Isolated yet unfazed

Print edition : April 11, 2003
in Washington

U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.-STEPHEN JAFFE/ AFP

ON March 19, two days after he issued his deadline, President George W. Bush set about trying to come to terms with an obsession of sorts - and the United States military took the first steps to get rid of Saddam Hussein. So intense was the determination for a regime change in Baghdad that the Republican administration was willing even to go physically after the Iraqi leader. What else could have been the objective of the cruise missile raid prior to the start of the formal offensive that night? If Saddam Hussein had been killed in that attack - there is still uncertainty on this subject - the U.S. would have waited to see if there was any indication of a formal break in the ranks of the "inner circle''. This did not happen, and hence the full-fledged war, including Operation "Shock and Awe'' - a blistering aerial campaign intended to send a message to the leadership in Baghdad that the outcome of the war can never be in doubt.

The developments came as no surprise. To many people in the U.S. and abroad, the fact that the administration had been steadily building its air, land and naval forces in and around the Persian Gulf for three months was a clear indication of the shape of things to come. Leaving the Iraqi theatre without a military shootout would have created problems for the Bush White House, at least in the longer term. The administration claims that it is not being guided by opinion polls, although it does not hesitate to point to the President's surging popularity in the context of the Iraqi showdown. It would have been awful for Bush to enter the 2004 presidential election campaign with Saddam Hussein still in power in Baghdad. Hence the hunt for every ruse to get him out of power, starting with the issue of weapons of mass destruction.

The obsession with Saddam Hussein is nothing new, even as administration officials bristle at the notion that Bush is somehow finishing unfinished business from his father's time. And this obsession became so intense after the terror attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001 that some officials were `eager' to find that linkage between Mohammad Atta, the supposed leader of the team that launched the September 11 attacks, and Iraq. It was sought to be proved that somehow intelligence officials from Iraq could have met Atta somewhere in eastern Europe and that therefore Baghdad was complicit in what happened on 9/11.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations and presented evidence and additional information against Iraq including that concerning its ties with Al Qaeda, he was politely rebuffed by France, a key ally of the U.S. until then in the "war against terror''. Its obsession with a regime change in Baghdad - being not merely content with getting rid of any weapons of mass destruction - left the U.S. isolated at the U.N. except for the support of Britain, Spain and Bulgaria. Unsure whether the last-minute gamble involving threats, cajoling and bribes would work, the U.S. formally withdrew the Resolution that had set March 17 as the cut-off date for Saddam Hussein. And that decision was reached a day earlier at a summit meeting of Britain, Spain and the U.S. at Azores in the Atlantic Ocean.

That only left Bush to give his 48-hour deadline for Saddam Hussein and his close circle of advisers, including his two sons, to leave town. This deadline `drama' passed, with no surprisesIn many ways, at the U.N. Security Council it appeared that instead of trying to find common ground, the major powers were drifting further apart.

In retrospect, the question could be posed if such major decisions of war and peace are best discussed in open sessions of the Security Council rather than in closed-door sessions. At open meetings Foreign Ministers resort to political posturing intended for the galleries back home. Further, the pathetic aspect was that the five major powers were leaving such a critical issue to the non-permanent members, many of whom were quite content - and relieved in the end - not to be involved in the matter.

But the bottom line in New York and elsewhere was that the allies and friends were simply confused as to what it was that Washington was seeking to achieve other than seeing Saddam Hussein removed from power. If the Bush administration was only keen to rid Iraq of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, that could have been done by means of the inspections process, the time-frame for which could have been finalised by the veto-holding members of the Council. But Washington maintained until the end that a certain country had insisted on using its veto no matter what, and that the present state of affairs was an outcome of that stand.

At home the administration is unfazed by the extent and depth of the protests that are taking place all over the country. The demonstrations may not be quite the same as those in the days of the Vietnam War, but their tone and tenor are similar. Thousands of people are showing up on the streets from coast to coast, their numbers growing by the day, but this has hardly rattled the Bush administration. The President says that he "respectfully'' disagrees with the protestors and the anti-war demonstrators. Of some comfort to the administration and the War Council hawks, including Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is the fact that the President's approval rating has gone up substantially - to 76 per cent according to one poll. But administration officials are experienced enough to know that these numbers could change dramatically if the ground realities in Iraq were to change. Further, in all the hype about the surge in Bush's ratings there is a realisation that today's numbers are nowhere near what the senior Bush had in 1991 when a real coalition gathered to throw Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.

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