Joe Conason's Journal

Note to Saddam: Any ruler who wants to be treated politely by the United States should build nuclear weapons and fire missiles.

Published February 25, 2003 4:42PM (EST)

Here a missile, there a missile
Saddam Hussein is wily or crazy or both, but his desire to keep as much of his arsenal as possible has never been in doubt. Facing imminent hostilities that threaten his regime's fall and his own demise, Saddam now demands a televised "debate" with George W. Bush. (He is probably betting the American media would be fairer to him than to Al Gore.) And he may or may not plan to defy the U.N.'s demand that he destroy his proscribed al-Samoud missiles.

As I noted last week, Saddam is undermining the argument of those of us who believe inspections are a rational alternative to war. That was perhaps to be expected, even though he had permitted inspections between 1991 and 1998 that led to the destruction of enormous amounts of weaponry and his nuclear weapons program. One important difference now is that the Iraqi dictator anticipates war whether he cooperates or not.

The objective of international diplomacy since last fall has been to disarm Saddam, despite his megalomania, without killing thousands or tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis (a category that includes conscripted soldiers) in the process. Whether it is possible to achieve real disarmament without those killings is the core of the argument in the Security Council, as the debate over a second resolution begins.

While Saddam himself is obviously most to blame for this lethal impasse, the Bush administration welcomes his madness. In this latest and perhaps last round of maneuvering, the White House is again encouraging Iraq to defy rather than comply.

The Bush administration's desire for confrontation over cooperation is clearest when its responses to North Korea and Iraq are contrasted. Yesterday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said it wouldn't matter whether Saddam does destroy the illegal missiles because he is still suspected of maintaining chemical and biological weapons. "This is not about public relations. This is about protecting the lives of the American people," he said. "If Saddam Hussein destroys the missiles that he said he never had ... you've got to wonder what other weapons does he have?"

Leaving aside his usual bluster, Fleischer's statement revealed again what is already too clear about White House policy. If Bush wanted Saddam to surrender his illegal weapons, his spokesman would say: "We hope that Iraq will cooperate with UNMOVIC and destroy the missiles that are proscribed by earlier agreements. Although that would only be one step toward a solution of this problem, it would be an encouraging and useful sign of the Iraqi government's desire to resolve matters peacefully, blah blah blah ..."

Instead, the message from the White House to Baghdad is: "Make our day. Whether or not you give up the missiles, Saddam, we're blowing you to kingdom come." So he may as well keep those weapons to bolster Iraq's rather puny defenses.

Yet when North Korea actually fires a medium-range missile to greet Secretary of State Colin Powell on his arrival in Seoul, the White House pretends that is just a routine occurrence. When I read the little digest of this story in the daily hotel fax version of the Times over breakfast, I laughed out loud. "Officials in Washington with access to American intelligence said they were not alarmed by the launching today, which they described as a test of a 'short range tactical missile.' ... The missile in this test, American officials said, fell harmlessly into the Sea of Japan. 'This is something that they test periodically,' one official said, though it is not clear that North Korea has conducted such a launching for the past few years." In other words, don't worry. After all, the Northeast Asia branch of the "axis of evil" didn't shoot a ballistic projectile directly at Powell.

Kim Jong Il is just as crazy as Saddam, maybe even crazier. American policy is to sedate rather than provoke him -- exactly the opposite of the attitude toward Saddam. What this suggests, of course, is that any ruler who wants to be treated politely and deferentially by the United States should build nuclear weapons and test ballistic missiles immediately, without restraint. Apparently it is also better to expel inspectors rather than admit them, and to fire missiles rather than declare them.

And best of all, be sure to fire one off whenever the secretary of state drops by.
[8:55 a.m. PST, Feb. 25, 2003]

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