Voices

Running out of hands

On the one hand, on the other hand: Waiting for the Iraq war

Issue: "Press coverage uncovered," March 8, 2003

The impatience grows. Even while one noisy minority shouts its protest to a war in Iraq, others are showing a different kind of edginess. "When are we going to get on with it?" they are asking.

It does seem, doesn't it, that we've been ramping up for a very long time. Was it soon after President Bush-in his January 2002 State of the Union address-referred to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the new "axis of evil" that we began to think that some day fairly soon we'd have to engage Saddam Hussein militarily? Twelve years ago, it took less than six months to get half a million troops in place, along with literal boatloads of equipment, to take him on. This time, it's taken twice as long to position half the number of personnel. What gives?

Back in the fall, they said we had to wait for the end of Ramadan. But that deadline came and went. Now you can feel the sense of foreboding (and a little stalling) even on WORLD magazine's cover stories of the last three weeks, all of which have a "now-but-not-yet" tone:

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THE COST OF WAR

WATCH & WAIT

AT THE RUBICON

So when does it really happen? Maybe, of course, by the time you read these words. In mid-February, some experts-watching the cycles of the moon-said Monday, March 3, would be D-Day for the Iraq conflict. A few days later, some of those same experts had put their prediction off until Tuesday, March 18. Name enough different dates and one of them should be pretty close to being on target.

But the fact is that if you were George W. Bush, you too would sense how delicate a tight-wire act is required of a U.S. president. Like Tevye, the papa figure in Fiddler on the Roof, you would know what it means to go painfully back and forth between "on the one hand" and "on the other hand."

On the one hand, virtually everyone who knows anything about it says it's going to be a very one-sided contest. Why not do it and get it over with? Even some who oppose the war say Saddam Hussein doesn't have a clue what he's bargained for.

On the other hand, history is replete with the ignominious stories of those who have gone into battle over-armed with arrogance and overconfidence. Maybe it's better to take a few extra weeks, rehearse the routines, and double-check every drill.

On the one hand, it's going to be, for all practical purposes, a war decided in the air. A bomber that in Vietnam 30 years ago needed its whole load just to take out one target might now count confidently on taking out 20 targets.

On the other hand, a pincer movement of land forces coming down toward Baghdad from the north would surely be a powerful distraction just in case Saddam survives the first awful punishment from the air. And if it takes three or four extra weeks to locate those troops and their equipment on strategic bases in Turkey, that must certainly be seen as a prudent delay.

On the one hand, who really cares at this point what Germany, France, and tiny Belgium think? Such stuck-up, ungrateful, near-sighted friends-who needs them?

On the other hand, when you're going after someone who is even more dangerous than Saddam, isn't it better to bury your differences with your friends just as much as you possibly can? If the old reminder that "I need all the friends I can get" applies anywhere, it must apply here.

On the one hand, let's get Saddam out of the way-and then get out of the way ourselves. Sticking around for "nation building" is not our specialty, and will almost certainly lead to nothing but trouble. Let's leave that to the Iraqis.

On the other hand, giving a little extra thought to the end game is probably not such a dumb idea. If chaos and bedlam follow, and civilians start dying by the tens of thousands-and America takes the rap-the whole venture might not look like such a great bargain after all.

Which is a good time to remind ourselves, as Tevye did in Fiddler on the Roof, that we're about to run out of hands.

But living in perpetual fear of a nasty but necessary assignment is often the hallmark of average leaders who might otherwise have become great leaders. The paralysis is all too understandable-by all us average people.

And then there is, you know, that ultimate "on the other hand." Who would really be surprised, in today's world climate, to learn that Saddam or one of his crazed "evil axis" colleagues really had unleashed a biological or chemical or nuclear weapon-not just to drive us away from the Middle East, but to launch a vast new effort at world domination?

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