The clock is ticking for Iraq and North Korea. These two outlaw regimes brutalize their own people and threaten the peace. President Bush insists on a change of heart in Pyongyang and a change of regime in Baghdad, which he, at least for now, regards as the greater danger.
Virtually all omens point to a U.S.-led military attack against Iraq within months. Yet Bush keeps saying that all options are still open.
The most likely option is to overthrow the regime by a massive military assault against Baghdad. Less probable strategies to achieve the same result include a U.S.-backed uprising by rebel Iraqis, a coup d'etat by Saddam Hussein's top brass, a CIA-assisted assassination of Hussein or any combination of the above.
The least likely option by far -- one bordering on the fantastic, but not impossible -- is voluntary or forced exile for Hussein in a country that would accept him. If this time-honored practice for defanging brutal tyrants were negotiated, it could spare thousands of American and Iraqi lives and billions of dollars.
Assisted exile for Hussein seems a preposterous idea. But given the stakes, it should be examined. There is still time.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the Bush administration has already hinted that it is considering asylum for Hussein. And Washington is no stranger to assisting in such covert efforts to neutralize brutal tyrants. Further, a little-noted quirk in Hussein's psyche suggests that he may not be totally resistant to the asylum option.
First the hints. On Dec. 12, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer in Qatar, suggested that with catastrophe looming, Hussein just might decide to give up and go live with Idi Amin. A week later, Rumsfeld told Larry King that Hussein still had the option of stepping down and leaving Iraq.
Was Rumsfeld kidding or was he serious? His fleeting reference to Amin is pertinent. Most Americans are unaware that the former Ugandan dictator, responsible for perhaps half a million deaths during his nine-year reign, is still alive. In 1979, Amin fled to Saudi Arabia and now lives near Jidda, where he watches sports on CNN and fishes in the Red Sea.
Precedent suggests that the Bush administration may be quietly exploring this unorthodox path to regime change in Iraq. Washington in recent years has provided covert support to help persuade several bloody tyrants to escape total disaster at home by accepting exile.
In 1991, the CIA facilitated a haven for Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia. During his 17-year reign as head of a Soviet-sponsored junta, about 500,000 people were killed. Today, Mengistu lives in Zimbabwe.
If Washington offered to find asylum for Hussein, would he cooperate? With his delusions of grandeur and sense of destiny, could he ever accept asylum? Not likely. But, then again, some elements in his twisted psyche suggest he might.
Foremost is his proclaimed mystical tie to Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled the Babylonian empire in the 6th century BC. Hussein has often likened himself to his Babylonian hero and admired his conquests of Syria and Palestine and Jerusalem.
Nebuchadnezzar gloried in his imperial power and his grand palaces. But he eventually accepted the handwriting on the wall: "You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided ... " (Daniel 5:27 and 28). He "was driven from among men, and ate grass like an ox ... " (5:21). But that was then. Today, a tyrant's fate may be less bitter.
Crushing evidence suggests that Hussein will cling to his evil dream and, like Hitler, may decide to go down in a Gotterdammerung of his own making. But this grim fate is not foreordained. Given his mystical ties with his ancient predecessor, Hussein may yet see the handwriting on the wall and accept U.S. assistance in finding him asylum abroad.
Let him eat grass.