Critics of President Bush increasingly claim that the American victory in Desert Storm in tarnished each day that Saddam Hussein remains in power.
His continued rule, they say, makes America appear weak and allows Hussein to continue building his unconventional arsenal. Moreover, he threatens further atrocities against the Kurds and is forcing millions of Iraqis to suffer from hunger and disease by way of undermining the U.N. sanctions.
That some of these critics are prominent Democrats gives a special political twist to the argument. Had the president listened to the Democrats last year, Iraq would still be occupying Kuwait; notwithstanding this irony, the administration appears to have panicked.
The Washington Post reported recently that the administration is considering active steps to eliminate the Iraqi tyrant. But this is a dangerous idea.
A fragile but benign balance has emerged in the Persian Gulf since March, one surprisingly favorable from both humanitarian concerns and American interest. The balance is simple: The Iraqi military is too weak to project force but strong enough to stave off invasion.
The benefits of Iraqi weakness are clear – Hussein cannot invade another country. Even better is that U.N. personnel are now systematically destroying Hussein's missiles, his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and his capacity to replace this arsenal.
Day by day, Iraq is getting weaker, not stronger. Further, because Hussein himself will permanently be subject to scrutiny, his presence guarantees that Iraq will remain defanged.
More subtly, too, we benefit from Iraq not being too weak. Had Hussein been toppled back in March, Tehran would have sought to get Iraqi Shiites into power. Iranian hard-liners might well have won a new lease on life, and the West would probably have experienced renewed bouts of hostage-taking, terrorism and other unpleasantries.
Damascus would have joined the fray too, hoping to exert control over part or all of Iraq.
Hussein's fall would have given Kurdish nationalist leaders in Iraq the opportunity to fulfill their dream of a pan-Kurdish state comprising large chunks of Turkey and Iran, smaller ones of Syria and the former Soviet Union. Had they won independence within Iraq, it would have been only a matter of time before five states would have suffered serious turmoil.
Iraqi weakness would have had another consequence: As Tehran and Damascus fought over the carcass of the Iraqi state and Kurds eyed a large piece of real estate in southeastern Turkey, Ankara would have felt compelled to establish its own zone of influence in Iraq, and this would inexorably have sucked it into the battle for Iraq's future.
Most ironic is that Iraqi citizens might be worse off had Hussein fallen last winter.
Of course, Iraq is in miserable shape these days, suffering grievous repression and economic privation. Still the civil war that took place in the spring – when Kurds and Arabs massacred each other in northern Iraq, while Shiites and Sunnis battled in the south – was a sample of what might be. The absence of a central power might have caused many more Iraqis to have died from war, disease and starvation.
And while many of the administration's critics imagine Hussein's overthrow as a giant step toward democracy, it was and still is far less likely to bring democrats to power than another thug in Hussein's own mold.
The only way to get rid of Hussein is to accept a very intrusive and protracted U.S. military presence in Iraq.
And here we revert to last year's dilemma: After American forces directly unseat Hussein and occupy Iraq, what next? There were no good answers to this question in 1990, and there are none today.