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Should we go to war just because we can?

Saddam: King of Terror, Con Coughlin, Ecco Press: 350 pp., $26.95 The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, Kenneth M. Pollack, A Council on Foreign Relations Book / Random House: 498 pp., $25.95 War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know, William Rivers Pitt with Scott Ritter, Context Books: 96 pp., $8.95 paper

November 03, 2002|Andrew Cockburn | Andrew Cockburn is the co-author of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein."

Faced with Saddam Hussein, the former teenage hit man from Tikrit, our government appears to feel the need to talk as tough as any Tikriti. Ari Fleischer, speaking from the White House briefing room, calls for "one bullet" to take care of the Iraqi leader; George Bush talks blithely of "taking him out"; and Tom Lantos, ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, recently, according to Ha'aretz, assured a visiting Israeli lawmaker: "We'll be rid of the bastard soon enough, and in his place we'll install a pro-Western dictator, who will be good for us and for you."

Such violent sentiments are not necessarily a reaction to Hussein's well-documented cruelty. We can, after all, be understanding about such foibles among our friends. The gassing of the Kurds was greeted with barely more than a bleat of protest from Washington, as was his earlier use of chemical weapons in the war with Iran, but we were allies then. It took Hussein's apparent bid for control of the world oil market by invading Kuwait to turn him into "Hitler," capable, as was faithfully reported in the propaganda buildup to the last Gulf War, of tossing Kuwaiti babies out of hospital incubators. That myth, dreamed up by the PR firm Hill and Knowlton, was exposed soon after it had served its purpose. Others, such as the notion that Hussein is both ready and able to unleash some super-weapon on the United States, have proved more enduring.

Now more than ever, myth looms larger than reality when it comes to Iraq, which may be why Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan has suggested that the dispute be settled in an OK Corral shootout between Bush and Hussein, flanked by their respective veeps and umpired by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In the prologue to "Saddam: King of Terror," Con Coughlin strikes a no less mythic note, citing as part of the indictment against the Iraqi leader his links to Osama bin Laden and an alleged meeting in Prague between hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer, a story now effectively discredited by the Czech intelligence service that spread it in the first place. Once past the obligatory threat-mongering, however, Coughlin, a British journalist well-versed in Middle Eastern affairs, deploys more credible sources, especially the reminiscences of former Baathists who once worked closely with Hussein, to present an engrossing account of how this semi-educated peasant boy advanced to power through the bloodstained shoals of Iraqi revolutionary politics.

While accounts of his subject's brutality and ruthlessness are familiar, though no less chilling for that, Coughlin reminds us that Hussein did not achieve his eminence through terror alone. Not only was he extremely skillful politically -- steadily accumulating power through the 1970s while maintaining a low profile in the shadow of his cousin, President Ahmad Hassan Bakr -- he also displayed considerable constructive talents as an administrator.

Iraqi leaders, for example, had long chafed at the control of the country's oil resources by the cartel of foreign oil corporations that made up the Iraq Petroleum Co. Efforts by various regimes to alter this colonial relationship by taking over those oilfields that the IPC refused to develop had proved fruitless: Among other disciplinary measures, the international oil companies simply refused to supply oil to any country that bought oil directly from the Iraqi government rather than from the IPC.

Beginning in 1971, Hussein (then deputy to Bakr but already the key power in the country), advised by the gifted oil minister Murtada Hadithi, took the initiative in outmaneuvering the cartel. After first securing the Soviet Union as a great-power sponsor (despite a career built on persecuting Communists), he induced the French to break ranks with the consortium by promising them lucrative contracts and discounted oil prices. The scheme worked, finally allowing Iraq unfettered access to its own fabulous oil riches. It was, says Coughlin, "the single most revolutionary event to take place in Iraq since its establishment" -- one which has doubtless not been forgotten or forgiven by the oil companies -- generating a tidal wave of cash, which the Baath used "to turn the country into a modern state, and to raise the living standards of ordinary Iraqis."

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