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BUSH TRIES TO DISGUISE REAL INTENT IN GULF BEHIND WAR RHETORIC HE HAS FOUND A GRACEFUL PRETEXT FOR REMOVING TROOPS FROM EUROPE

Perhaps it is just a very roundabout way to withdraw U.S. troops from Europe (for the large American forces being sent to the Persian Gulf from Germany are unlikely ever to return there). But even if President Bush is serious about wanting to create an "adequate offensive military option" against Iraq, sending over 200,000 more American troops to the gulf will at least gain us some time.

George Bush has effectively postponed the earliest date when that attack might actually happen until after the new year. And maybe that is precisely his intention.

"If this movement of force should convince (Saddam Hussein), so much the better," Bush said, and that is doubtless one motive for the new escalation: to scare the bejesus out of the Iraqi leader, so that he withdraws from Kuwait without a fight.

There is inevitably a good deal of theater involved in the coalition's attempt to scare Saddam into retreat, and one should not take all the hairy-chested threat displays by Bush and his colleagues as proof that the West's leaders are all deranged.

We should also give Bush the benefit of the doubt on the whole question of his alleged eagerness to go to war. The requirements of megaphone diplomacy and the American taste for tall-in-the-saddle rhetoric both compel him to talk tough, but this man (unlike most of the bloodthirsty media strategists who are urging him to start the killing right away) has actually been in a war.

I was living in Houston when Bush first ran for Congress, and I still remember the tacky campaign ads he ran on television to prove his military patriotism. Over grainy stock footage of an American carrier aircraft going down in flames, a syrupy voice talked about how much George Bush loves his country. (Be charitable: This was Texas in the early Vietnam era.)

Nevertheless, Bush does know what really happens to people in war, unlike most of the current crop of world leaders. Knowing that generally makes a big difference in an individual's willingness to order other people to go to war.

And so I am suggesting, without so much as the tip of my tongue in my cheek, that George Bush is deliberately fending off domestic pressure for an early war (from the Pentagon, the media, and about half of the American right) by choosing time-consuming ways of preparing for war. And he is doing so because he knows that it would be criminal folly to launch an offensive to liberate Kuwait at this point.

Folly, because we cannot yet know that non-violent sanctions alone will never force Saddam Hussein to let this conquest go. The length of economic pipelines being what it is, the sanctions will not even begin to bite hard against Iraq for several more months.

And criminal, because what else could you call a decision that is bound to cause death or lifelong pain and mutilation to tens of thousands of human beings, when the decision-maker does not yet even know if his choice is unavoidable? We hear a great deal about "windows of opportunity" and deadlines from the hawks, but it's all nonsense.

There is no reason to go to war in January. If you feel a need to celebrate the new year explosively, set off some firecrackers.

The end of March isn't a deadline either, even though it rapidly gets hotter after that.

Summer has occurred in the Middle East every year since time began, and it has never stopped people from fighting wars there before.

The Crusaders even did it in metal clothing, which makes the discomforts of anti-gas gear seem quite tolerable by comparison.

The arrival of several million Muslim pilgrims in Saudi Arabia for the Haj in June is no deadline, either. The pilgrims go to Mecca, which is separated from the area along the Iraq-Kuwait frontier, where foreign troops are deployed by over 500 miles of nothing at all. They would not see a single American soldier during their stay.

So what is the real deadline, after which we must abandon hope of restoring Kuwait through economic sanctions and accept war? Nobody knows, but we should at least be thinking in terms of eight months to a year, not the mere three months that have elapsed so far.

Is time on Saddam's side? Hardly. The likelihood of fatal dissension within the Iraqi regime, as the screw tightens, is at least as great as the chance of a split in the Western-Arab coalition that faces it.

And it is Iraq, not the coalition, that is being undermined by a strict economic blockade.

Whatever his real motives, Bush has bought us another month or so of peace in which something might happen that would obviate the eventual need for war.

And how do we bet past January? Dunno, but that might be when the White House discovers that it needs even more troops in the gulf to do the job properly.

Besides, nobody will ever find a more graceful pretext for the withdrawal of most American troops from Europe.

GWYNNE DYER, a native of Canada, is an author and commentator based in London, England.

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