Who says history can't repeat itself? The circumstances may be different, but for the second time in 11 years, the presidency of a man named George Bush is being undermined by a senior official named Colin Powell determined to keep Saddam Hussein in power.
In 1991, then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Powell -- who vociferously had argued against military action in response to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait -- insisted that allied units stop their destruction of Iraqi forces heading home along the so-called "Highway of Death."
The successful extrication of those elite Republican Guard units with their tanks and other heavy equipment provided the Butcher of Baghdad with the loyal troops necessary to assure his physical and political survival post-Desert Storm. As a result, Saddam Hussein remained in power and metastasized as a danger to U.S. interests and security long after George H.W. Bush left the White House.
It could be said that the first President Bush was repudiated at the polls by an American electorate that came to believe his administration had made a monumental strategic error in failing to finish the job in Iraq.
In recent months, Powell, now the secretary of state, has reverted to form. He has campaigned inside the administration of the current President Bush, in public and through proxies, for the president to give Saddam one more chance. Framing the issue in terms of Iraq's non-compliance with 16 United Nations resolutions led inexorably to the logic that President Bush could safely go to the U.N. and seek its approval for action against Saddam.
U.N. approval, it was said, would make it easier for the president to get bipartisan support in Congress and to secure the assistance of allies around the globe for whatever military steps might be needed.
The problem is that in 2002, as 11 years before, Colin Powell has gotten it completely wrong. It was absolutely predictable -- and predicted -- that Saddam would relent and accept international inspectors, once he was convinced that the U.S. was prepared and willing to use force to accomplish "regime change" in Iraq. Although President Bush did an admirable job in making his case before the U.N., the inevitable result of his appearance, and the Powell-advocated approach he followed there, was to remove the initiative from the Oval Office and surrender it, once again, to the Security Council.
Far from clearing the way for military action to liberate the people of Iraq and finally ending Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program, Colin Powell has seriously impeded these initiatives.
Saddam's so-called "unconditional" acceptance of inspections will enable his friends in the Security Council (notably, veto-wielding Russia, China and France) to insist that any resolution now adopted have very different goals.
No one should be under any illusion, however. The wily Iraqi will, of course, proceed to diddle the inspectors and the international community they represent, as he has done so many times before. The protracted period involved in getting them organized, in place and snooping about will translate into further time for him to amass and refine the concealment of his weapons of mass destruction.
Over time if not early on, Saddam's cooperation will prove to be far less than complete, his acceptance of inspections hardly unconditional.
Carefully gauging the international community's negligible appetite for confrontation, and the check that represents on an America willing to let its national security actions be governed by the U.N., Saddam Hussein's contempt for both will only grow, his stature in the Arab world will be enhanced and he will be emboldened to become still more dangerous.
Saddam understands, moreover, a fact that Secretary Powell and other proponents of inspections apparently do not: Even if, miraculously, every one of Iraq's secret weapons sites were found and their contents destroyed, as long as Saddam remains in power and has access to technicians, know-how and oil resources, it will be but a matter of months before he is back in the WMD business.
In short, inspections without regime change amount to nothing more than an expensive, but ultimately futile postponement of the day of reckoning with Saddam Hussein.
Colin Powell has also likely undone the president on Capitol Hill. In recent days, President Bush had positioned himself to obtain an overwhelming bipartisan mandate to take action against Saddam Hussein before Congress recessed for the mid-term elections. The White House may say that it is not satisfied with Saddam's response; it will try to get Powell to seek, and the rest of the Security Council to accept, a resolution which Iraq cannot abide; but such an outcome is exceedingly unlikely.
And now, less-than-robust Democrats and Republicans in Congress have an alternative to accepting the president's leadership in going to war: They can instead accept Secretary Powell's lead in dodging war with the false promise of further inspections.
It is inevitable that Colin Powell's disastrous diplomacy will be compared to that of Neville Chamberlain in 1938. The accolades being showered upon him for finessing a potentially violent confrontation are all too reminiscent to the response to the British leader's fatuous claim to have secured "peace for our time" from Adolf Hitler by appeasing him.
This may be unfair to Prime Minister Chamberlain. After all, at least he did not repeat his mistake after an 11-year-long opportunity to study and learn the fatal error of his ways.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.