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Jewish World ReviewMarch 6, 2001 / 11 Adar, 5761

Michael Ledeen

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Powell’s great (mis)adventure -- COLIN POWELL'S first sortie as secretary of state has been widely and justifiably criticized. There was no obvious reason for him to race to the Middle East (his early suggestion that it was merely a "fact finding" trip was unconvincing, since our diplomats and spooks flood Washington with digital oceans of facts every day), and his constantly changing message — beginning with a call to tighten sanctions on Iraq and ending with a promise to ease the sanctions — suggests that he felt more obliged to put his chop on foreign policy than to advance a clear strategy. He may well have been driven by an understandable desire to show his face and his flag.

One false step does not a legacy make, but it is urgent that he recognize that it was a fiasco, and take steps to avoid future embarrassments. This may not be easy, for Powell sometimes sounds as if he has sold himself on a false vision of the Middle East, including its recent history. If he and our other policy makers continue to believe it, the false vision will undermine any effort to craft a sensible Middle East strategy.

Over and over again, Powell and some of his colleagues from the Elder Bush days tell us that they really had no choice but to leave Saddam in power in Bagdad, mostly because our allies were against it. According to this version of the latter days of the Gulf War, both the Saudis and the Turks feared that the fall of Saddam would lead to the breakup of Iraq (which might threaten Turkey because of Kurdish strength in the north of Iraq), and the attendant expansion of the strength of radical Shi'ites (and thus of Iran, which threatens Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States). Therefore, we acquiesced and stopped short. At the time I called our sudden ceasefire "Desert Shame," and a more elegant pen pal of mind branded it "Victory Interruptus."

The story is false. Indeed, according to people who were present when the message was delivered in the final days of Desert Storm, both the Saudis and the Turks badly wanted us to remove the evil Iraqi regime. They knew that if Saddam survived, he would do everything in his power to punish those who had fought alongside the United States, above all Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who had not only worked with us, but had provided us with the bases from which we staged our devastating assault.

Both will deny it today, because there is a sort of Heisenburgian uncertainty in international affairs. Just as our perception of sub-atomic particles is affected by our efforts to see them, so nations' responses to our questions depends on our own will and actions. Foreign leaders — above all our generally timorous allies in the Middle East — will very rarely be brave enough to tell us things they know we don't want to hear, and on which we are unlikely to act. During Desert Storm they saw we were serious and quite capable of taking out Saddam, so they asked us to do it. Today, after eight years of dithering, and an administration that was more inclined to pressure our friends than our enemies, they will try to cut their losses, and encourage us to ease up on Iraq, lest Saddam do mean things to them. The last thing they want is for Saddam to see that they had called for his elimination.

Back when he was at the top of our armed forces, General Powell formulated a "doctrine" that laid out preconditions for the use of American power: We had to be sure we could win, we had to be sure we had the power to do it quickly, and we needed a strong domestic consensus in favor of the action. This is a thoughtful bit of advice from an extraordinarily decent and worthy man, but it is wrongheaded. We will not always know the outcome of conflict in advance, and many of our greatest victories — from Bunker Hill and Valley Forge to the three world wars of the last century — were accomplished despite poor odds. And, above all, the only consensus that matters is the one at the end of the action, not the beginning.

If Reagan had taken a poll before sending our armed forces to Grenada, he probably wouldn't have done it. Yet it turned out to have been a major turning point in the Cold War. As Machiavelli told us five hundred years ago, if a leader wins, the people will always find his methods to have been appropriate. If he loses, he will be scorned. Our secretary of state should remind himself of this eternal principle, and if he wants to hear it from one of his own, rather than from a Renaissance sage, he has only to consult General George Patton: " the American people hate a loser."

The real touchstone of America's destiny in the Middle East is Iraq, not Israel/Palestine. Like it or not, Colin Powell is going to have to deal with Saddam Hussein once again. It's terribly unfair, to be sure. Bill Clinton squandered our great victory in Desert Storm, and Iraq once again threatens our national interests. We will not be able to reassemble the war party, and we will not have the support of our previous Middle East allies until and unless they see that we are again serious in our resolve. That means taking the fight to Saddam. It means arming and training his democratic enemies, even though we can have no certainty about the outcome, and cannot be sure the struggle will be brief.

It will not be easy for Secretary Powell to embrace this difficult and uncertain strategy; it goes against his announced principles and requires him to rethink his understanding of the Gulf War. Worse still, it will certainly not be blessed by the dozens of Clinton holdovers who are still in the key positions in Foggy Bottom, and to whom Powell has promised the first word in foreign policy. But it is a brave strategy, altogether worthy of an outstanding leader. Let him pronounce the final words: We're going to fight, and we're going to win.

We'll hear his words very soon: He's testifying Wednesday to Henry Hyde's International Relations Committee.

JWR contributor Michael Ledeen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Tocqueville on American Character . Comment by clicking here.


02/26/00: The Clinton Sopranos
02/20/00: Unity Schmoonity: Sharon is defying the will of the people
01/30/00: The Rest of the Rich Story
01/22/00: Ashcroft the Jew
01/11/00: A fitting close to the Clinton years
12/26/00: Continuing Clinton's shameful legacy
12/21/00: Clinton’s gift for Bush

© 2001, Michael Ledeen