Once more (it's beginning to seem like evermore) into and out of the breach with Saddam Hussein. And once more, the questions in Washington have been much the same. Would the United States strike, or would Saddam's cheat be met with another American retreat? And if we struck, what then?
Each new Baghdad interference with the U.N. inspection regime is countered not with more military muscle but with a longer diplomatic rope for Saddam to hang himself before the U.N. Security Council.
By abandoning the tactic of bypassing diplomacy and responding immediately to Iraqi provocations with costly military deployments, administration officials argue they have successfully isolated Iraq and strengthened U.N. resolve. When Saddam Hussein turned down a recent deal to resume U.N. inspections in exchange for a comprehensive review of economic sanctions, for instance, even Iraqi advocates Russia and France showed signs of losing patience.
"I think the present crisis has been a vindication of our policy of the past eight months, because instead of making this an issue of what the United States might do, we've kept the focus exclusively on the fact that Saddam has not lived up to his obligations," said a White House expert. "You have to consider that UNSCOM [the U.N. Special Commission in charge of inspections] has been dead in the water for three months anyway, so we may not have much to lose," said the White House source. "The signal we're sending is that if Saddam terminates UNSCOM, there is a price to pay, and if he doesn't reverse course soon, that price will more than likely be a very costly military strike."
If Iraq provokes another expensive U.S. military buildup, then backs down at the last minute, intending to provoke another day, Saddam again emerges stronger and the United Nations wearier. Should the United States follow precedent and launch modest cruise missile strikes, Saddam could emerge unscathed, and amid cheers from the Arab world, proclaim a total end to U.N. inspections. Or President Clinton could launch a more massive assault, inflicting greater damage on Saddam, but with risk to American pilots and Iraqi civilians--and still Saddam might sit atop his throne in Babylon.
So far, the Clinton administration has shown little interest in calls (made by former defense officials and conservatives on Capitol Hill) for a massive and sustained aerial bombardment followed by an aggressive campaign to overthrow Saddam by arming and supporting Iraqi opposition groups.
"What troubles me about going to the military option in the present crisis is that the administration has failed to answer the fundamental strategic question, `And then what?' You can destroy some lightly defended targets with cruise missiles, but then what? Saddam's standing as a kind of martyr in the Arab world will almost surely increase," said retired Gen. James Terry Scott, director of national security programs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a veteran of the Gulf War. "Nor do I think this administration has the stomach for a really heavy strike, which would likely involve significant casualties, collateral damage and quite possibly downed U.S. pilots. For those reasons the policy of the last 10 months may be the best one. We've avoided playing Saddam Hussein's game, he's obviously hurting from sanctions, and he's the one desperate to change the status quo."
In truth, no one expected Saddam Hussein to be so unyielding in his attitude toward weapons of mass destruction. When UNSCOM was established by U.N. resolutions in 1991 to destroy Iraq's chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs, U.S. officials naively assumed its work would be completed, and sanctions lifted, in a matter of months. Instead, Saddam has devoted his most trusted special security units to playing a sophisticated shell game in order to hide his weapons.
Through a combination of hard work and luck, U.N. inspectors have found evidence of 730 tons of chemical agents that have not been accounted for, warheads filled with deadly VX nerve agent, 8,500 liters of anthrax and 19,000 liters of botulism toxin. It is, by now, abundantly clear that Saddam will never voluntarily relinquish his grip on these weapons despite crippling economic sanctions that have, to date, cost his nation $47 billion in oil revenues.
"When UNSCOM was created in April 1991, everybody, including the United States, believed its work would be completed in six months. Nobody envisioned UNSCOM having to become a hard-nosed investigative unit going after one of the most recalcitrant regimes the world has ever seen," said Scott Ritter, a former UNSCOM inspector and U.S. Marine who resigned in August in a well-publicized dispute with the Clinton administration, in a September interview. "Having committed to a course of disarming Iraq in 1991, I think the United States found by 1996 that the course was no longer politically viable within the U.N. framework. As a result of sanctions fatigue, I think U.S. officials have found that they don't have support within the coalition for the kind of military action required to back UNSCOM. The problem is that when you have these confrontations with Iraq and you end up backing down, it makes Iraq stronger. That's the battle Iraq wants to fight."
Clinton administration officials reached a similar conclusion after a major policy review of the U.S. showdowns with Iraq that occurred in November 1997 and February 1998. A number of experts believe that the stakes have grown exponentially and that if force is used, more force is better than less.
"With the announcement of this buildup and the threats to use significant force, it's very important now that if Saddam Hussein refuses to cave, that we hit him decisively. If we fail to act or launch minor cruise missile strikes, we'll once again appear feckless," said Barry M. Blechman, chairman of the board of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington and co-author of "Defining Moment: The Threat and Use of Force in American Foreign Policy Since 1989."
Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East expert and senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, gives the Clinton administration credit for carefully weighing the pros and cons of military action before announcing a hard line. At this point, however, he agrees that largely symbolic cruise missile strikes of the type launched against Iraq in 1993 and 1995 would prove counterproductive. "If we strike at all, it must be a deadly serious strike that does major damage to the Iraqi military and the Saddam regime. Tokenism and half-measures that provoke a backlash in the Arab world, yet fail to demonstrate to Saddam that the cost of his actions is unacceptably high, are far worse than doing nothing," said Cordesman.
Other experts argue that the use of force should be seen as the first step in a campaign to oust the Iraqi dictator once and for all.
An open letter to Clinton circulated earlier this year, co-signed by former Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, D-N.Y., and former Reagan Defense official Richard N. Perle; it was also signed by 40 former government officials and outside experts. The letter argued for the provision of financial aid and arms to Iraqi opposition groups and for safe havens inside Iraq that would be protected by U.S. air cover.
"This feeble policy of trying to keep Saddam `in his box' with sanctions and inspections is in its final stages of collapse, and with each of these confrontations, Saddam is disassembling the victory in the Persian Gulf War piece by piece," Perle said in an interview. "The administration has already discovered that the military options are unattractive, and clinging to economic sanctions is not a viable long-term policy because they are seen as punishing the Iraqi people while having little impact on Saddam's actions. So while aggressively supporting the Iraqi opposition is not without risks, we have very little to lose at this point. Saddam is on the verge of winning."
But arming and equipping dissident Kurds in the north and minority Shiites in the south raises the same worries President Bush faced after Desert Storm. It could lead to a splintering of Iraq into radical mini-states.
"I think all of Iraq's neighbors would prefer to see Saddam gone, but in a way that Iraq remains a viable state. If the United States arms everyone in sight inside Iraq, creating a bunch of groups who will vie for power and possibly cause Iraq to implode or fragment, that could create turmoil for the entire region," Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, the commander in chief for U.S. Central Command with responsibility for the region, said in a recent interview. "And if the United States goes that way, we'll end up as the midwife to these groups. We'll have overseen their birth, and ultimately we'll be held responsible in the region for whatever they do. Knowing what I do about these groups, I worry a lot about that."