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Bush, Saddam playing chicken without steering wheels

What you now see unfolding before your eyes is the last few minutes of a game of geopolitical chicken between George Bush and Saddam Hussein. It's called: Whose Coalition Will Break First?

Let's start with Saddam. Surely the funniest line of the week was his spokesman's explanation of why Iraqi TV was not showing Saddam's men destroying his al-Samoud missiles, as the United Nations had demanded. The Iraqi spokesman said it was because if the Iraqi people saw this, they would be so angry at the United Nations there's just no telling what they might do. Right, and if my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a bus.

The reason Saddam is not showing this to his people is because it makes him look weak, and his whole regime depends on his maintaining a facade of invincibility. Giving into the demands of the bespectacled Hans Blix is not a healthy thing for Saddam. It's like the Godfather taking up knitting. It evinces weakness, and Saddam rules by fear. The minute he looks less ferocious, he is in danger from those around him. This is not Norway.

What continues to breathe life into Saddam's camp is not the Arab street (which already smells his weakness and mostly wants him gone) but the French street, which is so obsessed with countering U.S. power that it can't acknowledge what is happening right before its eyes: Saddam is finally doing some real disarming, not because the United Nations sent more inspectors to Baghdad, as France demands, but because Bush sent the 101st Airborne to Kuwait.

But Bush also has some dangerous blind spots. Every day he asks us to ignore more and more troubling facts, and every day it seems more and more that Bush has mustered not a coalition of the willing, but rather, as one wag put it, "a coalition of the billing." It is very disturbing that so many of our "allies" have to be bribed or bludgeoned into joining this war.

The Turkish parliament's vote against allowing U.S. troops to use Turkish bases is stunning when you consider that the Bush team had offered the Turks a dream package — $6 billion in aid and new weapons, and veto power over the future of Iraq's Kurds. But there is something admirable about the Turkish democracy's refusing to be bribed into a war its people don't want. It would be shameful for us to force the Turks to vote again — considering that their parliament gave this war more thought than the U.S. Congress.

Indeed, our own Congress is being asked to suspend belief yet again and accept Bush's promises that this war, soaring oil prices and a weakening dollar won't bust the budget even more than his tax cuts already have. And when the respected U.S. Army chief of staff wisely cautioned that stabilizing Iraq could require some 200,000 troops, the Bush team told us to ignore him, too. Troubling.

But it's also probably too late. For Bush and for the United States, the costs of leaving Saddam in place — having made Washington blink and abandon its allies in the region — would be enormous. I suspect that when the small group of war hawks persuaded Bush to begin a huge troop buildup in the gulf back in July — without consulting Congress or the country — they knew that it would create a situation where the United States could never back down without huge costs.

This reminds me of the joke about the man who gets lost and asks a cop for directions, and the first thing the cop says is, "Well, you wouldn't start from here." No, I wouldn't have — but here is where we've been put. So those who argue against the war have to admit that doing nothing now would mean perpetuating Saddam's tyranny and giving succor to all dictators. And those, like myself, who have argued that removing Saddam is the right thing to do have to admit that the risks of doing so are rising so high, and the number of allies we have for the long haul becoming so few, that it may be impossible to do it right.

We could still get lucky and find that Bush's decision to begin this game of chicken by throwing away his steering wheel leads Saddam to cave or quit. The only other way out is a last attempt to forge a new U.N. resolution that would set specific disarmament targets for Saddam that, if not met by a specific date, would trigger U.N. approval for the use of force. France, Russia and China could say they bought time, and the U.S. could present Saddam with a united front — which is the only threat that might get him to comply without a war. Otherwise, brace yourself for the crash and hope for the best — because we're all in the back seat.

New York Times News Service