In elevating his war aims to include the demise of Saddam Hussein, President Bush threw a challenge at the Iraqi dictator calculated to anger him and block his withdrawal from Kuwait before his army is ruined.
That became clear when the president told a wildly enthusiastic crowd at Raytheon's Patriot plant in Andover, Mass., Friday that "there is another way" to stop Gulf War bloodshed: get rid of Saddam. A seasoned U.S. diplomat watching Bush's performance on television commented: "That guarantees Saddam won't withdraw."
Br'er Rabbit begged not to be thrown into the briar patch to ensure that he would. Bush demands immediate withdrawal from Kuwait in language calculated to keep Saddam there, at least for a while longer. By suddenly pulling out, the Iraqi dictator would become the hero of the Arab world who survived America's military might and the world's greatest bombing assault with his army intact.
Administration sources believe Bush is prepared soon to start what he hopes will be a hard-hitting, quick-winning ground war to block Saddam from escaping with most of his army. These officials say privately that Bush is being pushed harder every day by Arab coalition partners Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as his non-coalition ally, Israel, who do not want the United States to let Saddam escape now. "The Saudis are hysterical," a former high U.S. official told us. "The prospect of Saddam ending up as the great Islamic warrior scares them."
But Bush confronts a hard fact: U.N. Security Council resolutions are limited to Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait and restoration of the emir. None of the 12 anti-Saddam measures adopted mentions his removal from office. Nor do they call for his army's destruction. So, Bush must improvise to get around these limits and reach goals that lie beyond the coalition's mandate.
The president's hardening policy was obvious in his first words in response to Saddam's clearly unacceptable peace offer Friday. In rejecting it, as he should have, he said nothing to encourage new offers.
Bush employed the deliberately intemperate language, calculated to demean and alienate Saddam, that has become his signature since the Gulf crisis started last August. On Friday, he raised the ante by calling on the Iraqi army and people to get rid of their leader.
That could boomerang. Hated as Saddam undoubtedly is by many Iraqis because of the terrible suffering his policies have brought, a despised foreigner's call to do him in might actually strengthen him -- both in Iraq and in the Arab world. This is especially true because of the Arab view of an "imperialist" America, intent on advancing Israel's interests.
More dangerous is Bush's rapid movement toward ground warfare. There is a running difference of opinion within U.S. intelligence about how much of Saddam's immense military machine has been destroyed in the month-long bombing. Bush appears toBush is improvising ways to reach goals beyond the coalition's mandate. be accepting Pentagon estimates of heavy destruction. But CIA analysts believe that the bombing has been less decisive, leaving Iraq more dangerous on the ground than Pentagon intelligence indicates.
Ground war may be necessary to achieve Bush's Gulf agenda of reducing tanks, artillery and other weapons still available to Saddam. Bush cannot know what this will cost the United States and its allies in lives. But he does know that if the coalition moves from war to indecisive negotiations with Saddam during the next few weeks, the worst of early spring's terrible weather will arrive.
On March 17 begins Ramadan and, a few weeks later, the annual Muslim pilgrimage that brings millions to Mecca. To War President Bush, this calendar powerfully argues for ground combat now, enough of it to strip Saddam of military power before his negotiating gambits break up the coalition.
Bush's political supporters in Congress are bombarding him with appeals to delay ground war or avoid it altogether. But sources believe that cutting down Saddam's military and getting rid of him, either by coup d'etat or U.S. bombing, is viewed by the president as critical to his post-war Middle East policy and the new world order. To achieve those objectives, Bush must move quickly to outwit his enemy in Baghdad, and that requires some disingenuous tactics.