America's behavior in Iraq over the past month "bears a close resemblance to the disaster of the Bay of Pigs, but unlike President Kennedy, no one is apologizing for this one." So said former Defense Department official Paul Wolfowitz before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As in 1961, brave men prepared to risk their lives in common cause with the United States have been abandoned to a tyrant's murderous pleasures. And, as in 1961, our friends and enemies around the world will draw very dangerous conclusions from the event.

Saddam Hussein's Aug. 30-31 invasion of the American-guaranteed safe zone in northern Iraq was no surprise. All the interested parties -- the American and British governments, the two Kurdish clans, and the only effective Iraqi opposition to Saddam, the Iraqi National Congress -- had discussed it. The Americans in contact with the Kurds and Shiites had promised a speedy and forceful response to the invasion.

Moreover, despite numerous reports to the contrary, the U.S. was not surprised when one group of Kurds -- the "Barzani Kurds" -- made a tactical alliance with Saddam to support the elite Iraqi military forces, the Republican Guard. "It wasn't," one CIA veteran told me, "a tough intelligence mission." The Republican Guard staged an armored attack not only against the rival "Talabani Kurds" but also against the headquarters of the Iraqi National Congress -- killing many, kidnapping others, and grabbing files and computers containing lists of contacts elsewhere in Iraq. We've known the Kurds for decades, and despite our periodic betrayals of them (first under Nixon/Kissinger at the Shah's request, then under Bush/Baker), we generally know what they're up to. We had known for weeks that Barzani's treachery was in the works, and we knew within hours that the deal had been cut.

So there was not, as the Clintonite leaks would have it, an "intelligence failure." No, Saddam's entry into the Kurdish zone was a policy debacle, pure and simple. The Kurds and the Iraqi National Congress asked us for protection against the impending invasion, and we reassured them: If the Iraqis moved into the zone, we said, there would be terrible consequences.

Then we watched. We watched Saddam assemble his armored column, composed of virtually every operational tank in Iraq, more than 300 in all. And we watched him advance slowly northward, and we sent him warnings of dire consequences. We had plenty of time to send attacking planes from bases in Turkey or from carriers. In open country, with none of the problems of weather and terrain that make operations in Bosnia so difficult and dangerous, the Iraqi tanks were sitting ducks for our fighter-bombers. Hitting those tanks would have been a real blow to Saddam, would have given a muchneeded morale boost to his opponents, and would have made it clear to everyone in the region that the United States was serious about defending its friends and advancing its interests.

Instead, Bill Clinton told his foreign-policy people that his top priority was to avoid American casualties of any sort: No body bags delivered to weeping families back home, no planes shot down over hostile territory, no hostages dragged behind jeeps through dusty streets. Therefore no risk, and therefore no serious action.

The cruise missiles belatedly lobbed into radar and antiaircraft bases in southern Iraq neatly demonstrated the president's obsession with keeping Americans out of harm's way, and its fatal consequences. Freedom fighters died instead of storm troopers, and, as even CIA director John Deutch bravely admitted to Congress, Saddam is now much stronger and we much weaker than before the Iraqi blitz.

How could it be otherwise? Potential friends and allies have seen that the brave Iraqis foolish enough to believe that the United States was serious about fighting Saddam Hussein have been abandoned to the Butcher of Baghdad.

Some of Clinton's defenders have tried to pretend that U.S. prestige and credibility were not involved since Saddam had merely intervened in an internal Kurdish conflict after being invited in by one of the contending sides. Too bad for the losing Kurds, they say, but it wasn't really our problem; we were just enforcing our no-fly zone, and we taught Saddam a lesson by extending it further south, and to make the point, we punished him with our Tomahawks.

This sort of nonsense comes only from people so cynical they believe they can always rewrite history according to the political needs of the hour. The Kurdish safe haven in northern Iraq is our creation and our responsibility. Having decided not to drive the Gulf War to its logical conclusion -- the destruction of Saddam's tyranny -- George Bush and James Baker called upon the oppressed peoples of Iraq to do the deed for us. Kurds and Shiites attacked in the weeks after the U.S. declared an end to the war with Iraq, only to be slaughtered by Saddam's remaining forces as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf lamented that he'd been tricked. When they were on the verge of obliteration, the Kurds were saved when we imposed a safe haven with the irresistible force of Allied air power.

Saddam was told to stay out of the Kurdish area, under penalty of savage reprisals. The whole point of establishing a no-fly zone was the protection of the area from Baghdad. It was a conscience balm for an administration that had led Kurds and Iraqis to be massacred. Clinton continued the policy, from time to time announcing the firmness of our resolve to "contain Saddam."

