Article — From the October 2002 issue

The Road to Babylon

Searching for targets in Iraq

Misgovemment is of four kinds, often in combination. They are: 1) tyranny or oppression, of which history provides so many well-known examples that they do not need citing; 2) excessive ambition, such as Athens’ attempted conquest of Sici­ly in the Peloponnesian War, Philip II’s of England via the Armada, Germany’s twice-attempted rule of Europe by a self-conceived master race, Japan’s bid for an empire of Asia; 3) incompetence or decadence, as in the case of the late Roman empire, the last Romanovs and the last imperial dynasty of China; and finally 4) folly or perversity.
— Barbara W. Tuchman

When President George W. Bush in his January State of the Union address pronounced the sentence of doom on Saddam Hussein (“America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security I will not wait on events, while dangers gather”), I assumed that he was striking at a target of rhetorical convenience. The war on terrorism was not going as well as planned (Osama bin Laden still at large, Afghanistan not yet transformed into a Connecticut suburb, bombs exploding every sev­en or eight days on a bus in Israel), and who better than the tyrant of Bagh­dad to stand surrogate for all the world’s evildoers? The man was undoubt­edly a villain, a brutal psychopath who murdered children and poisoned village wells, stored biological weapons in hospitals, subjected his enemies to unspeakable torture, and imprisoned his friends in the cages of perpetu­al fear. Not a nice fellow. Who would not be glad to learn that he had re­tired from politics or died in a traffic accident? If Mr. Bush chose to express his disapproval in what he called “the language of right and wrong,” who was I to deny him his demagogue’s right to issue harebrained threats?

The opinion was not widely shared in New York among people possessed of an historical memory (i.e., by individuals who remembered the CIA’s stag­ing of “the glorious march to Havana” in the spring of 1961, or the “light at the end of the tunnel” so often seen by General William C. Westmoreland in the forests of Vietnam), but I held to it throughout the spring and early summer even as Mr. Bush mounted the flag-draped rostra at West Point and the Virginia Military Institute to threaten with the wrath of eagles far-off men of “mad ambitions,” declaring null and void “the Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment,” championing the cause of “forward-look­ing and resolute . . . preemptive action.” When asked by worried friends and acquaintances whether the President was borrowing his geopolitical theory from the diaries of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, I assured them that the President didn’t have the patience to read more than two or three pages of a Tom Clancy novel. True, the National Security Council was staffed by think-tank ideologues, and yes, some of the policy analysts strolling through the corridors of the White House imagined themselves wearing the uni­form of the Bengal Lancers, but no, not even the Bush Administration was so stupid as to take up arms against a figment of its own imagination.

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October 2019