This Line in the Sand Is Shaky

Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and the author of the 1993 book "The Endangered American Dream."

Having failed to stop Saddam Hussein’s latest outrage with the rather muted warning issued last week, the Clinton administration responded with a minimal attack--and a much more punishing extension of the southern “no-fly” zone all the way to Baghdad. Whatever role the fears of Saudis and Kuwaitis may have played, these decisions were certainly influenced by the pressures of the Clinton reelection campaign, though in a very unusual way.

One consequence was that there was no time for the elaborate diplomatic preparations needed to build a broad coalition against Iraq. To obtain an authorizing resolution from the U.N. Security Council would require that the Chinese and the Russians refrain from a veto, but neither could be paid off with concessions as they were before the Gulf War or even seriously consulted. Nor was there enough time to go through the ceremonies needed to obtain French backing. Hence all three nations have refused to support the U.S. this time around.

The reason for so much hurry is no mystery. President Clinton came under great pressure to act quickly because he had not done enough to discourage Saddam Hussein beforehand. When it became known by last Thursday that three Republican Guard divisions were about to cross the 36th parallel to attack Irbil, Clinton very deliberately chose not to issue a forceful warning. Any one of his predecessors would have jumped at the opportunity to confront America’s No. 1 bad guy, especially given the bonus of obscuring the Morris scandal that was exploding at the same time. But Clinton’s entire electoral strategy is based on the avoidance of any direct leadership-and-character competition with challenger Bob Dole. Because of Clinton’s past, he does not want to be compared with a wounded war veteran and tough-guy man’s man, offering instead his newly centrist policies as a shield against “the Newt Gingrich Congress.” Thus it was left to junior administration spokesmen to warn Saddam Hussein, which they did by telling the media what he was up to and revealing that B-52s were flying to Guam and more warships were approaching the Gulf.

When Saddam Hussein ignored the warning, some kind of U.S. military reaction became inevitable. But to avoid the risk of having aircraft shot down, or the electoral embarrassment of American pilots in Iraqi captivity, it was decided to use only cruise missiles, only 27 of them and only against anti-aircraft installations in southern Iraq, well away from Baghdad.


Because such an attack could not in itself be considered a strong enough response (it takes eight cruise missiles to do as much damage as one fighter-bomber with laser-guided bombs), the extension of the “no-fly” zone was added to the punishment. It is at this point that diplomatic complications intervene. This unilateral limitation of Iraqi’s sovereignty is exactly the sort of thing that makes countries such as China nervous, given its proclivity for military threats against Taiwan.

Thus the U.S. now faces an unresolved crisis with Saddam Hussein, who declares that he will not respect the new “no-fly” zone, without the broad international support that it had during the Gulf War. For Clinton, it is worse: Any military confrontation reminds American voters that Bob Dole would be more persuasive in the role of commander in chief.