Nicholas Lemann, "The Iraq Factor: Will the new Bush team's old memories shape its foreign policy?" New Yorker, 22 January 2001

Issue of 2001-01-22
Posted 2001-01-15

Let's assume, just for argument's sake, that George W. Bush's Presidency will have certain similarities to his father's—even that it will be a continuation of his father's, with the added elements of a surer political touch (especially in dealing with the conservative wing of the Republican Party) and a predilection for settling scores with people who did the old man wrong. The Presidential term limit has automatically taken care of Bill Clinton, the dethroner of George H. W. Bush. So who else might there be who was a major enemy to Bush Administration One, and could be given a comeuppance in Bush Administration Two? Might not the first name on the list be Saddam Hussein?

It is true that Bush One administered a swift and splendid thrashing to Saddam in the Gulf War, but he is still defiantly in power in Iraq. His longevity rivals Fidel Castro's—Saddam has effectively been running Iraq since the Nixon Administration. In 1993, a year when Saddam was supposed to be history and Bush was supposed to be President, Saddam tried to have Bush assassinated. For almost ten years, the Bush One team has had to endure the accusation, rich in retrospective wisdom, that it could have nailed Saddam if only it had been willing to prosecute the Gulf War for a few more days. Now two of the leading accusees, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, are assuming positions at the very top of the American government, subordinate only to the firstborn son of another of the leading accusees. Lots of other, lesser known Gulf War planners will probably be high-level officials in the new Bush Administration.

The idea of overthrowing Saddam is not an idle fantasy—or, if it is, it's one that has lately occupied the minds of many American officials, including people close to George W. Bush. In 1998, during the period when Saddam was resisting the international inspection team that was trying to make sure he wasn't manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Iraq Liberation Act, which made available ninety-seven million dollars in government aid to organizations dedicated to the overthrow of Saddam. Two of the act's co-sponsors were Senators Trent Lott and Joseph Lieberman—not peripheral figures on Capitol Hill. Clinton was unenthusiastic about the Iraq Liberation Act and has spent almost none of the money it provides, but Al Gore, during the Presidential campaign, put some distance between himself and Clinton on the issue of removing Saddam. In the second Presidential debate, after defending his Administration's Iraq record, he said, "I want to go further. I want to give robust support to the groups that are trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein."

Bush, back in his swaggering, boy-meets-world phase, early in the campaign, said that if as President he found that Saddam was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction he would "take him out." Since then, he has toned down his rhetoric, but he has stuck to the basic position. Last winter, on the "News Hour with Jim Lehrer," he said, "I will tell you this: If we catch him developing weapons of mass destruction in any way, shape, or form, I'll deal with that in a way that he won't like." In the Vice-Presidential debate, Bernard Shaw ran the "take him out" quote by Cheney and asked, "Would you agree with such a deadly policy?" Cheney said, "We might have no other choice. We'll have to see if that happens." And a little later: "If in fact Saddam Hussein were taking steps to try to rebuild nuclear capacity or weapons of mass destruction, we'd have to give very serious consideration to military action to stop that activity."

There is a strong case to be made that Saddam has already stepped across the line that the new Bush Administration has drawn. The international inspection agency UNSCOM has said he is in possession of a large, stable supply of the nerve agent VX, tiny amounts of which can kill people through skin contact. VX seems to meet most people's definition of a weapon of mass destruction, and therefore to require an American military response. Saddam also has active programs to develop biological and nuclear weapons.

The most prominent proponent of the argument that we should oust Saddam is probably Paul Wolfowitz, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who may have spent more time with Bush during the campaign than any other foreign-policy adviser except Condoleezza Rice, the new national-security adviser. Wolfowitz was evidently the runner-up for Secretary of Defense in the Bush Administration, and everybody thinks he'll get another important job, not just because Bush owes it to him but because he was Cheney's Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy in the first Bush Administration and so has a very powerful friend at court. Wolfowitz was one of the few high officials in the first Bush Administration who advocated American support for rebellions against Saddam when the war was over; just after the fighting ended, he gave a speech comparing Saddam to "Hulagu Khan, the infamous thirteenth century Mongol chief who murdered prisoners of war, slaughtered women and children, plundered and burned cities, hospitals, and universities . . . the original Butcher of Baghdad." Cheney himself, just before being chosen as Bush's Vice-Presidential nominee, had a long meeting in Colorado with Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, which is based in London. Chalabi is the presumptive leader of the opposition to Saddam. The Colorado meeting was merely the latest of several that Cheney has had with Chalabi. Donald Rumsfeld, the new Secretary of Defense, has met with Chalabi, too. Zalmay Khalilzad, a Rand Corporation expert who is head of the Bush defense-transition team—in other words, in charge of staffing the Pentagon—has been a vocal advocate of overthrowing Saddam, and has testified with Chalabi on Capitol Hill. This year's Republican platform contained a strong endorsement of the Iraq Liberation Act.

