Magazine article The Spectator

Say No to the Nay-Sayers

Magazine article The Spectator

Say No to the Nay-Sayers

Article excerpt

GENERALS are often accused of preparing for the next war by planning to refight the last one. The same charge could now be levelled at retired US Secretaries of State and National Security Advisers. James Baker and Brent Scowcroft have both expressed worries about the wisdom of fighting Saddam Hussein. They have also insisted that if there is to be a war, it must replicate Desert Storm, in which they were both crucially involved. So the Bush administration ought now to be engaged in coalition-building and the drafting of UN resolutions.

Dissent from such senior figures could easily prove infectious, which is why Dick Cheney was quick to rebut their arguments. Nor was this a hard task. Messrs Baker and Scowcroft are guilty of a triple intellectual failure. They are living in the past, they are failing to confront the present dangers and they are inventing options which do not exist.

Apropos of the past, one can detect in the tone of both men's remarks an echo of the anxieties which they and others were feeling in the run-up to Desert Storm. It is easy to forget the extent of the pre-battle nerves in Washington 12 years ago this autumn. It was not so long since the US military had almost managed to cock up the invasion of Grenada. There had also been the scuttling withdrawal from Beirut, while everything was overshadowed by Vietnam. The generals were worried about whether the kit would work, and even if it did - the final, gut-wrenching fear would the men fight? Around Christmas 1990, it was hard to find many senior figures in Washington who would reply to both those questions with a confident affirmative. In the event, the battlefield provided the answers, but in some cases even one hundred hours of easy victory were not enough to efface the memories of fretful months of preparation and doubt.

Not that Jim Baker's memory is all that it should be. While the Israelis braced themselves against Scud missile attacks and the Americans were desperately hoping that their Patriot missiles would largely neutralise the Scud threat - which they devoutly hoped would remain conventional - Mr Secretary Baker issued a warning to Saddam. There were thresholds which he must not cross; if he did, he must expect a terrible retaliation. If it was necessary to issue a nuclear threat to Saddam then, it is even more necessary to remove his nuclear threat now. Back then, Jim Baker said what he did in order to ensure that Israel would not use nuclear weapons against Iraq, and that any such escalation would have been a solely American responsibility. If it now became clear to the Israelis that the Americans were giving up the attempt to defang Saddam, they would get ready to do the job. If there were no second war between the US and Iraq, there would still be a war, between Israel and Iraq, almost certainly involving nuclear weapons.

But if Jim Baker and Brent Scowcroft had their way, there could be no American war, for there has never been any possibility of reassembling the 1990 coalition. The Arab world, and especially the Saudis, were happy to see Saddam hoofed out of Kuwait. They did not want him to become the master of the Gulfs oil, and thus an unchallengeable regional superpower.

None of this still applies. The Saudis in particular are not happy at the prospect of the Americans hoofing out Arab regimes of which they disapprove; the House of Saud fears that this could become habitforming. Yet even the Saudis are uneasily aware that the Arab world has no veto on American action.

A lot of moderate Arab opinion on the forthcoming conflict could be summarised as follows: `We would much rather that you did not do this. We would greatly prefer it if you gave Palestine even 1 per cent of the energy which you are devoting to Iraq. …

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