For Saddam Hussein, August isn't necessarily the cruelest month. September can be nasty, February vicious. For Kurds in the city of Halabja, March 1988 was the worst of moments, as Iraqi warplanes doused their town with poison gas. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, April 1991 saw Saddam's troops slaughter Arab Shiites throughout southern Iraq.
August, however, has been a particularly high time for revving Saddam's murder machine. In August 1990, he raped Kuwait. In August 1996, Saddam used an internecine Kurd conflict to cover a Republican Guard assault on a CIA-backed Iraqi dissident base near the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. A re-election-fixated Bill Clinton failed to respond with force. Credible reports suggest scores of anti-Saddam Iraqis were captured and executed.
The Middle East is far too complex and paradoxical a place to say one mistake or one provident act is a turning point. Yet the Gulf War political coalition truly began to fray in the wake of that United States' failure to blunt Saddam's August 1996 probe and assault.
Economic and political sanctions became increasingly difficult for Washington to promote and enforce. In September 1996, the "Tunnel Riots" broke out in Jerusalem, stalling the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
I'm not suggesting direct Iraqi involvement in those riots, but the greatest boost to an Israeli-Palestinian peace was Saddam's defeat in 1991 and the international political cage constructed by the Bush administration to contain him.
However, when Saddam rattles that cage, he stokes the Palestinian militants' dream of rescue by an Arab strongman.
At the moment, there isn't much of a cage, and there is no Israeli-Palestinian peace process. To continue, to refer to the conflict in the West Bank and Gaza as the Al-Aqsa intifada doesn't do justice to the scope of the violence. August 2001 finds Israel and Palestine fighting an intimate and dirty war.
Saddam is always probing for weakness, and the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict creates a moment of extraordinary weakness. Last weekend's riot at the Al-Aqsa compound and Western Wall provided religious fuze for an even greater explosion.
Which is what Saddam wants, a regional war with Israel that establishes his leadership in the Arab world.
Yes, a big dream, but Saddam's a big gambler, and he's politically primed. Iraq has been providing Palestinians with economic assistance. That cash has bought significant influence.
Now Iraqi sabers are rattling. U.S. pilots patrolling the northern no-fly zone report that Iraqi anti-aircraft crews are more aggressive. Saudi Arabia recently accused Iraq of firing at its border guards. Last week, a U-2 spy plane dodged an Iraqi missile (that engagement possibly assisted by a Chinese-supplied long-range radar). This week, a U.S. pilot reported sighting an Iraqi missile entering Saudi airspace.
Iraqi military forces, fortunately, remain weak. Iraqi tanks are maintenance nightmares. Yet, Middle Eastern sources say Saddam's fleet of tank-hauling trucks is operable. With those transporters, Iraq can quickly swing a pair of armored divisions to the Jordanian frontier. Saddam may still have a stash of SCUD missiles, and he does possess chemical warheads.
President Bush has noticed. National Security Adviser Condi Rice told CNN the administration is "working hard" with allies to forge an Iraqi policy that "looks at military force in a more resolute manner."
Washington has been trying to rebuild the Gulf War coalition by improving bilateral relations with Arab regimes, creating the framework for "more resolute" anti-Saddam policies.
Over the next two months, the Bush administration had better focus on: (1) curbing Israeli-Palestinian violence; and (2) strengthening Jordan, politically, economically and militarily. U.S. Air Force target analysts need closely track tank transporters.
In the longer term, the CIA may try (once again) to forge an armed anti-Saddam Iraqi opposition. Covert operations, however, rarely succeed. Continuing the indecisive "tit for tat" U.S. policy of responding to Iraqi provocations means innocent Iraqis continue to suffer from harsh economic sanctions. This stokes further Arab resentment.
Sustained air attacks to wound Saddam's "regime enforcement units" (like the presidential guard) may be what Rice has in mind. Here's another option: a U.S. armored division in Kuwait. This force gives Washington the ability to roll into southern Iraq, protecting Shiite dissidents and crimping Saddam's plans for Jordan.
Risky? You bet. At the moment, there is no international support for such an adventure. The time, however, may be approaching for the United States to consider such a gamble.