It would be too much to say that Bush's agenda includes the goal of going after Saddam. What seems quite likely, though, is that the new President will hear different opinions from his foreign-policy advisers. In that sense, the question of Saddam makes for an especially interesting test case of the new Administration's foreign policy, for the differences of opinion represent well-established splits in the Republican foreign-policy world, and are likely to reappear in other areas. Because Bush's total government experience is one and a half terms as a governor, he is as unknown a quantity on foreign affairs as it is possible for a new President to be. He will inevitably wind up gravitating toward one or another of the Republican camps. We can't know yet which it will be—Bush probably doesn't know himself. But the camps themselves, and their leaders and their views, are in plain sight.

Waterman led Arnaudet past the living room into the kitchen at the back of the house. It was here, in the huge terra-cotta-tile-floored and oak-countered kitchen, that Waterman sought refuge from the share of the world's ills that touched him. Unlike practically everything else he did, cooking promised instant gratification. No long-term projects, no protracted wars, no slowly evolving plans. In the space of a few hours a dinner could be conceived, cooked, and consumed. It was amazing how slicing, chopping, grating, and mixing, the least intellectual of activities, could force from one's mind the most intrusive concerns.

"Formidable!" Arnaudet exclaimed. He peered at the professional kitchen, replete with indoor charcoal grill, restaurant stove, sixty linear feet of counter space, and a batterie de cuisine worthy of a good-sized restaurant. Recessed halogen lights played on a huge collection of brightly polished copper pots hanging from a large oval oak rack suspended from the ceiling. A copper marmite gurgled on the stove, the white porcelain tureen into which its contents would be placed by its side.

"It keeps me sane," Waterman replied. "The last complete diversion."

Actually I didn't write that; Richard Perle did. It comes from his novel "Hard Line" (1992), and I'm quoting it because it is almost an exact description of the setting in which Perle, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense, and I met, a couple of weeks ago—except that I'm not François Arnaudet, "the enfant terrible of the French Foreign Service," he's not the brilliant and controversial Professor Michael Waterman, of Harvard University. But it is an impressive kitchen, and Perle is, in addition to his gourmandism, rather conservative: as the flap copy of "Hard Line" puts it, "Known as the Prince of Darkness during his time in Washington, Richard Perle is an unrepentant Cold Warrior."

Foreign-policy making is a small world, in which, within each party, every player not only knows all the others but has a complicated history with them. Once you've successfully projected yourself into the pool of plausible candidates for Cabinet and sub-Cabinet jobs, your name will inevitably pop up every time a member of your party becomes President. Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld, the foreign-policy team thus far, all served in previous Republican Administrations, but that isn't an artifact of the father-to-son nature of this Republican transition; so did the Secretaries of State and Defense and the national-security adviser who came in with Ronald Reagan in 1981, even though Reagan was a Republican anti-establishmentarian. Most of the people who have been in the pool of possibilities for next-tier-down jobs—Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage, Robert Zoellick, Richard Haass—held important jobs in the previous Bush Administration, and have personal ties to Cheney or Powell, or both. Because the number of truly plummy jobs is even smaller than the foreign-policy world, it is a rivalrous culture as well as a clubby one. Even though the job candidates are all Republicans, some, like Haass, are more (ex-President) Bushesque, and some are more Reaganesque.

Richard Perle is the most Reaganesque of them all. No sooner had we settled into the sitting area of his kitchen, in comfortable chairs a few feet away from the gurgling marmites and the batterie de cuisine, than he amiably insisted that he had no interest in serving in the new government, even though he had been active in the campaign and had been to Austin to participate in groups that briefed Bush on foreign policy. After the 1980 election, people remember that Perle insisted on something similar but wound up as Assistant Secretary of Defense, and a bête noire of arms controllers, for six and a half years. This time around, though, the betting is that he really won't be going into the Bush Administration. If Perle doesn't go into the government, it would mean that he can state the conservative position more freely now than his fellow-conservatives or their higher-up potential allies, Cheney and Rumsfeld, can.

