THE BUTCHER of Baghdad is on a winning streak. He got his biggest break in February 1991, when the allied coalition called off the Gulf War without removing him from power. He got a second huge break a few weeks later, when the Bush administration refused to interfere as he used armed helicopters and napalm to ruthlessly put down a nationwide rebellion, slaughtering thousands of Iraqis in the process. Now seven years have elapsed, and Saddam is still on a roll.
He suffered no penalty for breaching the UN resolutions that required him to destroy his chemical and biological mass-murder programs as a condition of ending the war. He paid no price for insulting and harassing weapons inspectors who were supposed to be given go-anywhere-see-anything access. He got away with threatening to shoot down American U-2 reconnaissance planes. He actually expelled UN inspection teams for three weeks last fall on the grounds that they included too many Americans and lost nothing by his audacity. Indeed, he was rewarded for it: The Clinton administration agreed to reduce the number of American inspectors.
Saddam has gotten the Russians and Chinese to endorse his demand for an end to economic sanctions. He is about to get a multibillion-dollar increase from the United Nations in the amount of money he can raise each year from selling oil. And all the while he outrageously continues to flout his obligation to allow unimpeded inspections: Now he says his 78 "presidential palaces" — some of which are the size of small cities — are off-limits to outside monitors.
And from Washington comes dithering and blathering and the wasting of irreplaceable time. Saddam's defiance is "unacceptable," presidential spokesmen say. There will be "grave consequences" if it continues, they add. Why, Madeleine Albright even went to the Middle East to make the case for using military force to compel Iraqi compliance. But please — don't get the wrong idea. We still, as the secretary of state said in Cairo, "want very much to give diplomacy a chance."
Just how delusional are they? The Gulf War couldn't convince Saddam to relinquish his arsenal of terrifying biological and chemical weapons. Seven years of sanctions haven't convinced him. And the Clinton people talk about giving diplomacy a chance? To do what? Talk him into abandoning his unsleeping hunger for power, glory, and revenge and joining a book club instead?
When Saddam threatened to shoot down the U-2s, the White House should have responded instantly by tripling the flyovers from two to six a week. When he ordered the Americans out of Iraq, President Clinton should have declared that the inspections would continue — under Marine guard — and that 50,000 additional American troops would immediately transfer to US military facilities in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. On her trip to the Gulf this week, Albright should have made it clear that the United States will no longer give diplomacy a chance because the time has come to do the opposite:
Give war a chance.
Saddam cannot make it more plain. Nothing will induce him to halt his stockpiling of biological and chemical agents — VX gas, anthrax, botulinum toxin, possibly even smallpox virus. Nothing will induce him to permit unfettered inspections. The issue the world confronts is not if Saddam has such weapons, or where: It is when he intends to use them.
He has already used poison gas to massacre thousands of Iraqi Kurds. He has already been found to have scores of bombs loaded with anthrax spores. He has already tested biological toxins on animals — videotaping, for example, beagles dying horribly. He has already built large gas chambers for testing lethal nerve agents, and UN inspectors fear they have been used on humans.
"The optimists say he is within five years of launching anthrax or VX or smallpox Scud missiles into downtown Jerusalem; the pessimists say he's within five weeks," wrote Jonathan Alter in Newsweek last fall. "The realists know one of his agents could open a spray canister and kill thousands today — in New York, if he wanted."
The Saddam who launched Scud missiles against innocent civilians in Israel, who sank the oil tankers of neutral nations in international waters, who murdered 37 US sailors in an attack on the USS Stark in 1987, and who invaded and brutalized Kuwait in 1990 — the Saddam George Bush called "another Hitler" — is readying weapons of mass death in order to use them.
Diplomacy will not stop him. Missile strikes will not stop him. Aerial bombardment will not stop him. Even a brief ground assault will not stop him. After all, he has been there before. And he is still here.
Those who argued in 1991 for going all the way to Baghdad and annihilating Saddam's regime were right. The cost of not doing so has been steep: The reign of terror has continued, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed, and the world is in imminent danger of germ- or chemical-warfare attacks beside which the Oklahoma City horror will seem a mere footnote.
There is no more time to waste. Iraq must be reinvaded, Baghdad occupied, and Saddam and his highest officials hanged.
If that prospect seems unfathomable, fathom this one: piles of corpses in the Washington and New York subways, dead from the VX gas we never prevented Saddam from using.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --
Follow Jeff Jacoby on Twitter.
Discuss his columns on Facebook.
Want to read more? Sign up for "Arguable," Jeff Jacoby's free weekly email newsletter.