Brinkmanship on Iraq
Jude Wanniski
February 25, 2003


I'm still of the belief that what we see from Baghdad now is part of game of brinksmanship between President Bush and Saddam Hussein, which will end at the brink, not in war. On the other hand, I am not as sure of myself today as I was before it was reported that Saddam has rejected the demand of UNMOVIC's Hans Blix that Iraq begin destroying the al-Sammoud missiles by this Saturday. When two macho men decide to test each other at the brink, chances of something going so wrong that they take each other over the brink of course increase. The Iraqi UN Mission continues to point out that the missile issue is still being discussed, and that Saddam only insisted missiles did not violate the range permitted by the UN and would not be destroyed. The chief Iraqi scientist continues to say they are studying the issue, but if it turns out that Iraq can make the case that when the missiles are fully loaded, they are within the allowable range, it is doubtful he would defy Blix, counting on continuing support from those on the Security Council who are opposed to the use of force at this point and would not change on a fine point. The problem the White House faces is that the Bush team clearly pressured Blix into issuing his demand for destruction without any further discussion about the technical issues that were being raised. Although there were immediate demands from the French that the Sammoud missiles must be destroyed, they now seem to have pulled back while the issues are playing out. 

What is now of immediate importance in this game of brinksmanship is the revelation that Saddam granted Dan Rather of CBS News a three-hour interview, which is where he made his comments about the Sammoud and with challenging President Bush to a debate on international television on the issues surrounding war and peace. The interview is now being edited down to a manageable size, but it is sure to cause further flux in the preparations for war, with my guess that it will reduce pressures for war, which is why Saddam agreed to it. It is almost certain that CBS had to agree to allow the regime to participate in the editing, as Saddam has resisted giving interviews to Americans in the past because of complaints that they would spend 30 minutes with him and only use the 5 minutes that made him look bad. It has been my position that Bush has been pushing harder and harder in demands on Iraq because he had already decided he would pull back at the brink and announce satisfaction that his threat of force had produced disarmament to the satisfaction of UNMOVIC and the IAEA. If Saddam also believes President Bush would not risk war on a kilometer or two when the United Nations is insisting on more time for the inspections, he may now think it is safe to push back. This is really the first time in a dozen years when he has important nation states and the great majority of UN members making arguments on his behalf. 

On the weekend talk shows, I noted that Pat Buchanan, who had been predicting the inevitability of war because Mr. Bush was thoroughly committed to regime change, changed his view to an 85% certainty of war. And he told the McLaughlin Group audience that the three people who wanted war the most were Osama bin Laden, Richard Perle, and Ariel Sharon, in that order. I personally believe the President has been made aware of the costs of going-it-alone, without a second UN resolution, not only in its horrific effect on the economy as the American people would fear suicidal political terrorism from Al Qaeda, but also the loss of lives not from rogue nations, but from deranged vigilantes who are prepared to die along with victims chosen at random. My view had been that this worst-case scenario had a 5% chance of coming to pass and if the market really believed it was 85% or inevitable, the DJIA would be lower by thousands of points and gold would be soaring. My estimate would now be a 10% chance of miscalculation, dropping back to 5% when the Rather interview is aired. 

As chance would have it my wife Patricia and I are leaving on a long-planned ocean cruise to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. We will stay in touch, though, getting back on March 14 in time to celebrate a pullback from the brink, we hope and pray.