Has Saddam Blinked?
Stratfor and the Associated Press are reporting that former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, supposedly a personal friend of Saddam Hussein, visited Baghdad on Feb. 23. The purpose and results of the meeting remain secret, but a statement from Moscow reveals that the Iraqi president was asked — and agreed — to cooperate fully with U.N. weapons inspectors.
Saddam has apparently agreed to destroy Iraq’s al-Samoud 2 missiles, the ones causing such a stink in Washington for exceeding the 93-mile limit by less than 20 miles. Stratfor goes further, saying that Saddam has also agreed to a version of the Franco-German plan to introduce a flood of U.N. troops to back up weapons inspectors within in the next 10 days to show the Security Council that Iraq has been unconditionally disarmed.
Saddam Hussein will “do anything that he reasonably can that is honorable and protective of the sovereignty of his people to prevent war,” said former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark after meeting with Hussein on Monday. Clark is active in the anti-war movement.
(In an interview prior to Primakov’s visit, Saddam told CBS’ Dan Rather that Iraq would not destroy the al-Samoud 2 missiles and instead challenged the U.S. president to a televised debate. Perhaps Primakov reality checked Saddam?)
Still… Stratfor also mentioned a request from Saddam to Russian President Vladimir Putin to deliver a secret communiqué to U.S. and British energy companies, inviting them back to Iraq after 30 years of being kept out. If Washington calls off the dogs of war, the companies will be allowed to immediately return. A Russian envoy is expected to deliver the terms of this deal to Bush in the coming days.
French president Jacques Chirac was reportedly enthusiastic for the deal, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair was said to have reacted favorably. Washington has had no reaction yet, of course, and there’s no way to ascertain how genuine this offer from Saddam is. Has Saddam blinked, as he sometimes has in the past? And given that it’s likely this proposal will embolden France, Russia and China, all “P-5” members of the UNSCR to throw up more diplomatic roadblocks, will U.S. president George W. Bush accept this proposal as a face-saving plan to avoid an unpopular and costly war?
Initial statements from White House spokesman Ari Fleischer indicate that the White House will reject this idea. (This is probably another exchange between Helen Thomas of Hearst Newspapers and Fleischer, but it’s unclear from the Feb. 24 briefing.)
The U.N. weapons inspectors have determined that Iraq has this missile which exceeds limits that it agreed to, or were imposed on it by the U.N. Hans Blix has said it should be destroyed. If Iraq destroys those missiles, why isn’t that concrete progress toward disarmament?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, number one, we expect that Saddam Hussein will destroy those missiles. The United Nations Security Council has called on it to do so, and unless he engages in further defiance, we expect that he will. But, number two, as the President said over the weekend, that would just be the tip of the iceberg. And the reason for that is when a criminal holds a gun to your head and takes one bullet out of the chamber, you still have to worry about all the rest of the bullets in the chamber, because they can kill you, too.
And the fact is, with Saddam Hussein, he still has not shown the world that he has disarmed from the VX, the nerve agents, the botulin, the anthrax, all of which the United Nations found that he had in his possession in the late 1990s, which he has yet to account for. That’s the fear about what’s in the rest of the gun, in the other chamber — in the chamber in the gun.
So there’s no way that Iraq can do anything, really, to avoid war? Because if they begin to dismantle their weapons, the President still believes that they’ve got other bullets in the chamber and is —
MR. FLEISCHER: Under Security Council Resolution 1441, which was passed in November last year, Iraq had an obligation to immediately and fully disarm from all the weapons that were prohibited — and I just cited several of them. So if Iraq were to take one missile out of the chamber that they left in the chamber — VX, sarin, botulin, anthrax — the world still has a lot to worry about.
I understand. And you won’t wait to see whether the French proposal or any other proposal could get them to take those bullets out of the chamber — you aren’t willing to take “yes” for an answer here on the missiles and anything else?
MR. FLEISCHER: Given the fact that the resolution passed in November and called for full and immediate compliance, “yes” has not been a word that anybody has heard out of Iraq.
The White House will likely reject this idea for a number of reasons:
- It doesn’t achieve the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Wolfowitz-Perle plan for the Middle East as a collection of satrapys friendly to United States energy and security needs;
- The world would breathe a sigh of relief not only because war was averted but also because American hegemony was thwarted. Even though Washington could back down gracefully by saying the U.S. military build-up pressured Iraq into complying and accepting peacekeeping troops, other nations ruled megalomaniacal madmen — yeah, I’m talkin’ to you, North Korea — with nukes would likely see this as a sign of weakness;
- The American domestic political backlash could be fierce.
The last item deserves special mention. And I will get to it.
But first, some will say Saddam is not serious, because if he allows blue-helmets all over the country and fully disarms, he will appear weak to his own people, to other Arab leaders and would not be long for this world. His dream of establishing himself as a modern-day Saladin would be over — and so, too, would his presidency.
But Saddam is a canny old fox, still, and here I veer into speculation, although of the informed sort. The Iraqi people are dreading war and the destruction it would bring. While they would not be happy to see Saddam stay in power, they likely would be happy not to be blown up by American JDAM bombs. The Iraqis I met while traveling were fairly fatalistic. They’ve suffered this long, they feel, the next life will be better.
(The INC and other members of the Iraqi opposition will scream bloody murder, of course, but no one takes them that seriously anyway. The Kurds also would not be happy with this and might — I repeat, might — declare independence.)
The leaders of the rest of the Arab world already hate Saddam and know that he’s effectively defanged by U.N. sanctions. And while they no doubt feel sympathy for the suffering Iraqi people, Arab leaders would consider the plight of suffering Iraqis like they do the suffering of the Palestinians — very useful for distracting their publics from toppling their own authoritarian governments, assuming the U.N. sanctions regime is continued.
And lastly, if Saddam remains in power after a U.S. military build-up, even if it results in U.N. troops all over Baghdad, it will still be seen as a victory for him and a humiliating loss for George W. Bush. Bush can’t allow that to happen. Partly out of conviction and partly out of political necessity, Bush has positioned himself on the side of angels in this looming war with his evangelical rhetoric of good and evil. The Christian Right, neocons and other hawks who have taken a hard-line on Iraq believe they are doing God’s work, more or less, and if you’ve got God on your side, you don’t dicker with the devil. Bush, himself, may be willing to cut a deal and get this whole mess over with, but I don’t think his right flank will allow him to do that. He’s very conscious of the suspicion with which the Christian right viewed his father. And he’s likewise aware of how Bush I’s “no new taxes” pledge came back and bit him in the ass. If Bush II leaves Saddam in power, he will be facing a double whammy with his base for leaving an evil tyrant in power and for breaking a commitment to “regime change.”
This won’t cause evangelicals and others on the hard right to vote for a Democrat of course, but if the economy continues to shuffle along, and North Korea continues to thumb its nose at the United States, Bush’s numbers likely will continue their gravitationally assisted movement. A primary challenger could emerge from Bush’s right, siphoning off his base. And if the current weakness of the Democratic field stays steady (Kucinich? Kerry? Give me a break), red-meat conservatives might not be so afraid to take a chance with another GOP candidate.
And that could be Saddam’s game, in effect becoming the Fidel Castro of the Middle East. If he can’t liberate Jerusalem, Saddam might be satisfied with humiliating both Bush I and II, especially if his continued survival was a deciding factor in ending both presidencies. Yeah, I think he’d be quite happy with that.
Which is why the White House can’t allow him to stick around.