With UN inspection teams now at work in Iraq, polls show a majority of Americans support the President's "zero tolerance" policy toward Hussein's regime. Among the doubters are some who have lately tried to draw parallels between the present crisis and the Kennedy administration's response to Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. "It would be foolish," writes a columnist in the Los Angeles Times, "not to examine the lessons learned from the Cuban missile crisis, and how restraint saved the day."
But while restraint and caution have their place in foreign affairs, so also do resolution, assertiveness, and a willingness to take action. The disaster that befell Europe in September 1939, for example, teaches us plainly that policies of restraint and inaction can prove to be not only ineffective, but disastrous. If comparisons to the past are to be made, and lessons learned, let us be sure the comparisons — and the lessons — are the right ones.
Iraq does not today possess the massive military might with which Germany once threatened Europe. Yet the parallels between the political situation of Germany during the 1930s and that of Iraq during the 1990s are rather striking.
The armies of both nations had been recently ejected from neighboring regions they sought to control, while managing to avoid a direct invasion of their homeland and a true regime change. German forces had been forced back by the Allies from France and Belgium by November 1918, and Iraqi forces were ejected from their temporary but brutal occupation of Kuwait, courtesy of Operation Desert Storm.
The most important fact to note is that despite significant loss of military assets, neither power understood itself to have been truly defeated. Germany, like Iraq, reacted to early setbacks with a greater resolve to achieve final victory. The sense among German Army generals and troops in 1918 was that they had lost particular battles, but not the war. Likewise in Iraq, whatever devastation was brought to the Iraqi forces — recall the "Highway of Death" — Saddam Hussein was left standing tall. In fact, our failure to topple Hussein's dictatorship led him to believe, and declare, that he had not really been defeated at all.
Furthermore, despite demands from international organizations that they disarm, both Germany and Iraq set about secretly developing weaponry with the assistance of foreign powers. Only four years after the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Germany entered into a secret agreement with the Soviets to train a new generation of German air force pilots, tank commanders, and chemical weapons specialists at secret Russian sites. During its years operating in Iraq, UNSCOM uncovered manifold evidence of weaponry development, including a SCUD missile improvement program using gyroscopic guidance systems from disabled Soviet SSN-18 missiles, and production of biotoxins and chemical weapons, including sarin and VX gases. Other credible sources have reported Iraqi attempts to purchase British machine tools for construction of SCUD missile parts, high-technology, Czech-manufactured "Tamara" radar systems, and specialized aluminum tubing for producing weapons grade uranium.
Finally, both post-war Germany and Iraq became expert at avoiding international agency inspection, and at exploiting differences among their conquerors. German compliance with the post-war treaty was monitored by a League of Nations authorized body, but the Germans quite effectively wore down Commission inspectors with a calculated program of evasion and deception. Germany was threatened with non-compliance strictures only once. By 1926, the Commission was withdrawn, and German weapons development and training commenced quietly but in earnest. In the case of Iraq, the tale of UNSCOM's woes during the 1990s shows the same degree of refined and calculated deceit.
Sir Winston Churchill began his six volume history of the Second World War with this summary note: "How the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness, and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm." He was adamant that the war might well have been avoided had the Allies maintained their military strength, while forcefully insisting on the disarmament provisions of the Versailles Treaty — in short, had they been willing to take a course not of restraint but of action, however costly, difficult, and unpleasant.
Hussein, no doubt, is counting on the history of the 1930s to repeat itself. And while our president's zero tolerance policy stands ready, it remains uncertain whether our good nature toward the wicked will triumph over firm resolution.