After we take Baghdad, how about Syria?

Watching the war.
April 3 2003 5:00 PM

Road to Damascus

(Continued from Page 3)

Thursday, March 27, 2003

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12:45 p.m.: The Gulf War second-guessers are back. Shiites in southern Iraq haven't welcomed U.S. or British troops as advertised, and the second-guessers think they know why. Shiites are "still aggrieved over then-President George H. W. Bush's encouragement of an uprising in 1991 and his subsequent refusal to support it," says the Washington Post. Robert Bartley of the Wall Street Journal claims we could have avoided the current mess by aiding the Shiites back then. London Independent columnist Donald MacIntyre argues that the Shiites are right to lie low, "given the US abandonment in 1991 of the uprising [Americans] had called for." Gerard Baker of the Financial Times asks, "How many of the Shias … watched as relatives and friends were taken off to be executed once their last US incited uprising had been quelled. And how many blame it on American perfidy?"

For those of you who don't play competitive Scrabble, perfidy means treachery. The charge is that the Shiites shouldn't trust us because we broke our promise. That's exactly wrong. The promise we made in the Gulf War was to stay out of Iraq, and we kept it. That's why people should trust us now when we promise to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 660, adopted on Aug. 2, 1990, defined the objective toward which the Security Council subsequently authorized military action in the gulf. It demanded that Iraqi forces withdraw "to the positions in which they were located on 1 August 1990." No resolution prior to or during the war authorized the U.S.-led coalition to invade Iraq.

In March 1991, a few days after Saddam's troops fled Kuwait, U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was asked whether the coalition would go into Iraq to "stabilize" it. Cheney acknowledged the unrest in southern Iraq but warned,

We are reluctant as a government and as a coalition to get into the business of internal Iraqi politics. We could have set, as an objective of the coalition, the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government. We did not do that. … It would be very difficult for us to hold the coalition together for any particular course of action dealing with internal Iraqi politics, and I don't think, at this point, that our writ extends ... to trying to move inside Iraq and deal with their internal problems.

This wasn't just prudent, Cheney argued; it was a matter of trust. The coalition's mandate had been established months earlier in Resolution 660 and in discussions with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia about hosting the coalition's troops. As Cheney described it,

When the President offered to send forces, King Fahd agreed, and he did so on the basis that he knew he could trust the United States of America; that we would come, we would keep our word, we would bring enough force to be able to roll back Saddam Hussein's aggression, and that when we were no longer needed or no longer wanted, we would leave. ... It was that element, I think, of trust that played very prominently in the willingness of so many nations to tie their own circumstances and policies to those of the United States.

In view of that understanding, Bush had no business promising to send troops into Iraq to assist a Shiite uprising. And in fact, he didn't. Three weeks into the war, Bush observed, "There's another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside, and then comply with the United Nations resolutions." That was a fact and a suggestion, no less true or wise than an equivalent remark about the Cuban or Serbian people. But it wasn't a promise. We couldn't promise the Shiites we would enter Iraq, since we had already promised our coalition partners we wouldn't.

We made a deal. The deal was to limit the mission. Without that deal, we wouldn't have gotten U.N. support or possibly even an adjacent staging ground. You can't praise Bush in one breath for assembling that coalition and fault him in the next for not "going to Baghdad." You can't accuse the United States of treachery for staying out of the 1991 uprisings. And you can't say we'd have more credibility now if we'd gone in then.

Credibility doesn't come from doing what seems, on second thought, a nobler thing. It comes from doing what you said you'd do. Last time, we said we'd stop at the Iraqi border, and we did. This time, we said we'd finish off Saddam, and we will. Believe it.

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