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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iraq: According to Script

Your average Japanese Noh play contains more surprises than the drama now unfolding in the skies over Iraq, at the United Nations Security Council, and in the snake pits of Washington. Each character sweeps onstage, delivers a few words or bombs, and sweeps off again in strictly choreographed sequence as the action moves at a stately pace towards its predestined end.

You doubt me? You think there's really a "crisis" here? Then riddle me this: Why didn't Saddam Hussein, the Beast of Baghdad, seize as hostages the arms inspectors of the United Nations Special Commission when they headed for the airport?

He knew perfectly well that their departure early Wednesday morning meant that the United States would start bombing Iraq on Wednesday night. After the play's last rehearsal, in mid-November, when the Iraqi dictator once more thwarted U.S. attack preparations by letting UNSCOM inspectors back in at the last moment, Washington made it ultra-clear that even the slightest further obstruction of UNSCOM's mission would trigger an instant attack.

Knowing this, Saddam went right ahead and obstructed them - because he was not at all frightened by U.S. bombs, and had no intention of giving up his remaining weapons of mass destruction.

So he denied UNSCOM permission to inspect the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party on several occasions, and refused to hand over documents about Iraqi chemical weapons, and blocked a number of other UNSCOM inspections - all the things he promised not to do in the deal mediated by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last month.

Early this week, UNSCOM chief Richard Butler submitted to the Security Council a damning report on Iraqi non-compliance. Then, Tuesday night, Butler ordered all his people out of Iraq so they would not be caught in the coming airstrikes. Early Wednesday morning, they headed for Baghdad airport. So why didn't Saddam grab them? Because he doesn't mind the air strikes.

Cast your thoughts back to 1990, when the Iraqi army was occupying Kuwait and Saddam was facing a counter offensive spearheaded by U.S. forces. At tha t point, he showed no hesitation in grabbing all the foreign hostages he could - because back then, he didn't realize that U.S. air power could not damage his regime in any fundamental way, and he couldn't even be sure that U.S. ground troops would not drive all the way into Baghdad and kill him.

Well, he knows it now. He knows that using ground forces to overthrow him is out of the question for the United States, which is politically incapable of accepting the thousands of casualties that would involve. He also knows that air power is a paper tiger.

The United States can launch as many cruise missiles as it wants, but all it will do is bend some metal and kill some Iraqi soldiers. If it kills civilians too, all the better; Saddam's propagandists will have a field day. But the missiles and bombs are unlikely to hurt Saddam himself, and equally unlikely to shake his regime, which is based on the sturdy twin pillars of bribery and terror.

The U.S. government understands all this too, so why are we going through this meaningless charade with cruise missiles and fighter bombers, which will kill some real people? It is because UNSCOM has outlived its usefulness, and both the United States and Iraq are ready to move on to the next phase of their long confrontation. They could just do it, of course, but in order to save U.S. face, some bombs must be dropped to ease the transition.

This is not to say, by the way, that President Bill Clinton has started the bombing now to head off the impeachment vote in Congress. He might not be above doing that if he thought it would work, but it won't, and he knows it: The House WILL vote on impeachment before it recesses, even if it will have postponed the vote for a couple of days, and it probably will vote yes.

What is really going on here is a realignment of strategies by tacit mutual consent. The United States has accepted that UNSCOM is no longer able to function effectively, since Saddam is no longer frightened by American threats.

UNSCOM's presence simply gives the Iraqi leader the ability to stage a confrontation whenever he wants by denying access, and then to close the crisis down whenever he likes by letting UNSCOM's inspectors back in. Every time it happens, he frustrates and humiliates the U.S. military planners who had planned air strikes if he didn't back down - and costs the United States taxpayer around half a billion dollars in deployment costs.

So Washington would now rather pull UNSCOM out - especially because, if it is not there to certify that Saddam has destroyed all his weapons of mass destruction, then the UN economic sanctions on Iraq can never be lifted. But the United States does need some high-profile event to obscure the defeat involved in pulling UNSCOM out for good - and what better than three or four days of televised bombing attacks?

Why is Saddam effectively complicit in this? Because he has concluded that Washington will never allow sanctions to be lifted so long as he is in power - in which case he might as well get rid of UNSCOM and get on with developing his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons relatively undisturbed.

Washington and Baghdad don't talk to each other, but they understand each other's motives very well. There is a convergence of interests here that serves everybody's purposes - so the bombs will fall for three or four days, and then everybody will get on with their lives. Until the next real crisis, that is.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist and historian. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.