Bush to meet with Iraqi opposition; Saddam’s survival and U.S. politics

Russian President Vladimir Putin has twice put the brakes on Russian military-backed coup plans to remove Saddam Hussein and avert a war, which would be contrary to Russia’s interests in the region. U.N. inspectors are finding “no smoking gun” and the United States’ war plans are becoming murky indeed.
If Saddam manages to last through 2003, he will become a factor in U.S. presidential politics — to George W. Bush’s detriment.

Stratfor is reporting that Bush is set to meet with Iraqi opposition groups such as the Iraqi National Congress to discuss plans for a post-Saddam Iraq. There are, as yet, no further details.
Stratfor is also reporting that Russian President Vladimir Putin has twice put the brakes on Russian military-backed coup plans to remove Saddam Hussein and avert a war, which would be contrary to Russia’s interests in the region:

In an interview published Jan. 9, Col.-Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, the first deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, told the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets that the United States should “remove” Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein instead of launching a massive attack that would lead to civilian casualties. “I often tell the American military, ‘You call Iraq and North Korea rogue nations. You don’t like Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il or somebody else,'” he said. “‘But what people have to do with that? Isn’t it simpler to remove one person instead of pouncing upon innocent people with all military might?'”

The Russian military is understandibly upset with Putin about this, but he was worried because the candidates to replace Saddam were not pro-U.S. enough for Washington’s tastes. Putin is caught between his military, which hopes to keep Russian influence strong in a region where it has traditionally had deep ties, and his desire to be seen as a pro-Western ally. I reported on this here on Dec. 1, 2002.
Of course, all of this is taking place in the context of United Nations arms inspectors faulting Baghdad for its half-assed cooperation while at the same time saying they have found no “smoking gun” indicating that they think Baghdad is lying about something. (There have also been some reports that Iraq has transferred its nuke/bio/chem arsenal to Syria, but I find this doubtful.) This delay of game sheme is no doubt Saddam’s plan: Appear to cooperate just enough to keep the sympathy of U.N. Security Council allies France and Russia and stall for time in an effort to drive a wedge between the Anglo-American Axis and everyone else. If Saddam can keep the U.N. from greenlighting an invasion in February or March 2003, it’s likely he could see the end of this year in the same position as he is now: On a knife’s edge, but still in power.
Of course, by the end of 2003, the presidential election will be in full force. While Saddam may not be able to forestall a U.S. invasion forever, he would relish the idea of his presence becoming a major factor in U.S. presidential politics. Were Saddam to still be loitering about at the start of 2004, Bush would appear weakened and vulnerable. After a year of saber-rattling, I predict the American people will not be kind to Bush II, who might suffer the same fate as his father.
This would be a delicious irony for Saddam. After two years of threats from the United States, it would be the son of his nemesis who left the battlefield not him. It is this thought that makes it imperative for Bush to act sooner rather than later. The last thing Bush wants is to turn Saddam in to the Castro of the Middle East (which he’s well on his way to doing on his own.) I think we’ll see a sorta-kinda declaration of war in Bush’s Jan. 28 State of the Union speech, which falls a day after Hans Blix, chief U.N. arms inspector, is to deliver his report on Baghdad’s weapons program. Whether the rest of the world will get behind America in the absence of a “smoking gun” remains to be seen. I predict this will get a lot murkier before the end game becomes clear.