigating those who “don’t know how to fight,” calling for the liberation of Palestine “from the river (Jordan) to the sea.”
No one profits like him from the obloquy which the intifada has earned the U.S. throughout the region. It is not for love of Hussein that Arabs have been rallying so forcefully against the sanctions and “containment” that Iraq continues to endure, but because these are seen to typify double standards on the part of a superpower that penalizes Arabs for their misdemeanors but never Israel. Backing Hussein has become almost as much a yardstick of patriotism, even for a pro-American ruler like King Abdullah of Jordan, as backing the intifada itself.
True, key elements of containment remain in place. But there are signs that Britain, the U.S.’ only reliable ally, is growing uneasy about one — the aerial exclusion zone — that the two countries impose over southern Iraq. Core economic sanctions also remain in place — but international opposition to them grows steadily,
All in all, Iraq ranks as perhaps the most obvious foreign-policy failure of the outgoing Clinton administration.
But Hussein will be no less a challenge to the incoming one — especially if, instead of paying lip service to a policy of “regime change” as President Bill Clinton essentially did, it resolves seriously to implement one. Leading members of the Bush team, notably Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, are certain to push for an altogether more forceful interpretation of the Iraqi Liberation Act — under which the U.S. is supposed to help the Iraqi opposition bring about “representative” government — than Clinton did. Rumsfeld is on record as saying that Iraq is “ripe for a broad-based insurrection.”
If the promotion of a popular insurgency does become the U.S. means of deposing the tyrant, it will be ironic. For, in the eyes of the Iraqi opposition — which has insisted that insurgency is the only way — the reason why, 10 years on, Saddam remains in place is that, in the aftermath of Desert Storm, then President Bush betrayed the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings that he had initially encouraged.
A U.S.-sponsored uprising now would be far more dangerous than it was then. The basic reason Bush held back — the risk that Iraq, a strategically pivotal country, would disintegrate into chaos and civil war — seems just as valid. Some observers point to plausible new reasons for his son to hold back again — the impact on an Arab world already aroused by the intifada, the hostility of Arab governments, America’s deepening unpopularity, the threat of soaring oil prices. Truly, on Iraq, it is “the mother of all legacies” that, via eight years of Clinton, one Bush confers on another.
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