Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s overture to the United Nations on Saturday, made just a few hours before U.S. cruise missiles were expected to begin hitting Baghdad, demonstrates that the wily dictator has lost none of his tactical cunning.
By first appearing to offer unconditional cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors and then adding conditions that made the offer unacceptable to Washington, Hussein bought time for additional maneuvering and drove a wedge into the worldwide coalition that the United States had lined up in support of the use of force.
Clinton administration officials reacted with clear anger and frustration at Hussein’s latest move in an eight-year game of cat and mouse.
However, if President Clinton and his aides do not lose their cool, they can still achieve their stated objective of preventing Iraq from threatening its neighbors or damaging the cause of world peace.
If Hussein actually does allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to work, probing any suspicious site, the effect will be to impede his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. If, on the other hand, he insists on the conditions that the U.S. finds objectionable, Washington retains the option of using military force.
“We were poised to take military action and we remain poised to take military action,” Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, the White House national security advisor, said Saturday. “We have always said that we would like this to be resolved peacefully but on acceptable terms.”
Nevertheless, the situation requires a deft hand from the administration.
Clearly the United States must rebuild the foreign support that would have backed military action if Hussein had not made his gesture. Russia, China and some Arab governments welcomed what they called an Iraqi effort to defuse the crisis.
On Friday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared a diplomatic victory in lining up nearly unanimous world support for the U.S. position. In fact, Hussein’s intransigence had more to do with forming world opinion than did U.S. efforts.
If the administration intends to resort to military action, it must wait for Hussein to again overplay his hand.
“Most of the world will be pleased that nothing much happened,” said William Quandt, a former White House Middle East expert. “I don’t sense that anybody in the Middle East is more hawkish on this than we are. The Russians and some others don’t want us to use force.”
Quandt, now a professor at the University of Virginia, said bombing probably would not have produced the result that the administration ultimately wants--the ouster of Hussein from power.
Other Middle East experts agreed that, from the U.S. standpoint, it would be preferable to contain the Iraqi regime without having to resort to bombing--even if that allows Hussein to appear to score tactical victories.
“This shows the advantages that Saddam Hussein has as long as he plays a clever strategy, ratcheting up the confrontation, forcing the U.S. to spend a lot of money deploying forces, then switching back so the U.S. doesn’t have political support for punishing him,” said Fred C. Ikle, a former undersecretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.
“In the present political atmosphere, I don’t see that there is anything that the Clinton administration would want to do, or could do, that would be more than it is doing,” he said.
“The only solution is removing Saddam Hussein from power,” said Ikle, now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. “That ought to be a top priority for the administration. But it is not easy.”
Albright said Friday that the administration will increase its support of Iraqi opposition groups. However, few Middle East experts expect that to do much good. Washington has no contact with opponents of the regime inside Iraq, and the externally based opposition is considered too weak to be effective.
I. William Zartman, a Middle East expert on the faculty of the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, said the administration must be careful with Iraqi opposition groups.
“There is no guarantee that anybody any better would come in if Hussein is deposed,” he said. “And the more that we are associated with anyone who comes in, the more he is weakened by that association.”
Zartman said the United States will lose nothing by waiting to see if Iraq does allow the U.N. weapons inspectors to return--even though Hussein has broken similar promises in the past.
He said a bombing campaign “would have been as bad for us as it would have been for them. There’s no guarantee that we would hit the targets. The targets are not, themselves, very precise. We can’t miss civilians in the process. We would just be showing how angry we are. If we bombed, we would lose support among the Arab masses and weaken the position of our allies in the region.”
Administration officials admit privately that the bombing option was an unattractive one. At the same time, Hussein seems to be taunting the United States, making and breaking the same promises over and over again.
Even if Hussein removes the conditions that he put on his offer to cooperate with the arms inspectors, no one really believes that he will keep his word for long. However, no one in or out of the administration believes that bombing would be a panacea either.
“What will a massive attack on Iraq achieve?” Middle East expert Mary Jane Deeb asked. “We don’t know. Something will come out of the rubble, but we don’t know what. We don’t know for sure that the weapons of mass destruction will be put out of [commission]. We don’t know where they are in the first place.”
“There are no short cuts,” she added. “The bottom line is that Iraq must be contained. It can only be contained by a strong U.S. military presence in the Gulf. It is a matter of patience. Eventually that regime will fall.”
Apart from the potential inefficacy of bombing, the latest crisis underscores the problems of relying on the U.N. weapons inspection regime to contain Hussein.
Although the administration made a return of the inspectors its top priority, some officials say that Washington’s real objective is to retain the economic sanctions that restrict Iraq’s ability to sell its oil to finance military rebuilding.
Armed with a veto in the U.N. Security Council, Washington can maintain the sanctions indefinitely. But Hussein is working to undermine international support for the sanctions.
This is why the United States reacted so sharply to Hussein’s attempt to trade a resumption of inspections for a promise of sanctions relief.