Many years ago, a young psychoanalyst approached The Master for guidance. Replied Mr. Freud directly:
“Don’t try to save people. They don’t want to be saved.”
Wise counsel for America, as Saddam Hussein continues his game of playing us like a yo-yo. For the issue involved here has come to transcend Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and their locales du jour. It’s now about us, and the world, and their reluctance to be saved.
By us, at any rate.
To say that the Clinton administration has neither a clue nor any idea of how to go about getting one demonstrates little more than a keen grasp of the obvious. The problem is the nature of the cluelessness.
Part of it resembles the mindset–that odd combination of self-regard, self-delusion, and prevarication–that got us into Vietnam. Oliver Stone and the 1960s notwithstanding, nobody in DC wanted to fight that war. Nobody believed that it could be won easily, or at all, given the self-imposed restraints under which it would be fought. The series of escalations leading to war were the work of men who, in the words of cultural historian Loren Baritz, “could not conceive of losing, but didn’t know how to win.” Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they didn’t want to know how to win. Self-blinded, technology became their false haven.
And so it goes with Iraq. We build ’em up, then wonder how to knock ’em down. We buy time to try to figure it out. We don’t figure it out. Self-baffled, we instinctively engage in another typically American self-delusion: the belief that Washington, DC can manipulate the world the way it manipulates the American public. Just tell enough lies, just leak enough leaks, just make enough speeches Signaling Our Resolve to Signal Our Resolve, and maybe something wonderful, or at least convenient, will happen.
Latest and most ludicrous example: the public palaver about covert operations to destabilize Iraq and maybe off Saddam. What Iraqi dissident would risk his and his family’s lives on a plan appearing on the New York Times web site? And indeed, given America’s long history of trashing its friends and allies–South Vietnam, the Montagnards and Hmong, Iran, the Kurds, to name a few–who would trust us to save them at all?
So we’re left with Gee-whiz weapons that deliver far more military destruction than political success, and pumped-up, meandering verbiage unconnected to reality. And this is how America intends to run the post-Cold War world?
Of course, Vietnam was a place of no intrinsic significance to America. It mattered only as part of something else: the Cold War, China, the next election, the Great Society, whatever. Unfortunately, Iraq matters. Not intrinsically, or even because of its arsenal, but because of its possible effects on the Islamic world . . . and, therefore, on the rest of the planet.
Consider Saddam Hussein. By any standard save survival, the man’s a failure. He wrecked his country. He lives like a fugitive. And yet, if you believe the reports, he considers himself a modern Nebuchchadnezzar, destined to unite the Islamic world against the infidels.
Is he really so wrong? In a civilization that deifies its Nassers and murders its Sadats, a civilization not averse to stoning adultresses and slicing off pilfering hands, a civilization in which, seven years ago, Palestinians chanted “Strong One, use your missiles”–missiles that would fall on them–is his brand of “strength” so unattractive?
Ostensibly, America’s Persian Gulf allies refused us basing and overflight rights because they feared we wouldn’t finish the job. A not unreasonable suspicion. But their greater fear is that American action would trigger pre-planned domestic disturbances that would require violent suppression, beginning the cycle of making martyrs to justify more protest and terror. And we could no more save the conservative states of the region from insurrection than we saved the Shah of Iran.
The Islamic world’s movement toward violent fundamentalism may or may not be irrevocable. But Iran, Afghanistan, and the Sudan have already gone that way. Algeria lurches toward it. Other places–Egypt, Turkey, the Islamic regions of Russia–face their internal threats: factions receiving considerable external aid from many sources, including Iraq.
And what will happen to Syria and Jordan when two sick old men, Assad and Hussein, depart? Whither Libya after Qaddafi? Morocco after Hassan? The Palestinians after Arafat?
Within this context, perhaps the worst thing the United States can do to Saddam is to build him up or knock him down. Contain him quietly, yes. Deter him from using his weapons, absolutely. But perhaps it may be necessary to accept that, however abhorrent to western sensibilities, large and violent segments of the Islamic world simply do not want to be saved from this man.
Certainly, not by us.
But what of the rest of the “world community” who have (all save great Britain) evinced a similar reluctance to be saved by us? Their reasons vary, from fear of retaliation on their soil to more complex political and diplomatic calculations. Perhaps some just hope we can do it without them.
But a far deeper reason may be simple unwillingness to establish a post-Desert Storm precedent of dutifully lining up behind America every time we pick out another dragon to talk about slaying. To adapt one of Nancy Reagan’s favorite phrases:
America’s ineffectual yet incessant global leadership?
Just say no.
So what’s The World’s Sole Remaining Superpower to do? Perhaps, for starters, recognize that, while the world may indeed be better off with us than without us, planetary safety and salvation need not always be, and cannot always be, Made in America.
And that sometimes, in our zeal and muddlement, we make things worse.