My next-door neighbor, a staunch Republican, approached me as I put the trash at the curb this morning. "What do you think of our cowboy president and Iraq? Is he crazy or just dumb? I don't get it! Mind if we talk after work today?"
His questions are the same ones countless Americans are asking. Here's what I'll tell him this evening:
Q: President Bush keeps saying that Iraq is a "grave threat to the United States." Why?
A: He no longer tries to explain. The hyperbole of his speechwriters has too often held him up to ridicule. Last fall they had him say, for example, that Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon within a year. The US intelligence community's judgment is that it cannot do so until the end of the decade-if then.
Q: But won't Iraq give terrorists chemical or biological agents to attack America?
A: The US intelligence community says Iraq is unlikely to do so, UNLESS it is invaded.
Q: Could it be a personal thing? Didn't Bush say Saddam Hussein tried to kill his dad?
A: I'll leave that one to the psychologists. That could play a role, I suppose, but there are more plausible reasons. One is Israel.
Q: Israel seems to be egging Bush on. Why?
A: Israel's position as the regional "superpower" in the Middle East mirrors US status as world superpower. The administrations in Tel Aviv and Washington believe themselves anointed to dominate, and this means preventing potential rivals from attaining like power. As Israel demonstrated when it destroyed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, it simply will not allow Iraq to acquire nuclear weapons.
A: Because the Israelis fear that this could jeopardize their ability to work their will in the lands seized from the Arabs in 1967 and 1973. Saddam Hussein or his successor could easily brandish a nuclear weapon and restrict the unfettered freedom Israel now enjoys to do what it pleases to the Palestinian people in the occupied territories.
Q: Are you suggesting that the Israelis are running US policy toward Iraq?
A: Not "running," but certainly heavily influencing. US domestic politics and campaign contributions play a key role here.
Of equal importance, Vice President Cheney and the civilian leadership of the Pentagon share a boy-like admiration for the Israeli generals who have made a career of preemptive attacks. (Cheney has adorned his office wall with an aerial photo of the destroyed reactor at Osirak, and has openly blessed that attack, even though it was unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council as a flagrant violation of international law.)
In addition the methods that the Bush administration has begun to employ-targeted assassinations, kidnappings, and torture-are right out of the Israeli Army manual.
Q: But certainly the Israeli factor does not suffice to account for the Bush administration's policy on Iraq.
A: There is a factor of at least equal importance: oil. Even our 15 year-old grandson could point out how long Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's nose grew when he said, "This has nothing to do with oil!" Consider this: According to the Department of Energy, the US, with less than three percent of the world's known oil reserves, will have to import 70 percent of its oil by the year 2025. And Israel is totally dependent on imports for oil. With "regime change" in Baghdad, nearly a quarter of the world's oil reserves would fall into the hands of US oil companies.
Lust for this windfall is nothing new. In May 1998 Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, chair of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle, freshly rehabilitated NSC official Elliot Abrams, and others with top positions in the current administration wrote this to congressional leaders: "We should establish and maintain a strong US military presence in the region, and be prepared to use that force to protect our vital interests in the Gulf-and, if necessary, to help remove Saddam from power." (For "vital interests" read oil.)
Q: What do you think will happen now?
A: Bush's press secretary has already issued a pointed reminder that the president has said UN opposition would not prevent him from leading "a coalition of the willing" to attack Iraq, and US and British forces are already in position to do so.
Q: Why the great rush?
A: Summer comes quickly to Iraq. The optimum time to attack is now.
Q: But the polls show diminishing support in the US for war.
A: Public support is still higher than before the 1991 Gulf War. And the president can count on the American people to rally around, once US forces are engaged. In this sense, the polls provide additional incentive to strike quickly to halt the erosion of popular support.
Q: Won't the president have to justify such an attack to the American people?
A: No. Congress gave him carte blanche last fall. There will be speeches, and the administration will gin up "intelligence" to support its case for war.
CIA analysts so far have resisted unrelenting pressure from Wolfowitz to cook the evidence to the recipe of administration policy. If they do not cave under the pressure, the conjuring up and presenting of the desired intelligence will be left to Rumsfeld-the same fellow who told us this has nothing to do with oil. Is this a great country or what!