I asked Perle to give me a world tour, and he started with Iraq: "Saddam is far stronger than he was before. It's like that Sondheim song—'I'm Still Here.' A great song, by the way. The sanctions against him are collapsing. In fact, they have collapsed. Stuff is pouring into Iraq from Iran and Jordan and other countries. We're like the roadrunner in the cartoon who runs off the mesa and then looks down and realizes there's nothing underneath him. Our policy doesn't exist anymore. Saddam has lots of enemies. Few would suffer him for an instant if they didn't have to. All tyrants fall suddenly. Ceausescu looked permanent. It's the same with Saddam. I've been supporting the Iraqi National Congress for years, in the wilderness. The Clinton Administration wouldn't fund them. They said they were weak. Well, of course they're weak—the Clinton Administration won't fund them."

Perle went on to recite a litany of conservative foreign-policy positions: Any attempt by the European Union to set up its own security force, in replacement of NATO, should immediately be stopped. Instead, NATO should be expanded to include the Baltic states, and if Russia doesn't like that, tough luck. The same goes for opposition by Russia, China, and any other nation that might object, to a new missile-defense system aimed at intercepting a nuclear strike targeted at the United States. In that connection, there is no reason for us to continue to abide by the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972, which prohibits the development of a national missile-defense program; instead, we should begin to develop it immediately. In Asia, we should "watch North Korea subside into oblivion," not prop it up or promote a peace treaty or a reunification with South Korea. We should be crystal clear about our willingness to defend Taiwan militarily, rather than cozying up to the Chinese, as Clinton has done. On and hawkishly on Perle went, until we had circled the globe.

Hard-line views like these did not fall frequently from the lips of George W. Bush during the campaign. For both practical and emotional reasons, the easiest course for Bush was simply to express scorn for the Clinton Administration, and that is what he and his main advisers did. Clinton had perilously weakened the military. Clinton had engaged in hopelessly idealistic and doomed efforts at "nation-building" (a word Bush uttered with a sour-lemon downturn of the mouth) in Russia, Haiti, Somalia, and the Balkans. Clinton had tried to do too many things and lacked (another favorite Bush word, but delivered reverently) "humility." Clinton always seemed to be running for the Nobel Peace Prize. His manner was too adolescent, not steely enough. He was too political and too irresolute, regularly allowing domestic pressure groups to push him off one or another declared diplomatic course.

The foreign-policy establishment, including the Democratic division, has never been crazy about Clinton's performance, or about the performances of his chief diplomatic advisers, so these criticisms found a receptive audience. (Probably the most eloquent statement of the Bush critique of Clinton's foreign policy predates the Bush campaign, and is found in a 1996 article called "Foreign Policy as Social Work," by a disillusioned Democratic Friend of Bill named Michael Mandelbaum.) The lengthiest description of the Bush foreign-policy position, an article in the January/February, 2000, issue of Foreign Affairs by Condoleezza Rice about what "American foreign policy in a Republican Administration" might be like, is much more ringing in its anti-Clinton passages ("devastating . . . extraordinary neglect . . . happy talk") than in its prescriptive ones.

As satisfying as the Clinton-bashing may have been, however, it is already clear that Bush won't be able to make foreign policy simply by undoing what he thinks Clinton did wrong. Underneath the rhetoric about devastation and hollowing out, there is not a very big disagreement over how large the defense budget should be, as there was twenty years ago, when Reagan took office.

The United States is not currently involved in a lot of nation-building efforts that Bush can now end. Aid to Russia is relatively low, and so are troop levels in Haiti and the Balkans. Bush can and probably will cease the practice of Presidential summitry in the Mideast and Korea, but there aren't many places from which the United States, with military spending quintuple any other country's and with legitimate interests all over the globe, can actually disengage.

