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Published: Saturday, 10/27/2001

White House Watch: Wrong time to target Saddam

WASHINGTON - President Bush is wise to resist the clamor to use force against Iraq as well as fighting Osama bin Laden - The Evil One - and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It would be a catastrophe.

Ex-CIA director James Woolsey has undertaken a campaign to muster support for the “absolute destruction” of Saddam Hussein as part of Mr. Bush's war on terrorism.

He is not whistling in the dark - the Bush administration is divided between the do-wannas and the don't-wannas, with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz siding with Mr. Woolsey in arguing that Iraq should be a target of U.S. military wrath. And Mr. Woolsey can bring a crowd to its feet when he makes the pitch for going after the Iraqi leader once more.

Mr. Woolsey is a Phi Beta Kappa, a smart lawyer who has spent a lot of time figuring out how Washington works. He was CIA director from 1993 to 1995 and thus knows a lot about what a bad dude Saddam is. And he still does clandestine work for the Navy and the CIA.

But his arguments make an excellent case for never, ever letting CIA directors set policy.

Mr. Woolsey says Iraq likely was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax terrorism. He bases that on gut suspicions, not direct evidence.

When speaking to the American Jewish Congress or addressing the issue of Iraq in one of his many TV appearances or writing op-ed page articles, he has passion, conviction, and the certain knowledge that most Americans would like to see Saddam Hussein vaporized. He has convinced Sen. Joe Lieberman (D., Conn.) that the United States should have a “phase two” of the war on terrorism that targets Iraq.

But acting against Saddam without solid evidence would destroy the coalition that Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell are painstakingly putting together. Nearly all the Arab and Muslim countries would flee the circle.

It would destroy the effort to root out bin Laden, against whom there is plenty of evidence. It would make a shambles of the war on terrorism. It would make the United States a pariah in the Arab world. It would force Pakistan to drop its vital willingness to let the United States use Pakistani territory as a staging ground for attacks on the Taliban. And U.S. forces would be spread too thin.

It's certainly not that Saddam has a lot of friends anywhere. But the United States is regarded with great cynicism in the Middle East and must tread carefully to avoid creating more hatred and alienation. Saddam still is using American-pushed economic sanctions as an excuse to refuse to feed his people despite the money he is making from oil sales, thus unfairly arousing the rancor of millions of people against the United States. The United States is having trouble keeping those sanctions in force.

Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to the 41st president, the first President Bush, before, during, and after the Persian Gulf War, told reporters that the coalition Mr. Bush is trying to put together “has to have at its core the Muslim and Arab world.” A new war against Iraq would dissolve that and millions of Muslims would think the United States was merely using terrorists in Afghanistan as an excuse to go after its old nemesis, Saddam, he said.

The President's father agrees with him, arguing that the United States won't be successful if it acts unilaterally.

Mr. Scowcroft, now head of the President's Foreign Intelligence Board, says that if the United States doesn't “blast Afghanistan off the map” or alienate uneasy Arab allies, there will be time later to topple Saddam.

Mr. Scowcroft and the former president maintain that invading Baghdad in the Gulf War would have been a fatal error because the coalition would have fallen apart and the United States would have been left alone to become an occupying power in what he believes would have been a long, bloody war in a large, hostile country. The key to getting rid of Saddam, they argue, is a patient, methodical campaign to rebuild confidence in the United States throughout the Arab world.

Mr. Woolsey argues that Sept. 11 was too sophisticated an operation to permit straying “very far from the conclusion that a state, and a very well-run intelligence service, is involved here.” Also, one of the Sept. 11 terrorists met with an Iraqi intelligence officer. And the use of refined anthrax is another argument of Iraqi involvement, he says.

But there are opposing arguments. Bin Laden has no use for Saddam except that they both hate the United States. Many, such as Mr. Scowcroft, think the anthrax scare is domestic. Besides, refined anthrax can be found in the United States. And bin Laden has shown he is more than capable of organizing and financing flashy operations aimed at killing a lot of people at once. He is enough of a foe for the moment.

Mr. Bush should continue listening to his father.

Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail her at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.



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