One of the most recounted stories about Alexander the Great concerns the legendary knot of King Gordius of Phrygia. Despite the Phrygians' promise that anyone who could untie its labyrinth of coils would become their future king, none succeeded. The glob became a tourist attraction of sorts, as itinerant wise men sought in vain to demonstrate their acuity by unraveling the mess.
As Alexander the Great made his way east, he too was taken to Gordium. There the legendary conqueror was supposed to test his wits against the knot and be properly embarrassed by the impossibility of the task. Instead, he promptly pulled out his sword and sliced the knot in two. The story became a popular morality tale illustrating how bold and audacious action can quickly solve a problem previously considered unsolvable under the given customs and timid protocols of the day.
We too are now witnessing a growing Gordian knot in Iraq, as Saddam's myriad loops and twists seem to expand each day. To obtain U.N. approval we entered into lengthy backroom quid pro quo sessions over money and oil with a moralistic France (who traffics with such Iraqi fascists) and Russia (who leveled the Islamic city of Grosny) and yet no one still is exactly sure what they will be defining as Iraqi non-compliance.
So there now looms a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-go-seek charade with Saddam Hussein. Anti-Americanism will grow in continental Europe whether we act with or without U.N. approval. Weekly the tribal fiefdom of Saudi Arabia issues edicts forbidding this but allowing that. The snapping and frothing Arab street promises to go rabid. Mullahs talk of terrible fatwahs to come should we have to enforce the resolutions. A weary and battered Israel may be drawn into the conflagration. Bin Laden's ghost is back with new infomercials on al-Jazeera.
And should we at last act we are warned that nightmarish weapons of mass destruction will zip throughout the stratosphere of the Middle East. The chaos that might follow old Saddam could be worse. And so it goes on and on, endlessly, as we are buried beneath these tangled concerns, anxieties, and warnings. None of us wish to go to war, and yet in these terrible times none of us wish to leave such a terrible man in control of such terrible weapons.
In response, a legion of American diplomats dispatched all over the globe can hardly unsort the hidden, entwined coils that bind Russia and France to Iraq; the concealed strands of Saudi Arabian, Egyptian, and Jordanian triangulation; the baffling spirals of passive-aggressive European policies; and the unseen loops of state-sponsored terrorism. Indeed, like the ancient visitors to Gordium, we now risk standing frozen in confusion over the infamous knot of the Middle East and thus for nearly a year after our devastating victory over the Taliban have gazed in growing paralysis at its maddening strands, and sought in vain methodically and with patience to separate one thread from another.
I fear it is a hopeless task. Attempts at a measured and traditional solution will only embarrass, and ultimately defeat any haughty or naïve enough to think the confused mess can be carefully and methodically unraveled. Again, the knot cannot be untied but only cut apart.
Saddam Hussein cannot fully and openly comply with U.N. demands, because to do so would be either to lose his weapons and thus face or to show to the world his duplicity in revealing something that officially does not exist. And for the U.N. to sanction American action would require its members to acknowledge their past errors in appeasing Saddam Hussein and to accept the specter of a reconstituted Middle East under the aegis of American moral authority something unbearable to allies like the French, neutrals such as Russia, and a hostile Syria.
But when we cut the knot, the threads will fall and lie exposed and apart on the ground. Europe will either support us in our successful efforts or find itself isolated as never before, its moral pretensions revealed for what they are: airs and pretexts. The government that follows in Iraq will have the seeds of constitutional rule, and make an American presence in the Gulf palatable for the first time in 50 years. Iraq surely will no longer be a receptacle for the likes of Abu Abbas or Abu Nidal, the proto-bin Ladens of the 1970s and 1980s who sought sanctuary in Baghdad. Iran will either totter or seek to moderate its anti-Americanism.
Duplicitous allies of the neighboring region will find their entire relationships directly reversed -- their own constituencies finding the Great Satan more sympathetic to peoples' democratic aspirations than their own corrupt tribal and autocratic governments. A strong message will have been sent to quite frightening regimes like Syria, Iran, and Libya that it is not a wise thing to sponsor terrorists who with impunity kill Americans. Syria especially will be more likely to rein in than to peddle its terror, and find itself with a few weak friends and plenty of strong enemies. The Palestinian Authority will come to realize that the vast majority of the West Bank, an autonomous nation, and consensual government are a much better deal than the current nightmare. The "international community" will turn its attention to Lebanon and at last ask what in the world a murderous Syria is doing in a country not its own, which by any definition is as hijacked by a Hezbollah death-machine as Afghanistan was by the Taliban.
In contrast, we should remember that knot gazing, deference to local potentates, and the embrace of conventional diplomatic protocols are not always as moral or efficacious as they sound. Indeed, often such hesitation, self-doubt, and bottled piety have derailed even the most successful military operations before their positive results reached full fruition.
We have been at such a cross-roads before and sometimes have failed through our moral arrogance and over-sophistication: allowing a weary, bloodied, but ultimately undefeated German war machine to surrender in France and Belgium in 1918 rather than marching into Berlin to humiliate it; permitting battered Communist Vietnamese to lick their wounds and return murderously to the South with impunity after violating peace accords; and crushing Iraq in 1991, but allowing its architect of evil to survive in our worry over postbellum complexity.
The truth is that we are now in the penultimate stages of a war we did not seek and do not welcome one that in some sense had already gone on for some 20 years of periodic killings and the bombing, hostage-taking, and blackmailing of Americans. Yet September 11 and the murder of 3,000 of our citizens at last clarified to Americans that there are millions who hate us for what we are, and who cannot be reasoned with or appeased, but only defeated. Now we can either cut through the mess or take counsel of our worries.
Either we can accept that the United States is a more moral and decent culture than the tribal world of the fundamentalists and dictators, and thus must not lose out to their medieval visions or in our self-doubt and moral conceit we can worry endlessly over why we are not liked as we would wish, and therefore choose to feed both our fears and their audacity. The former and harder course will lead to acrimony and caricature in the present, but victory and security in the future. The latter, easier way ensures that we will be for a time tolerated by the U.N., Europe, and the Arab states publicly, but privately despised as not only crass, but also weak, as we not they descend into a constant war of attrition from terrorist attacks and lunatic dictatorships armed with frightful weapons.
Yet because of our unilateral efforts so far, the world is changing as we speak. Thus proponents of appeasement should pause and ask themselves, what was the catalyst that has led to Saddam Hussein freeing prisoners, opening his borders with Saudi Arabia, and sending peace feelers to Kuwait? And what explains the recent death of Abu Nidal in Baghdad, the New York Times interview with a suddenly contrite killer Abu Abbas, the apparent regret of former Iranian terrorists who stormed the American embassy in Tehran, or Mr. Arafat's request of Hamas to cease its killings?
Is all this sudden frenzy of criminals and killers to appear less murderous a result of the U.N. edicts? Are we to thank the efforts of a pious Jimmy Carter or the post-9/11 speeches of a lip-biting Bill Clinton listing the sins of the Crusaders and General Sherman? Do we see some progress because of a moralistic Tom Daschle's hoarse warnings about going to war? Or perhaps the visits to Baghdad of worried American Congressmen have produced moderation in our enemies? Or have the recent ethical marchers in Washington and in Europe had salutary effects? Did the French set us straight?
We know the sad answers. They are as old as the Greeks and tragically will remain the same until the brutal nature of man himself changes. And so we must go reluctantly forward and finish utterly the unpleasant job before us. The moment Saddam Hussein violates the resolutions and he will, and soon let us cut our knot immediately and leave it to the Phrygians of our present age to harp in the aftermath that it was not properly untied.