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America Sleepwalks to War With Iraq
1 August 2002
'I always kid him and say: Mr. President, there is a reason why your father stopped and didn't go to Baghdad," said Senator Joseph Biden, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He didn't want to stay for five years."
Biden's powerful committee opened hearings yesterday on the Bush administration's plans for bringing about "regime change" in Iraq, if necessary by a full-scale military attack.
It is a striking demonstration of the virtues of a constitutional system of checks and balances: George W. Bush may be the most powerful man in the world, but he can't ignore Congress.
The American public is sleep-walking toward a war with Iraq that it has been told is inevitable, and most of the U.S. mass media have sent their brains on holiday for the summer, but Congress is doing its job.
Biden's committee is actually summoning senior Bush advisers in the midst of a Washington summer to explain what they are planning to do and how they think they can get away with it. Nor is it in the least a partisan attack by Democrats on a Republican administration.
Good journalism can happen in the most unexpected places. Last month it happened in USA Today, which had the novel idea of asking various Republican members of Congress what they thought about the enterprise of overthrowing Saddam Hussein.
"You hit the other guy, but only if you know he's going to hit you," said Congressman Henry Hyde, chair of the House International Relations Committee.
"U.S. forces are already stretched to the limit," said Senator Trent Lott, Republican leader in the Senate.
"Our focus should be Israel," said Congressman Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House. Or as Biden put it a couple of weeks later: "I want them to refine their objectives ... I'd like to know how important our allies are in this."
He won't find out, of course.
White House witnesses will hide behind `national security'
The administration witnesses will hide behind "national security," as administration officials always do in these circumstances.
But the Senate hearings might finally open a real debate in the United States on whether this war, one of the best-advertised in history, is really such a good idea.
Given that the start date for the war is somewhere between next October and early next year (depending on which strategy is adopted), this would not be a moment too soon.
America's friends and allies are close to unanimous in believing that an attack on Iraq would be stupid, illegal, costly in American and Iraqi lives, and enormously counter-productive in terms of Middle Eastern politics.
As Jordan's King Abdullah said on Monday after meeting with Tony Blair: "All of us are saying: `Hey, United States, we don't think this is a very good idea.'"
But Americans don't listen to foreigners much, so it's really down to Congress, the media (when they get back from vacation) and, remarkably, the U.S. armed forces.
Selective leaking of documents and plans is as much a part of the Washington political process as harem intrigues were to the Ottoman court, and recently the leaking has reached flood level.
On July 4, The New York Times received a five-inch-thick dossier on Pentagon plans for an invasion of Iraq that would involve a three-month buildup and 250,000 American troops "son of Desert Storm," in the jargon.
The leakers were clearly military, and equally clearly thought that the plan was the stupidest idea since Winston Churchill's plan for the Gallipoli campaign.
On July 28, the Washington Post told its readers that the familiar "senior officials" at the Pentagon oppose any large-scale campaign to overthrow the Iraqi government.
And one day after that, the New York Times got a new leak, outlining a plan to destroy Saddam's regime by a blitzkrieg involving a thousand bombers to paralyze Iraqi military communications and a first-day aerial descent on Baghdad by thousands of U.S. troops to capture or kill the monster in his lair.
Does anybody imagine that the leakers thought this was a good idea?
The conclusion we may draw from all this is that the "system" is working, after a fashion. When one branch of the system gets a really dumb idea, the other branches respond and try to damp out the aberration.
They may not succeed the executive branch has enormously greater power in today's America than the framers of the constitution intended but they continue to fight their corners.
And as a backstop, there is always George the First.
However much he hates Saddam, George Bush Sr. loves his own family more, and he would not want his son's presidency to end in defeat and disgrace.
All the formal evidence points to an all-out U.S. attack on Iraq in the next six months, but it is still not a foregone conclusion.