Rewind 16 years. Saddam Hussein was convinced America wasn't going to interfere with his invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. The transcript notes he smiled when U.S. ambassador April Glaspie told him that "the Kuwait issue is not associated with America."
Iraq launched its invasion a mere four days after Saddam's conversation with Ms. Glaspie on July 25, 1990. No invasion could have been launched in four days if the Butcher of Baghdad hadn't fully anticipated a green light from America.
What Saddam didn't understand about the U.S. nearly cost him his fiefdom in 1990. It did so conclusively in 2003 (and it may yet cost him his life). Iraq's former dictator failed to understand that U.S. foreign policy isn't guided by self-interest -- at least, not primarily. America and the Western democracies want to do the right thing. That they end up doing the wrong thing at times is a different matter.
Nations can pursue two types of policies. One is customarily identified as realpolitik, the cold, calculating, Machiavellian pursuit of what is perceived to be in the national interest. I'll use the term moralpolitik for a committed pursuit of what a nation perceives to be right, and argue that in the past 16 years America's policies in the Persian Gulf have been motivated by moralpolitik. The tenets of realpolitik would have called for the U.S. to twiddle its mighty thumbs when Saddam invaded Kuwait and started menacing Saudi Arabia.
Had George Bush Senior been guided by anything but moralpolitik, he would have said to Iraq's tyrant 16 years ago: "My friend, why should we quarrel? We have no essential conflict. You live in the Middle East; we don't. You have no territorial ambitions in our part of the world; we have no territorial ambitions in yours. You want to sell oil and we want to buy it. Well, we can buy oil from you as easily as from the Emir of Kuwait."
That's what Machiavelli would have said -- but the elder Mr. Bush was no Machiavelli. He couldn't make an oil deal with Saddam "Poison Gas" Hussein over the dead bodies of America's supposed friends, the Emir of Kuwait and the Saudi king.
This puzzled Saddam. America should have preferred him to the theocrats of Tehran or the hypocritical potentates of Riyadh. Unlike the ayatollahs of Iran, or the equally medieval sheiks, Saddam was just a despot, a kind of Mideastern Don Corleone. He wasn't a fanatic, an Islamist, a suicide bomber. He never thought of America as the Great Satan. Far from being a fundamentalist, Saddam was barely deist. He had no quarrel with Christendom. By the standards of the region, he wasn't even virulently hostile to Israel. He became a champion of the Palestinian cause only as an afterthought.
All Saddam wanted was to grab the riches of the region, not in order to keep them from America, but to sell them to America in due course.
If the West cared only about oil, embracing Saddam would have been the smartest policy. Saddam wasn't trying to hijack the oil supply of the Middle East to feed it to the camels. Oil would be of no use to him unless he could sell it, and he could sell his oil profitably only to the developed industrial democracies. Giving Saddam a free hand in the Gulf region would have been the essence, the veritable Armagnac of realpolitik. By allying itself with the strongest power in the region, America could have brought about a stability in oil prices and production.
Iraq's dictator was probably already thinking about what to wear for his first ceremonial visit to the White House when America's demand to withdraw from Kuwait reached him. He must have been astounded. Withdraw, or face war? But why would America protect the Emir? Why would it protect the House of Saud that sponsored terrorists against Israel, America's only friend in the Middle East?
If Kuwait or Saudi Arabia had been at least Western-style democracies -- but the sheikdoms of the Gulf were historical throwbacks. At least Iraq's Baathist system was a modern rather than an archaic despotism. So why was President Bush so hostile? Just because Saddam used poison gas against his Kurdish subjects in the north? Or because he oppressed and massacred his Shiite countrymen in the south? What were the Kurds and the Shiites to America?
Ah! They would have been nothing to an America guided by realpolitik. But that's what Saddam missed: America is being guided by moralpolitik. It has prompted three American administrations over 16 years to wage war against a bloodstained tyrant who wanted to sell oil to the West to protect bloodstained fanatics who want to obliterate it.
Historical reviews? Cromwell or Luther might applaud moralpolitik. Others might echo a French general's review of the charge of the Light Brigade: "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre" (it is magnificent, but it isn't war). If Machiavelli stopped spinning in his grave long enough to comment, it would probably be unprintable.
© 2006 George Jonas