Nor does abjuring nation-building easily suggest a solution to any of the most serious foreign-policy problems that are going to present themselves to Bush. Assuming that Clinton doesn't come up with a last-second deal, Bush has to decide what to do about the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He has to find a way to revive the World Trade Organization. He has to decide how much money to devote to missile defense, and, in the process, how much he is willing to shrug off the views of other countries, practically none of which like the idea of our having it. In some cases, Bush has to operate under special Republican pressures that didn't affect Clinton very much. Perhaps Clinton's greatest, bravest unalloyed triumph in foreign policy was bailing out Mexico in its debt crisis, in 1995—but there is strong sentiment in Bush's party for abolishing the International Monetary Fund and scaling back the project of international debt relief. A business coalition called USA-Engage is pressing for the abolition of economic sanctions against some anti-American regimes (Iran, for example); Bush can't make that call without making either business or the right angry.

Probably the single most dangerous place in the world is the Taiwan Strait. (The second most dangerous is Kashmir, on the India-Pakistan border.) Taiwan has been functionally independent for decades, but China still officially considers it to be Chinese territory. Corporate Republicans see China as the world's most promising emerging market; Christian and anti-Communist Republicans want to punish China for its human-rights violations and to tilt toward Taiwan. If the Taiwan-independence party, which recently came to power there, actually declares independence, or if the Chinese economy sours and the regime turns to anti-Taiwanism as a way to rally an unhappy populace, China could go after Taiwan militarily, either by sabre-rattling or by a direct attack, which would be incalculably worse. That situation would have the potential to escalate to nuclear war, and Bush would have to try to defuse it: a project with the highest possible stakes, requiring great political and diplomatic skill. Having decided not to be quixotically overambitious about solving the world's problems won't do much good in Taiwan; it is a problem that we have no choice but to confront.

What does Colin Powell think about all these questions? That is hard to say, because Powell doesn't have an extensive set of published views on foreign policy. In fact, nobody whom Bush has appointed so far has a real reputation as a strategist, in the manner of Henry Kissinger, in the Nixon Administration, or Zbigniew Brzezinski, in the Carter Administration. Bush prefers can-do administrators to intellectuals, and that's what he has got. Powell is immensely authoritative and charismatic—"I can command any room," one foreign-policy maven quoted Powell as matter-of-factly telling him—and he is the only foreign-policy figure with a popular political constituency. But the famous "Powell doctrine," under which we commit troops only in cases where we have a clearly defined mission, overwhelming superiority, and an exit strategy, is really more the standard bureaucratic position of the Pentagon in the post-Vietnam era than a foreign policy. Twenty years ago, when Caspar Weinberger was Secretary of Defense and Powell was his unknown military assistant, Weinberger's doctrine was, essentially, the Powell doctrine—neoconservatives used to call Weinberger "Gandhi with guns." Now Powell runs a department that likes to intervene, and he will undoubtedly be sensitive to a charge that as the first black Secretary of State he failed to try to stop genocidal regimes in Africa. The Powell doctrine doesn't work very well as a template for Secretary of State Powell.

Condoleezza Rice, like Powell, has a lot of presence, and is charming, brisk, efficient, and a master briefer. Because she is nominally an academic, she has produced more published work than Powell, so she is easier to categorize. She presents herself as a Kissinger-style great-power realist, who believes that the United States should operate strictly according to calculations of its national interest, always dealing with other nations from a rational rather than a reformist position. "Russia's economic future is now in the hands of the Russians" is a typical pronouncement, from her Foreign Affairs article: take that, mystical, Russia-rebuilding Strobe Talbott and Al Gore!

The opposite of Rice's position in the new Administration will be found in the right wing of the Republican Party, and in the Pentagon. When Rice argued, in Foreign Affairs, against pushing human-rightist "moral arguments" with the Chinese, she was distancing herself not from Clinton but from Republican conservatives, who sound the human-rights note in her party in the way that liberals do for the Democrats. And when Paul Wolfowitz wrote, in a recent collection of essays by conservatives called "Present Dangers," that "nothing could be less realistic than the version of 'realism' that dismisses human rights as an important tool of American foreign policy," he was distancing himself from Rice and her allies. You can see how a Cheney-Rumsfeld conservative camp and a Rice-Powell moderate-realist camp could emerge and begin to quarrel predictably. If that happened, on Iraq the Rice-Powells would be the doves (for "containment') and the Cheney-Rumsfelds the hawks (for "liberation").

