During my last visit to Baghdad, on the eve of last decades Gulf War, I sat for three long hours in the middle of the night arguing with one of Saddam Husseins top strategists. I thought both he and his mustachioed boss, whose smirking visage shone from his wristwatch, were truly miserable putzes. Najib Al-Hadithi, bunkered in his top-floor office in the Information Ministry building, plied me with tea and endlessly clicked his worry beads. He bellowed about millions of Iraqis, who he said were at that very moment preparing to heroically sacrifice themselves and fight to the last man against the imminent U.S. attack.
History played out rather differently. While emaciated and cowering Iraqi soldiers scrambled to surrender to CNN crews, friendly fire accounted for most of the very few American casualties. On the last day of the ground war, Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf cooked and plowed tens of thousands of Saddams soldiers into the sand along the so-called Highway of Death -- one of the greatest one-sided military massacres in recent history.
It tested the imagination to think that anyone would rise to defend Saddam or his wretched regime. I had been to plenty of places in the world languishing under dictators, but nothing could compare with Iraqs sheer and sinister megalomaniacal evil. The place oozed fear and intimidation, with public or even private disparagement of the state considered a capital crime.
Nor could there ever be any doubt as to who was in charge. Every public institution was named for Saddam. Entire stores sold nothing but Saddam paraphernalia. Fifteen- and 20-foot hand-painted Saddam portraits on nearly every street corner. Saddam in military uniform, in a white linen suit, in desert robes. Saddam steelily commanding troops, reading a book, studying a map, digging a trench, smiling in Ray-Ban ski glasses, loading a hunting rifle, playing with smiling little girls, puffing contentedly on a big stogy, lounging bare-chested on a Kurdish rug like a Playgirl centerfold, riding a horse with his red-checkered kaffiyeh trailing in the wind. Indeed, Saddam in seemingly every conceivable costume and pose except maybe a pink belly-dancing outfit from A Thousand-and-One Nights.
And yet, as I strolled the crowded streets around the dazzling Golden Mosque in the ancient Kadhimiya quarter of the city and looked upon the black-robed Shiah women with tattooed lips and the old wizened men puffing on hookahs under green fluorescent lights in the corner tea shops, I couldnt think of one single justification for waging war against this nation or its people.
And now, as Bush the Second noisily threatens to finish the job that Poppy pooped out on, I find even less justification, if thats possible. At least during the first Gulf War you could delude yourself into thinking we were rescuing occupied Kuwait and restoring rule to its syphilitic sheiks.
But this time around, what? We can be chums with the nuclear-armed Chinese Stalinists who hold public executions of petty criminals and beat up senior citizens in Tian An Men Square. We contained the Soviets and their arsenal for 50 years, but we cant figure out a way to deal with Saddam short of invasion?
When it becomes so patently obvious that the administrations warmongering stems not at all from any authentic security concerns but rather from cold and cynical domestic political calculation, why is there no clear and steadfast anti-war opposition?
Instead, as New Yorker writer Henrik Hertzberg recently said, In Washington one side wants war; the other wants debate about war. The result is a pro-war faction and a maybe war faction, he rightly says.
Move over, Mike Dukakis; all those other Democratic hopefuls want to clamber onto that tank with you. To one degree or another, every major Dem-ocratic presidential contender, from Gore to Daschle to Gephardt to Kerry to Edwards, has recently endorsed the coming war against Iraq. At most they whimper and whine about timing or consensus building or congressional consultation. But at the end of the day, they are all in the tank for Bush -- quite literally.
Even when the Democrats get the debate they clamor for, the fix is in. Watching Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Bidens recent hearings on Iraq was like being transported back to the dog-and-pony show held around the Gulf of Tonkin incident four decades ago -- nothing but a one-sided overture to war.
Al Gore, the new fighting-for-you Al Gore, the people-against-the-powerful Al Gore, the populist Al Gore, finally worked up the courage two weeks ago to publicly mumble something about Iraq. It was mostly about having to convince our allies of our reasons before we drop the hammer. Which is well short of saying there are no convincing reasons. But why expect anything more from Fightin Al Gore, who was among the few Dem-ocrats who crossed party lines to grant congressional approval of Poppy Bushs first Gulf War.
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All this adds up to the Democratic leadership being way out of sync with its own constituencies. A recent CBS News poll revealed that, by a 52-37 margin, ordinary Dems dont think removing Saddam is worth the trouble.
Nature does in fact abhor a vacuum. So into that gaping moral void left by the Official Democrats, a few unlikely Republicans have waltzed in to pick up the anti-war banner.
Go figure. But today its retiring Neanderthal House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and folks like former General and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who raise the loudest voices against Bushs saber rattling (not to mention those pesky press leakers within the Pentagon itself). The otherwise loathsome Armey went as far as saying the U.S. had no business warring against Saddam. Good for him. And there was an angry Pat Buchanan slathered across cable TV this past week, sounding much like Gore Vidal, opposing the war and arguing that the U.S. has to choose between being an empire or a republic.
I buy that. But I wish someone other than Pitchfork Pat would make the case. No such luck in this dismal moment in American political history. For all the current national hand wringing about the future of Iraq, maybe we should be spending more energy worrying about the withered state of our own democracy.