The New Yorker January 22, 2001 LETTER FROM WASHINGTON
THE IRAQ FACTOR; Will the new Bush team's old memories shape its foreign policy?
BYLINE: NICHOLAS LEMANN
Let's assume, just for argument's sake, that George W. Bush's Presidency will have certain similarities to his father's-even that it will be a continuation of his father's, with the added elements of a surer political touch (especially in dealing with the conservative wing of the Republican Party) and a predilection for settling scores with people who did the old man wrong. The Presidential term limit has automatically taken care of Bill Clinton, the dethroner of George H. W. Bush. So who else might there be who was a major enemy to Bush Administration One, and could be given a comeuppance in Bush Administration Two? Might not the first name on the list be Saddam Hussein?
It is true that Bush One administered a swift and splendid thrashing to Saddam in the Gulf War, but he is still defiantly in power in Iraq. His longevity rivals Fidel Castro's-Saddam has effectively been running Iraq since the Nixon Administration. In 1993, a year when Saddam was supposed to be history and Bush was supposed to be President, Saddam tried to have Bush assassinated. For almost ten years, the Bush One team has had to endure the accusation, rich in retrospective wisdom, that it could have nailed Saddam if only it had been willing to prosecute the Gulf War for a few more days. Now two of the leading accusees, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, are assuming positions at the very top of the American government, subordinate only to the firstborn son of another of the leading accusees. Lots of other, lesser known Gulf War planners will probably be high-level officials in the new Bush Administration.
The idea of overthrowing Saddam is not an idle fantasy-or, if it is, it's one that has lately occupied the minds of many American officials, including people close to George W. Bush. In 1998, during the period when Saddam was resisting the international inspection team that was trying to make sure he wasn't manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Iraq Liberation Act, which made available ninety-seven million dollars in government aid to organizations dedicated to the overthrow of Saddam. Two of the act's co-sponsors were Senators Trent Lott and Joseph Lieberman-not peripheral figures on Capitol Hill. Clinton was unenthusiastic about the Iraq Liberation Act and has spent almost none of the money it provides, but Al Gore, during the Presidential campaign, put some distance between himself and Clinton on the issue of removing Saddam. In the second Presidential debate, after defending his Administration's Iraq record, he said, "I want to go further. I want to give robust support to the groups that are trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein."
It is noteworthy that so many members of the Bush officialdom, including Bush himself, have publicly toyed with the option of toppling Saddam, because that is not the consensus position in the foreign-policy world. In January of 1999, shortly after the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act, Foreign Affairs published a devastating article called "The Rollback Fantasy," which said that arming the Iraqi National Congress "is militarily ludicrous" and "so flawed and unrealistic that it would lead inexorably to a replay of the Bay of Pigs." Still, the idea keeps coming up. Kenneth Adelman, the former head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and a member of the Cheney-Rumsfeld camp, told me, "Ideally, the first crisis would be something with Iraq. It would be a way to make the point that it's a new world."
The Washington headquarters of the Iraq-liberation cause is located in the basement of a brick town house in Georgetown, where a man named Francis Brooke, who constitutes the entire (unpaid) staff of the Iraq Liberation Action Committee, lives with his wife and children. Not long ago, I spent a morning with Brooke, who calls to mind a twenty-years-older Holden Caulfield. He has neatly parted blond hair, round wire-rimmed glasses, and a boy's open face, innocent manner, and undimmed capacity for outrage. In 1992, Brooke got a job in London with a public-relations agency run by a former Carter Administration political operative named John Rendon. He was assigned to publicize atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein, and was given a peculiarly high budget (including compensation for him of nineteen thousand dollars a month); Rendon wouldn't name the client. Brooke soon realized that he was working for the C.I.A. He then maneuvered himself into the most sensitive part of the operation, assisting the Iraqi National Congress.
The congress had just been set up, with blessings and funding from the Bush Administration, which evidently had spent the better part of the year following the Gulf War in the hope that Saddam would fall, and then, realizing that he wouldn't, had settled on supporting an armed opposition. Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the congress, is the scion of a prominent family of bankers and politicians in prerevolutionary Iraq, and is a mathematician with degrees from M.I.T. and the University of Chicago. He once operated a bank in Jordan, but in 1989 Saddam successfully pressured King Hussein to shut it down, impound the funds, and try Chalabi, in absentia, before a military tribunal. Chalabi fled to London. In 1992, after an Iraqi National Congress delegation had gone to Washington and received funding from the C.I.A., he set up headquarters in northern Iraq. In those promising early days of the Iraq-liberation movement, there was an American military station in the territory where the Iraqi National Congress was strongest. The dream of the liberationists was to invade from the north, and perhaps also create insurgencies in the Shiite south of Iraq and elsewhere, which would attack Saddam from other directions.
Then came the betrayal. In the summer of 1996, Saddam invaded northern Iraq with forty thousand troops and four hundred tanks and drove out the opposition. Clinton, campaigning for reelection, did nothing. The C.I.A. dropped the strategy of promoting a popular opposition to Saddam. Chalabi moved back to London. (Chalabi skeptics can't quite picture his jetting in from Mayfair to lead the Kurdish tribesmen who live in northern Iraq into battle.)
After the events of 1996, Francis Brooke told me, "I was physically sick for almost a week." He fished out of a file a letter to Chalabi from Al Gore, dated August 4, 1993. "We pledged our support for a democratic alternative to the Saddam Hussein regime," the letter said. "I can assure you that the U.S. intends to live up to these commitments." At the time, Brooke was living in Atlanta and working in public relations, but he decided to drop everything, move to Washington, and devote himself to the cause of Iraqi liberation. Since then, he has spent his life trying, with some success, to drum up official support for Chalabi. The Clinton Administration has been unsympathetic, unless you count Operation Desert Fox, the four-day bombing operation launched at the height of the impeachment crisis, in 1998. And now?
George W. Bush doesn't have any truly good option in Iraq. Supporting the Iraqi National Congress poses lots of problems. The Turks don't want the United States to arm the Congress's Kurdish members, fearing that it would encourage Kurdish separatism in Turkey. The Saudis don't want instability on their northern border. Saddam is getting stronger, Chalabi's forces are getting weaker, and in Washington he has only Francis Brooke (rather than, say, Vernon Jordan) looking after his interests. One can easily imagine Colin Powell painting for Bush a picture of a military quagmire complete with many American casualties in the event that the Iraqi National Congress got enough funding to mount a real attack on Saddam.
But it would not be easy for Bush to ignore the situation, either, because Saddam is defying the United States in every possible way, is becoming increasingly dangerous as he builds up his military capacity, and is perhaps the most brutal dictator in the world. He may even be confident enough now to pick a fight, in the form of a move against Israel or a neighboring country. Plus, he has messed around with the Bush family. This is one to keep an eye on.
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