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
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
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 email@example.com.