Memo To: President Bill Clinton
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Bob Novak vs William Safire
I hope you caught "Meet the Press" Sunday, as Tim Russert pulled together a great show on the "situation" in Iraq. He had your Defense Secretary Bill Cohen showing a photograph taken from a U-2 plane and surmising that it showed Iraq moving who-knows-what? in trucks from a site he said clearly was not a day-care center. He had Iraq's UN Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon say that Iraq in 1991-92 destroyed all the weapons of mass destruction it possessed at the time of the Gulf War and that four times the UN has rejected the documentation, always asking for more. Russert also had on the UN's chief inspector, Richard Butler, a British national, who last week told CNN's Frank Sesno that Iraq has no nuclear or chemical capability, but still might possess biological capability. When asked by Russert if Iraq opened up its entire country to the UN — a country slightly larger than the state of California, Butler could not say how many years it would take for his team to be able to verify that the place is absolutely clean. The weight of the discussion left the impression that Iraq is correct in arguing that nothing that it does will lead to a lifting of the sanctions.
The most interesting part of the show, Mr. President, was the debate between two conservative political columnists whom you know well, Robert Novak, the syndicated columnist of the Chicago Sun-Times, and William Safire of The New York Times. Novak took the position that the sanctions should be lifted immediately and Iraq allowed to freely sell its oil. Safire argued what essentially has been the policy of the Bush administration, and yours, that under no circumstances should the sanctions be lifted, whether or not Iraq complies with the UN resolutions. Novak's argument for lifting the sanctions was that the current policy has sought to bring down Saddam by starving the people of Iraq, a policy he thinks inhumane. Safire dismissed this reason out of hand, although commending Novak for his compassion. His argument was that as soon as he could sell Iraqi oil again, Saddam would begin building up nuclear, chemical and biological capabilities (which I take it to mean he agrees that Iraq probably has no such capabilitity today), and that he might use that capability to threaten the destruction of, say, Chicago. Novak then said Saddam might well waste his money in such fashion, but he would face the deterrence of our nuclear forces, just as the USSR faced them over the past half century. Safire then argued that the Russian leaders were deterred because they were reasonable men. Saddam Hussein, he said, is a madman.
Novak countered that he believes Saddam is a tyrant and a dictator, but not a madman. If he were, he would have used biological or chemical weapons against as when he was losing the Gulf War. Safire claimed Hussein used poison gas against the Kurds and Iranians. Novak insisted that Hussein did not use weapons of mass destruction against the UN coalition when he had an excuse to do so, instead accepting defeat. His acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, said Novak, results from a fear that the United States will mount a military expedition to get him, inferring that the only way to get him to use any weapons he might still possess would be to goad him into using them. The same people who now say he is a madman who would use weapons of mass destruction against us are the very same people who insist we made a major error by not marching on Baghdad, slaughtering his Republican Guard and searching him out. At the time, I was terrified that we would do just that, and that Saddam would annihilate tens of thousands of our troops in a few days with his secret weapons. "Oh no" they insist. "He wouldn't dare do that," comes the limp response from the war hawks. I believe the reason Colin Powell is so popular with the American people is that he restrained President Bush, who was being pressed by the war hawks to ignore our commitments to the UN coalition and go on to Baghdad. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has been in the forefront in making these contradictory arguments. My assumption is that Saddam will always retain this kind of "poison pill," not for aggression against his neighbors, but to respond to a direct assault on his person and his government.
The Novak/Safire debate was the first and only debate we have seen thus far on this matter of grave importance. No such debate has taken place in Congress and we have seen none of the discussion inside the administration, although I'm sure there has been. All the relevant arguments were made and it came down to the simple disagreement between these two veteran political analysts: Safire believes Saddam is a madman, Novak does not. What do you think? What do you think our coalition allies think? If they thought he was a madman, would they be urging an acceleration of the process by which the sanctions could be lifted? I also notice those who argue the sanctions should not be lifted are now citing another provision of the UN resolution, which says the Security Council has to agree he is treating his own people better than he has in the past. Would you consider this goal serious enough to continue starving the people of Iraq to death, that is, until he begins treating them better?
I understand that it isn't exactly that simple, Mr. President. Bob Novak noted the concern in the rest of the diplomatic world that our hard position is dictated by the Israeli Lobby. I agree with that assessment and believe Safire would have made a more honest argument if he posed an Iraqi threat to Tel Aviv rather than Chicago. Safire confused the issue by asserting that there is no connection between the peace process in Israel and the sanctions against Iraq. He pointed out that the sanctions began six years ago before there was this current dispute over Jerusalem's west bank. Still, it is plain that the "war hawks," as Steven V. Roberts of the NY Daily News calls them, are primarily those who are Israel's most ardent champions when it comes to security issues. In that sense, Safire is correct, that while the Israeli Lobby is divided on the current issue involving land for peace, it is unified on Iraq. Safire himself has been a primary spokesman for Israel's security interests, as has the NYTimes. Israel's security against attack by its neighbors, including Iraq, is in our interest, and there should be no doubt in Saddam's mind that Israel is as off-limits as Chicago. The Israeli Lobby in this case asks more than we should be prepared to deliver for Israel, i.e., absolute security. Security should be enough. Absolute security not only costs too much (the UN figures it has already cost the lives of more than 500,000 Iraqi children), it also will cost the United States the respect of the rest of the world and invite acts of terrorism against Chicago as well as Tel Aviv. In the end, Mr. President, absolute security can never exist. We could station a marine every six feet around Israel's border, and it still would not be secure. We could assassinate Saddam or incinerate Baghdad, and Israel would be less secure than it is now.
What should you do? Open discussions directly with Iraq. Permit your old friend, UN Ambassador Bill Richardson, to discuss these matters with Nizar Hamdoon, his Iraqi counterpart. Israeli's "war hawks" may see this as a sell-out on your part. It is what the United Nations is supposed to be all about. Novak is right. Safire is wrong. Saddam is not a madman, but an old-fashioned tyrant and dictator; he becomes less of a problem to Israel when we are engaging his regime in open discussion. To destroy his people to get at him is the equivalent of saving the children of Branch Davidians from the dictates of David Koresh by incinerating the lot of them.