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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Go Ahead, Tom Friedman, Make My Day

Tom Friedman begins his latest column with a ghastly misrepresentation of a classic bit of Americana:

President Bush is fond of cowboy imagery, so here's an image that comes to mind about our pending war with Iraq. In most cowboy movies the good guys round up a posse before they ride into town and take on the black hats.

NO, NO, NO! The American hero acts alone, or with a small group of loyal friends, and fights for the right, the system be damned. Consider the list of classic Westerns at Amazon:

1. The Searchers: "Perhaps most notably, it's the definitive role for John Wayne as an icon of the classic Western--the hero (or antihero) who must stand alone according to the unwritten code of the West...."

3. Red River: Red River features one of John Wayne's greatest performances. Like his Ethan Edwards in John Ford's 1956 masterpiece The Searchers, the Duke plays an isolated and unsympathetic man who is possessed by bitterness...."

4. High Noon: this 1952 classic stars Gary Cooper as just-married lawman Will Kane, who is about to retire as a small-town sheriff and begin a new life with his bride (Grace Kelly) when he learns that gunslinger Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is due to arrive at high noon to settle an old score. Kane seeks assistance from deputies and townsfolk, but soon realizes he'll have to stand alone in his showdown with Miller and his henchmen...

The Brother Judd also discussed the High Noon - George Bush parallel last fall, in a great post.

OK, let's speed this up - Shane, Unforgiven, Rio Bravo - no "good guys" rounding up posses. Granted, "Unforgiven" is morally complex, and there is a posse at the big finish, and it is led by the sheriff. But is "Little Bill", the character that got Gene Hackman an Academy Award, really a "good guy"? Anyway, they never make it out of the saloon before Clint Eastwood reminds them not to pit amateurs against professionals. And what about the Lone Ranger, or Maverick, or the Texas Ranger motto - "One riot, one Ranger", or the two men facing off in the dusty street for the final gunfight? And does Friedman forget the whole Clint Eastwood library - A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider - oh, please. The Europeans are right - Bush is acting like a cowboy, which is why the polls in the US support him.

Friedman is wrong on this point - heck of a way to start his column. But he also makes a substantive point that I find intriguing:

The president says he went the extra mile to find a diplomatic solution. That is not true. On the eve of the first gulf war, Secretary of State James Baker met face to face in Geneva with the Iraqi foreign minister — a last-ditch peace effort that left most of the world feeling it was Iraq that refused to avoid war.

It stretches his words somewhat, but let me put this in the "why can't Bush and Powell handle this the way Bush and Baker did" camp of critics - where is the broad coalition and the UN support?

And this is the source of my puzzlement. As recently reported, President Bush defended his father for stopping short of toppling Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
"That was not the mission in 1991," when his father, George H.W. Bush, was president, he said to reporters. "The mission in the early 1990s was to liberate Kuwait, and the United States achieved that mission."

This article mentions an amusing role reversal: [British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher was worried about delays and did not want to wait for the United Nations support for military action, but the U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, argued that United Nations authority was crucial to sustain the support of American public opinion.

It also reminds us that "The resolution... from the United Nations arrived on November 29. On that day the Security Council authorized "all necessary means," including military force, against Iraq if it does not withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15, 1991."

But no mention of regime change. Dick Cheny, then Secretary if Defense, addressed the "finish the job" question, and warned against the perils of regime change, in this speech:

There have been significant discussions since the war ended about the proposition of whether or not we went far enough. Should we, perhaps, have gone in to Baghdad? Should we have gotten involved to a greater extent then we did? Did we leave the job in some respects unfinished? I think the answer is a resounding "no."

One of the reasons we were successful from a military perspective was because we had very clear-cut military objectives. The President gave us an assignment that could be achieved by the application of military force. He said, "Liberate Kuwait." He said, "Destroy Saddam Hussein's offensive capability," his capacity to threaten his neighbors -- both definable military objectives.

And we can guess at the promises made to the Arab members of the colaition:

At the end of the Gulf War, some idealists argued that it was time to spread democracy to a part of the world that knew little of it. They suggested starting with Iraq, using U.S. military might to topple Saddam Hussein and install a democratic regime, as had been done in Germany and Japan after World War II....

These ideas got short shrift at the time. President George H.W. Bush strongly preferred the regional status quo, and America's Arab allies, determined to return to business as usual, were quick to reinforce his instinct. ...

Even while the Iraq crisis was raging, these Arab allies had anticipated the idealistic U.S. impulses and had found a way to deflect them. They extracted from the president and his secretary of state, James Baker, a promise that after the war the United States would focus on solving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Which leads to my question - if the Bush-Baker diplomacy was so brilliant, why did it result in a coalition that was not committed to the "regime change" course that, with hindsight, seems blindingly desirable? Or, if we agree that forming the coalition led to a watered down effort that was ultimately incomplete, why are we in such a hurry to repeat it?

Now, I can defend the path actaully taken in 1991. For roughly five years after the end of Desert Strom, diplomacy seemed to be on track in the Middle East. The UN sanctions and inspections were disarming and containing Saddam. Meanwhile, the Arab Conference in Madrid had inspired the Oslo proscess. Don't you love it when a plan comes together?

By 1998, the containment of Iraq had come undone, and the Oslo process collapsed several years later. But who knew?

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