Like all Rube Goldberg devices, the Kurdish area has worked poorly at best. Although created to provide sanctuary for Saddam's enemies, it has been subject to the same punishing economic sanctions as the rest of the country. And while Saddam has managed to get his hands on revenues from oil sales -- legal and not -- Kurdistan has no marketable commodities. The Kurdish clans and Shiite opposition have received some money from us, a bit from the British, and the rest by imposing customs duties on smugglers to and from Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. They have also been the dubious beneficiaries of advice, and the pretense of support, from the various low-level State and CIA types who have come down through Turkey.

The conventional wisdom at State and CIA is that the Kurds are tougher than the Iraqis, and if you want to get rid of Saddam, the Kurds are the best bet. The Kurds are certainly tenacious survivors in a mean neighborhood, but if you want to work with such types, you'd better know what you want and be prepared to fight alongside them. We have failed in both, and lacking any coherent guidance from Washington, the Kurds reverted to their age-old pastime of fighting among themselves.

This intensified in 1994 and 1995 when the "smuggling taxes" dwindled, as did the handouts from Washington and London. Indeed, the only group in Kurdistan that showed internal unity and a proper sense of mission -- the removal of the Baghdad regime -- was not Kurdish at all, but Shiite. I refer to the Iraqi National Congress, which repeatedly intervened to separate the warring Kurdish factions and last year delivered serious military blows to the Iraqi army In keeping with the folly of their enterprise, the Clinton people praised the Iraqi National Congress for pacifying the Kurds, but repeatedly warned against taking the struggle to Saddam.

One of the reasons for Washington's reluctance to support the Iraqi National Congress's anti-Saddam campaign was that our Saudi allies have an allergy to successful Shiite movements, since they fear assaults from radical Shiites against the Saudi monarchy (the Saudis follow Wahaabi Islam). They preferred to let the Iraqi National Congress cool its heels in the north, while political and economic support was given to a lackluster collection of Iraqi military defectors and various political types who formed the "National Accord" based in the Jordanian capital, Amman. The "Accord" was a joke; it was penetrated from the beginning by Iraqi agents, and its followers and sympathizers inside Iraq were rounded up some weeks before the invasion of the Kurdish area.

Meanwhile, Clinton and Christopher instructed our diplomats and intelligence officers to devote their energies to having the Iraqi National Congress broker and monitor peace among the Kurds, but as usual, spin triumphed over substance. The Iraqi National Congress -- whose talented leader, Ahmad Chalabi, holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago -- managed to separate the Kurdish fighters in the summer, and Clinton's envoys asked the Congress to provide a "peacekeeping" force to monitor the ceasefire line.

Chalabi responded as he had for more than a year, reminding Washington that such efforts would require money and military supplies. The Iraqi National Congress would need about $ 4 million to do the job. The Americans on the scene agreed and promised the money, but for many months they brought only more promises, not the funding. Finally, a high-level meeting was convened at the American Embassy in London at the end of August between Kurdish leaders, Chalabi, British and American diplomats, and Turkish officials. On August 30, they reached general agreement on a continuation of the ceasefire, terms of reference for a Chalabi-led peacekeeping force, and future talks to institutionalize the arrangements. In the midst of the negotiations, Chalabi was called to the phone, where his people on the ground informed him that the Iraqi invasion was beginning. He passed on the information, and the talks were abruptly terminated.

The Jordanians, who recently supported a tough anti-Saddam line, are now openly calling for the United States to reach a modus vivendi with him. The Turks -- who had made it clear they were ready to let us use their military airfields to stage a serious attack against the Iraqi invaders -- now speak contemptuously of our regional policies. The Kuwaitis -- who, along with the Saudis, bear the financial costs of all our military operations with regard to Iraq -- let us send soldiers only when we had announced there was no intention to use them directly against Saddam. The Clinton administration is claiming that the Barzani-led Kurds -- the ones who invited Saddam to invade - - are now coming to us for assistance, but the truth is that they have issued an ultimatum to us: Either provide real support or leave us alone. And thus matters stand.

America's humiliation at the Bay of Pigs encouraged Castro and his Soviet backers to install missiles in Cuba, bringing international tensions to their highest point in decades. There is, blessedly, no Soviet empire to exploit Clinton's humiliation in Iraq, and our risk is not nearly so grave as it was 35 years ago. But there will be a price to pay. We can be sure that the wicked sponsors of anti-Western terrorism are even now preparing their next assaults, and we can be equally certain that we will find fewer brave men and women prepared to warn us, and to help us thwart these evil designs.

Michael A. Ledeen holds the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.

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