Hitler on the Nile or What would Ike do?

February 25, 2003, The New York Times, NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

There's so much chest-thumping, so many alarums about Iraqi menace, that I sometimes feel that the only patriotic thing to do is to invade Iraq and plow salt into its soil.

So it's useful to conjure a conservative war hero like Dwight Eisenhower and consider what he would do if he were president today. After his experience with Hitler, Ike would stand up to the lily-livered pussy-footing peaceniks and squish Saddam Hussein like a bug, right?

No, probably not.

Eisenhower, who led the European Allies to victory in World War II and was president from 1953 to 1961, faced a crisis in Egypt similar to today's and effectively chose containment rather than invasion. Likewise, even when faced with the threat of weapons of mass destruction, President John F. Kennedy chose to contain Cuba rather than invade it, and President Ronald Reagan chose to contain Libya rather than invade it. I hope we have the courage and discipline to emulate such restraint by Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan today and choose containment over war for Iraq.

In Ike's case, he faced a man perceived in the West as a far greater menace than Saddam is today Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.

Nasser had the potential to upset the globe in a way that Saddam doesn't. Nasser was idolized by the Arab masses and aggressively intervened abroad. He helped the Algerians fight the French, forged close ties with Russia and infiltrated terrorists into Israel. (Israel also ran terrorist operations in Egypt, blowing up American libraries and cultural targets in an attempt to tarnish Nasser.) When Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, the West was sure that the canal would fall apart and disrupt global trade. Cairo Radio once boasted: "Millions of Arabs are . . . preparing to blow up all of America's interests, all of America's installations, and your entire existence, America."

Oh, the hawks will protest: Nasser didn't have weapons of mass destruction. Actually he did. Nasser's troops used mustard gas in Yemen.

European leaders were determined not to appease this "Hitler on the Nile." France, Israel and Britain conspired to invade Egypt and oust Nasser. "It was too risky to allow this adventurer, this miniature Hitler, to develop," Prime Minister Guy Mollet of France later told Nasser's biographer Jean Lacouture.

Ike was outraged and did to the Europeans what they are trying to do to us now: He forced the invaders to retreat and solve the crisis peacefully. "The United States is committed to a peaceful solution," he declared.

Thank God for Ike. If the hawks had been running the show then, we might still have troops in Egypt.

The hawks, to their credit, have a good recent record in their military forecasts. They correctly saw that the first gulf war and the Afghanistan invasion would go easily, while doves worried about quagmires. But the Nasser hysteria also reminds us that the hawks have a consistent track record of shrieking obsessively and seeing one minor country after another as global threats in an eye-bulging, alarmist way that in retrospect looks hysterical.

In the 1950's and 1960's, the hawks magnified the threat from Vietnam and Cuba. In the 1980's they obsessed about Nicaragua (only a one-week bus ride from Texas!). None of these threats were imagined, but they were exaggerated.

Now the focus is on Saddam, and it's true that he has been brutal and threatening for 25 years particularly in the 1980's when Don Rumsfeld was cozying up to him in Baghdad and the U.S. was shipping him seven strains of anthrax. The last 10 years have been the best behaved of Saddam's career (not saying much), and he's now 65, controlling an army only one-third its peak strength, and in the twilight of his menace.

The arguments against containment of Saddam were also made about Nasser: It will not work; Western credibility will vanish if we back off; if we do not invade now, we will have to fight him in a few years when he is stronger. And yet Nasser faded away, as Saddam is already fading.

So one can accept that Saddam is a threat and that Iraq would be far better off without him, and yet prefer the Eisenhower approach of containment. We might remember that Eisenhower warned Britain in 1956 that its insistence on ousting Nasser was leading to sweeping anti-British sentiment, and that while "initial military successes might be easy . . . the eventual price might become far too heavy."