The Republican Endgame

The Republican Endgame

The Republican Endgame

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Feb. 14 1998 3:30 AM

The Republican Endgame

Sure, they back Bill on Iraq--but only if he does the impossible.

"We should do everything we can to get this resolved and find a way to have [Saddam Hussein] removed from office one way or another."

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--Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.)

"I venture, therefore, to propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the Cat."

--Aesop's Fables

The Republicans are behaving very responsibly on Iraq. From the start they have made it clear that the scent of scandal wafting through the corridors of the White House will not for a single moment distract them from fulsome support for the commander in chief as he faces down the Butcher of Baghdad. "In matters of international relations, the United States is one nation," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as he spurned reporters' questions on l'affaire Lewinsky two weeks ago.

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But Saddam Hussein is not the only leader who should worry about the loyalty of his Republican Guard. For by stipulating that the head of Saddam Hussein is the sole token of success, the GOP has staked out a comfortable position from which to criticize any Clinton administration assault on Iraq. If Clinton restricts the bombing to "surgical" (i.e., relatively low civilian-casualty) strikes and Saddam escapes, as he did in 1991, the Republicans can charge him with timid leadership (unsurprising from a chicken who dodged the draft). And if he commits the ground troops probably needed to eliminate Saddam and lots of American soldiers start dying, they can attack him for recklessness with our boys' lives (unsurprising from a guy who let others die for him in Vietnam).

Of course, the Republicans hasten to make it clear that they don't actually advocate murdering Saddam. Heaven forfend. Why, that would violate a presidential order dating back to President Gerald Ford, a well-known Republican. And they certainly wouldn't want to be responsible for putting U.S. ground troops into bloody combat with Saddam's household guard. That could make for really lousy television. Having echoed the recommendations of 18 leading foreign-policy experts who called for Saddam's ouster, Republican leaders beat a rhetorical retreat at the end of last week. He still wouldn't settle for a "halfway deal," clarified Lott, but "I'm willing to support the president and America in doing what has to be done, whatever that is."

Well, whatever is that? Writing in the "Outlook" section of the Washington Post last Sunday, leading Republican hawk Richard Perle tried to explain. "The United States," he wrote, "should encourage, recognize, help finance, arm and protect with air power a new provisional government broadly representative of all the people of Iraq." That's a happy thought. I wonder if anyone has talked it over with Saddam? In the New Republic, Eliot A. Cohen counsels making "ousting Saddam a top priority," and pursuing that objective with airstrikes that "number in the thousands, not hundreds" and lasting over "weeks, not days." I wonder what the pope would say about that.

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S ure, Clinton might get lucky. Saddam is not, after all, immortal. And the administration has made clear that it's not above bombing a palace or two no matter who's inside. And this time, it says, its weapons really are "smart." The U.S. military also plans to target the Iraqi Republican Guards' favorite toys--artillery weapons, tanks, and other heavy weapons--as well as their hardened bunkers and munitions factories, hoping that Saddam's "elite" troops will finally decide the price of propping up the dictator has become too high. George Bush was not a lucky man. Bill Clinton, despite his self-inflicted wounds, surely is.

More likely, though, the limited warfare proposed by the administration will come to a less than fully satisfying conclusion. Saddam obviously cares nothing for the suffering of his people, except to display their torn bodies on television as evidence of American evil. The chemical and biological weapons that are supposedly the main concern of U.S. and U.N. inspectors are easily moved and hidden. Even our noble Saudi allies aren't willing to lend us their air bases. Saddam could emerge strengthened (and America tarnished) in the eyes of the Arab world.

How much better, then--so much cleaner and more satisfying--is the Republican solution. Let's just get rid of Saddam. Makes you wonder why no one thought of it before. Perhaps they didn't, because they had in mind the conclusion of Aesop's famous fable--the one about the mice who decided to protect themselves from their "sly and treacherous" enemy, the cat, by tying a bell around its neck.

"This proposal," wrote the fabulist, "met with general applause, until an old mouse got up and said: 'That is all very well, but who is to bell the Cat?' The mice looked at one another and nobody spoke. Then the old mouse said: 'It is easy to propose impossible remedies.' "