It is noteworthy that so many members of the Bush officialdom, including Bush himself, have publicly toyed with the option of toppling Saddam, because that is not the consensus position in the foreign-policy world. In January of 1999, shortly after the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act, Foreign Affairs published a devastating article called "The Rollback Fantasy," which said that arming the Iraqi National Congress "is militarily ludicrous" and "so flawed and unrealistic that it would lead inexorably to a replay of the Bay of Pigs." Still, the idea keeps coming up. Kenneth Adelman, the former head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and a member of the Cheney-Rumsfeld camp, told me, "Ideally, the first crisis would be something with Iraq. It would be a way to make the point that it's a new world."

The Washington headquarters of the Iraq-liberation cause is located in the basement of a brick town house in Georgetown, where a man named Francis Brooke, who constitutes the entire (unpaid) staff of the Iraq Liberation Action Committee, lives with his wife and children. Not long ago, I spent a morning with Brooke, who calls to mind a twenty-years-older Holden Caulfield. He has neatly parted blond hair, round wire-rimmed glasses, and a boy's open face, innocent manner, and undimmed capacity for outrage. In 1992, Brooke got a job in London with a public-relations agency run by a former Carter Administration political operative named John Rendon. He was assigned to publicize atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein, and was given a peculiarly high budget (including compensation for him of nineteen thousand dollars a month); Rendon wouldn't name the client. Brooke soon realized that he was working for the C.I.A. He then maneuvered himself into the most sensitive part of the operation, assisting the Iraqi National Congress.

The congress had just been set up, with blessings and funding from the Bush Administration, which evidently had spent the better part of the year following the Gulf War in the hope that Saddam would fall, and then, realizing that he wouldn't, had settled on supporting an armed opposition. Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the congress, is the scion of a prominent family of bankers and politicians in prerevolutionary Iraq, and is a mathematician with degrees from M.I.T. and the University of Chicago. He once operated a bank in Jordan, but in 1989 Saddam successfully pressured King Hussein to shut it down, impound the funds, and try Chalabi, in absentia, before a military tribunal. Chalabi fled to London. In 1992, after an Iraqi National Congress delegation had gone to Washington and received funding from the C.I.A., he set up headquarters in northern Iraq. In those promising early days of the Iraq-liberation movement, there was an American military station in the territory where the Iraqi National Congress was strongest. The dream of the liberationists was to invade from the north, and perhaps also create insurgencies in the Shiite south of Iraq and elsewhere, which would attack Saddam from other directions.

Then came the betrayal. In the summer of 1996, Saddam invaded northern Iraq with forty thousand troops and four hundred tanks and drove out the opposition. Clinton, campaigning for reëlection, did nothing. The C.I.A. dropped the strategy of promoting a popular opposition to Saddam. Chalabi moved back to London. (Chalabi skeptics can't quite picture his jetting in from Mayfair to lead the Kurdish tribesmen who live in northern Iraq into battle.)

After the events of 1996, Francis Brooke told me, "I was physically sick for almost a week." He fished out of a file a letter to Chalabi from Al Gore, dated August 4, 1993. "We pledged our support for a democratic alternative to the Saddam Hussein regime," the letter said. "I can assure you that the U.S. intends to live up to these commitments." At the time, Brooke was living in Atlanta and working in public relations, but he decided to drop everything, move to Washington, and devote himself to the cause of Iraqi liberation. Since then, he has spent his life trying, with some success, to drum up official support for Chalabi. The Clinton Administration has been unsympathetic, unless you count Operation Desert Fox, the four-day bombing operation launched at the height of the impeachment crisis, in 1998. And now?

George W. Bush doesn't have any truly good option in Iraq. Supporting the Iraqi National Congress poses lots of problems. The Turks don't want the United States to arm the Congress's Kurdish members, fearing that it would encourage Kurdish separatism in Turkey. The Saudis don't want instability on their northern border. Saddam is getting stronger, Chalabi's forces are getting weaker, and in Washington he has only Francis Brooke (rather than, say, Vernon Jordan) looking after his interests. One can easily imagine Colin Powell painting for Bush a picture of a military quagmire complete with many American casualties in the event that the Iraqi National Congress got enough funding to mount a real attack on Saddam.

But it would not be easy for Bush to ignore the situation, either, because Saddam is defying the United States in every possible way, is becoming increasingly dangerous as he builds up his military capacity, and is perhaps the most brutal dictator in the world. He may even be confident enough now to pick a fight, in the form of a move against Israel or a neighboring country. Plus, he has messed around with the Bush family. This is one to keep an eye on.

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