Washington Diary

Christopher Hitchens

The Greeks had a saying that ‘the iron draws the hand towards it,’ which encapsulates, as well as anything can, the idea that weapons and armies are made to be used. And the Romans had a maxim that if you wish peace you must prepare for war. Oddly enough, even strict observance of this rule is not always enough to guarantee peace. But if you happen to want a war, preparing for it is a very good way to get it. And, among the privileges of being a superpower, the right and the ability to make a local quarrel into a global one ranks very high. Local quarrel? Here is what the United States Ambassador to Iraq, Ms April Glaspie, told Saddam Hussein on 25 July last:

We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late Sixties. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue, and that the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasise this instruction.

Even as the latest in ‘smart’ technology grinds and punctures the Iraqi military, this amazingly explicit enticement to Saddam is still being debated. Did the United States intend to keep Iraq sweet by giving it a strategic morsel of Kuwait and access to the sea? Or did it intend to remind its Gulf clients that only American umbrellas could protect them from Iraqi rain? Or did it perhaps intend both? Those who think this too cynical might care to remember that Washington incited Iran to destabilise Iraq in 1973, and Iraq to invade Iran in 1980, and sold arms on the quiet to both sides throughout. As Lord Copper once put it, ‘the Beast stands for strong mutually antagonistic governments everywhere. Self-sufficiency at home, self-assertion abroad.’

Considerations of this kind tend to be forgotten once war begins, but one day the swift evolution from Desert Shield through Imminent Thunder to Desert Storm will make a great feast for an analytical historian. For now, everything in Washington has narrowed to a saying of John Kennedy’s, uttered after the Bay of Pigs, to the effect that ‘success has many fathers – failure is an orphan.’

The debate in Congress, which was very protracted and in some ways very intense, was in reality extremely limited. The partisans of the Administration said, ‘If not now, when?’ and their opponents replied: ‘Why not later?’ The partisans of the Administration said there would be fewer body bags if Saddam was hit at once, and their opponents replied feebly that all body bags were bad news. Only Senator Mark Hatfield, the Republican from Oregon, refused either choice and voted against both resolutions. In his speech announcing the immediate exercise of the powers Congress had conferred on him, Bush oddly borrowed a phrase from Tom Paine and said: ‘These are the times that try men’s souls.’ This line actually introduces Paine’s masterly pamphlet ‘The Crisis’, and goes on to talk scornfully of the ‘summer soldiers and sunshine patriots’. In the present crisis, with the hawks talking of war only on terms of massive and overwhelming superiority, and the doves nervously assenting on condition that not too many Americans are hurt, almost everyone either is a summer soldier or a sunshine patriot.

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