Armchair pundits to Clinton: Bring us the head of Saddam Hussein!

By Eric Alterman
November 27, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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As Americans sit down to stuff themselves this Thanksgiving, they may give thanks that we still have elections in this country, and that, Pat Buchanan aside, most pundits know better than to risk their positions of perfect irresponsibility to run in them. If it had been up to the punditocracy, for instance, we would bombing the bejeesus out of Iraq right now. Although just what that might have accomplished, none of them can say.

To most of the voices on the Sunday morning talk shows and the nation's top op-ed pages, and to the former Secretary of Whatevers hired by the networks to offer "expert opinions" on everything from military strategy in the desert to ob/gyn tactics for septuplets, President Clinton is not the current president of the United States, but Neville Chamberlain reincarnate.


The punditocracy shares a nearly universal belief that when Clinton and Hussein stood "eyeball-to-eyeball," Clinton blinked. There is a word for Clinton's response to Iraq's machinations last week, thundered Charles Krauthammer: "Appeasement -- lacking, of course, the scale of the ignominy at Munich, but matching nicely the style." New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal also found the Chamberlain sellout analogy to his liking, writing that the controversy was resolved "in the sense that the 'controversy' caused by Hitler's appetite for Czechoslovakia was 'resolved' at Munich in 1938." His colleague William Safire added, "In a meeting reminiscent of Molotov and von Ribbentrop, Primakov and Tariq Aziz agreed to 'more effective' inspection."

"As president of the United States," former Newt Gingrich mouthpiece Tony Blankley harrumphed on CNN's "Late Edition," Clinton "didn't feel he was potentially powerful enough to exercise" American power. Al Hunt told CNN "Capital Gang" viewers that Hussein is now "better off." This view was echoed by Steve Roberts on "Late Edition," by Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot on Jim Lehrer's "Newshour" and John McLaughlin on his show, "Clowntime," aka "The McLaughlin Group." The punditocracy had wanted war, and they were pissed when Clinton took it away from them.

A week before the compromise was reached, Morton Kondracke was demanding that the U.S. "form as big a posse as we can." "Clearly, we've got to strike the head," intoned Sam Donaldson on "This Week." "[Saddam] must go," chimed in Margaret Carlson on "Capital Gang." And on NBC's "Meet the Press," the ever-thoughtful Rush Limbaugh considered Hussein's wholly predictable aggression against the U.S. and posed the following question: Should we "wait until he does it, or preempt it?"


Now rewind six years to 1991, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. At that point, the very same pundits were lavishing great praise upon their new hero, George Bush, who, in their estimation, had ensured we would never have this problem again. Fred Barnes, speaking on "McLaughlin," called Bush's performance "flawless, daring, bold and fantastic," indicative of what he termed to be "the greatest presidential leadership ever." On the same show, Kondracke praised the president's "vision, guts and grace," terming the U.S. ground war "an act of mercy." Evans and Novak reached the highest purple heights, professing to detect a "fearsome, transcendent America emerging from Bush's flawless conquest of Saddam Hussein," coupled with "something ... intangible and mystical in the new relationship that now appears to bind the president and his country."

However costly the victory may have been, argued Krauthammer two months after the war ended, "the primary gains of the war -- the liberation of Kuwait and the destruction of Iraq's potential for aggression -- remain." Oh reeeeeaaaaaally?

Curiously, the current debate also repeats the theme of Russian
perfidy. Last time it was Mikhail Gorbachev doing the evil deeds; this time it was Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Rosenthal fulminated that Gorbachev was trying to "retain his old pal, Saddam Hussein," because "the Moscow-Baghdad alliance was never dissolved." Safire accused Gorbachev of "perfidy" at a "cost of thousands of American and allied lives." Kondracke, the alleged reporter among the group, went so far as to insist that Gorbachev already was "re-arming Hussein," though of course he neglected to include any evidence. Now listen to Rosenthal, six years later, heartsick over "Yevgeny Primakov, the most influential foreign 'diplomat' in the Mideast, the same Yevgeny who was such a passionate admirer of Iraq when he was a big man in the KGB. He still is, now that he is also Russian foreign minister." He is joined by Safire, who calls Primakov "the world's most experienced spymaster," who, beast that he is, "worked frantically in Moscow and Baghdad to prevent the U.S. intervention."


Not one of the armchair generals calling for cruise missiles and bombing attacks has explained why force is any more likely to remove Hussein's secret weapons caches than the 88,000 tons of explosives we dropped last time. Nor do they mention just why Hussein is likely to be hurt by the further imposition of starvation on his citizens. Kondracke worries that "easing the suffering of the Iraqi people also reduces political pressure on Saddam." How's that again? All of a sudden the guy's a humanitarian? Alone among the weekend warriors, William Kristol had the honesty to point out that "getting" Hussein would require ground troops, and hence, a real war that reached all the way into Baghdad. Unfortunately, neither Norman Schwartzkopf nor Colin Powell, nor any of our allies, were willing to risk those kinds of casualties last time around, much less this one.

"The peace," George Will complained this time around, "is not nearly as much fun as the war was."


Term limits for talking heads, anyone?

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman last piece for Salon was "Confessions of a box-set sucker."

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