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How Not to Build a Fire
February 15, 2003
By Michael Shannon

At first glance they couldn't be more different: one, solitary and nameless, the other, world renowned and atop an organization of millions who eagerly await his next command. The former toils in complete anonymity, the latter with the whole world watching. The one struggles to make do with a minimum of necessities in an unforgiving environment, the other with seemingly endless opportunity and means. Their common link? Both know that to fail means paying a fearsome price.

In Jack London's masterful short story, To Build a Fire, we are witness to a fight for survival at its most primal. With the temperatures plunging to 75 below zero, if the story's subject does not get a fire built, he will surely die. The fate of our modern day antagonist, George Bush, will be less severe if he fails in his quest for fire; his will merely be the equivalent of political death.

Mr. Bush has been trying to light the fire on Iraq for almost a year now, and in spite him blowing ‘til his cheeks are sore, pouring buckets of gasoline and throwing one match after another at it, the darn thing just won't stay lit.

The problem is twofold: First, the President and his aides have run the gamut of arguments/rationales for initiating hostilities, some shouted from the mountaintop, others spoken on only on "deep background" looking for the right spark. But whether it is regime change, change of the regime's behavior, existing weapons of mass destruction, possible ties to al Qaeda or other Islamic terrorist groups, potential for nuclear development, threats to neighbors, past atrocities, future atrocities or the general repugnancy of Saddam Hussein, nothing has struck enough of a cord with the American public to give Mr. Bush the political cover he so desperately craves before he gives the final order to go.

The second stumbling block is Mr. Bush himself. That he is fumbling so noticeably it is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Thomas Oliphant, Boston Globe (February 9, 2003), writes, "As a consensus begins to form about a showdown with Iraq, it is Powell who makes the road smooth and Bush who creates the problems. This is not about who is tough and who is weak. It is about who is credible." This is not an opinion that Mr. Oliphant holds individually. One can only surmise how the President felt to be informed that a poll taken by USA Today in the days leading up to Secretery Powell's appearance before the Security Council of the United Nations, showed that Americans trusted Powell's take on Iraq over the president's by a nearly three to one ratio. These are numbers that can't help but penetrate deep into the friendly confines of the inner circle of the Administration.

Whether it is based on a certain degree of resentment of Powell's popularity with the American people, or purely based on strategic differences of opinion, Mr. Powell has been the odd man out in the Bush Administration since the earliest days of its obsession over Iraq. Though they all vehemently deny it, there is a discernable schism between the Powell camp and the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz faction. Still, there's a war to be started, so pride be damned; bring in the big gun.

But even with Mr. Powell's stature and credibility -- and allowing that his presentation was well received by the cameras -- his case, upon closer inspection, was not nearly as airtight as advertised. As a matter of fact, it had any number of sizable holes in it.

Comparing Iraq and how it should be dealt with, to the disastrous appeasement of Nazi Germany is ludicrous. Germany in the 1930's was a country many times more populous than Iraq, and with an industrial base far beyond any Iraq has ever approached even in the decades since. The vast majority of the weaponry the Wehrmacht used when it launched its assault on Western civilization was designed, engineered and manufactured in Germany. By contrast, the vast majority of weaponry that Iraq used in both its war with Iran and later in Kuwait was purchased from western and Russian companies. With sanctions being as stringent as they have been for the past 12 years, to think that Iraq has rebuilt its army is patently unsupportable.

Of course, the administration counters that Iraq has compensated for its paucity of conventional arms by turning to the wholesale manufacture of chemical and biological weapons. Unfortunately even this argument has proven to be less than fool-proof. First of all, evidence of these massive stores of deadly toxins has yet to materialize. Secretary Powell did tell the Security Council of an Al Qaeda chemical weapons plant which is currently in operation in northern Iraq. A statement which immediately begged the question, "If the United States knows of the existence of such a base, why is it not a 50 foot deep smoking hole?" Since his testimony, this site has been visited by a number of enterprising journalists, all of whom have reported that there is no evidence of any such operation ever having taken place there.

Then we have the problem of the infamous British intelligence dossier. Powell was thrilled to be able to call attention to it in his remarks, calling it, "the fine paper the UK distributed yesterday, which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities." It's too bad much of it was plagiarized from a several years old dissertation from some graduate student in California. James, where are you when we need you?

But there is more to it than just these gaffes, Bush's serial missteps -- when the President of the United States says, in front of the world's cameras "The game is over" the bombs should start falling before the next sunrise if such a comment is ever to be taken seriously again -- or even the over reliance on shaky truths that are causing the Administration such agita. It is the fundamental difference which separates the buildup to the first Gulf War and its sequel. And that is, the extreme difficulty of being able to precisely quantify Iraq's cooperation/conciliation.

In 1991 it was pretty straight forward; either you remove all your forces from Kuwait, or we will throw you out. Now the equation is much more complicated and its solution much less definitive. And although the US insists that the burden of proof lies with Iraq -- in complete contradiction to the underlying principle of American jurisprudence, but we apparently are opting for the "all's fair in love and war" approach -- the world remains hesitant to pronounce sentence.

As he has told Congress, the United Nations, NATO, the European Union and just about anyone else who has had the temerity to not rubber stamp his decrees, Mr. Bush may just go ahead and light the fuse regardless of any and all extenuating circumstances. Our intrepid Alaskan frontiersmen finally get his fire lit. Only in his case, once it started burning good and hot it loosened some snow in the tree branches above which promptly doused his precious flames, sealing his fate once and for all. Mr. Bush should keep in mind that life has a nasty way of providing the least helpful unintended consequences at the most inopportune time.

 
You may contact Michael Shannon at shnnn613@cs.com.

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